At one point in his early professional life Vittorio Radice was so tired of his Milanese family’s constant conversation about furniture design and manufacture, “at breakfast, lunch and dinner”, that he chose to pursue a career in farming. Perhaps fortunately for the designers now being appointed to carry out yet more work at Selfridges, he soon repented for this dismissal of the family business.
As managing director of Selfridges, commonly regarded as the jewel in the crown of the beleaguered Sears group, Radice has a reputation as a progressive retailer who is well aware of the benefits of design to his business. He is actively involved in much of the product buying for the store, and describes the interior design as “very, very, very important” to its success.
Buying has long been in Radice’s blood. When farming proved not to be the dream career he had hoped for, he used his compulsory national service in the Italian army to get away, then worked briefly in Libya before joining furniture group Associated Merchandising Corporation for ten years. The job made him a lot of contacts, and led to his appointment as buying director of Habitat. Within a year he became European managing director of the chain, operating from London. Arriving here in the early Nineties, in the height of recession, was a sobering experience. But Radice now enjoys London and lives within ten minutes of his Duke Street office.
Although the Masterplan refurbishment started by his predecessor Tim Daniels was three quarters finished and almost completely planned out by the time Radice joined Selfridges a year ago, he has wasted no time in stamping some of his own identity on to the project.
In particular, he has brought in more designers. “There were a lot of people involved, but not that many designers,” he says. Radice’s desire for experimentation and for a wider spectrum of design input has meant the appointment of consultancies such as Din Associates to work alongside John Herbert Partnership and Revolution, which have worked on Selfridges for many years.
While Radice makes his respect for Daniels clear, he claims that the skills the two of them have brought to Selfridges are “almost opposite”. He also concedes that staff who expected a continuation of the Daniels way of doing things may have found the transition period difficult. “It has not been an easy changeover. He was so popular and had been around for so long,” says Radice.
Radice wants Selfridges to be different, and with a passion. The powers that be at Sears would appear to agree. While many of the group’s retail chains are routinely criticised, Selfridges is seen as a star performer.
Radice is infuriated by identikit high street chains: “You go around the UK and you see the same bloody Next, the same bloody Burton’s,” he says. He is similarly upset by the lack of variety in department stores in the US, where a roll-out consists of “creating a formula, and it has to be very simple”. In Radice’s opinion it is the “extras” such as a fresh food department that suffer, leading to the preconception that department stores are just big shops in which to buy shirts.”Where is the soul?” he asks.
For Radice, much of the soul is to be found in detail. He jokes that his favourite part of Selfridges is the car park, because it still offers old-fashioned service. Those who use the car park know this: somebody else parks the car for you and keeps a watchful eye on it. Elements such as this, and a reputation for selling more than shirts, are important to Radice.
The heritage of Selfridges was a prime reason that Radice accepted his job there. He believes that it is one of the few department stores in the world to still offer the enormous range of the traditional emporiums, from shoe-cleaning to garden furniture.
The main difference in operational styles between himself and Daniels is, according to Radice, a greater willingness to take the “experience” that is Selfridges and put it into a multi-site environment. The Manchester branch, announced before Radice’s appointment and due to open late in 1998, will be the first example of this, outside of the existing duty-free airport stores.
Design will play a major role in this process. “You need to be surrounded by a complete environment. You don’t notice it, it’s just there,” Radice says of shopping. He holds the view that good retailers should be able to create, with the use of design, a world or lifestyle that customers want to be part of. “Sometimes I go into a shop and I so want to be part of it that I will look around for something to buy,” says Radice. As an example he points out that everyone who has bought a Muji business card holder has done so because they wanted to take part of the shop home. Customers can convince themselves that they would use the inexpensive card holder.
In some ways, he says, Selfridges is returning to something closer to the grand view originally planned by its founder Gordon Selfridge while, paradoxically, moving forward. It’s this type of reasoning which has inspired one of Radice’s latest plans, which is for at least some parts of the giant store to be open 24 hours a day. While no one particular department would trade for such long periods, opening times would be staggered so that, for example, the bakery and florist could open at six in the morning while some of the restaurants could stay open much later in the evening.
“I want life in the store 24 hours a day,” says Radice. And if his vision of taxi drivers queuing outside for their first croissant of the day may seem more realistic in Milan than Oxford Street, it would still be a welcome service to many residents of London, and perhaps later Manchester, keen to make their cities as enjoyable as those on the Continent.
To hear Radice talk about plans for the store, in his perfect English and with huge enthusiasm, helps to explain how he convinces the board at Sears to let him do such things.
Radice has spent a considerable part of his first year at Selfridges learning what he considers to be its strengths and weaknesses. “As you go around Selfridges at the moment there is quite a developed fashion business, but I think we could do better in the home business,” he says. For this reason he is happy to experiment, despite the risk it may involve. He does point out, though, that this is a luxury perhaps unique to department stores. A specialist store which experimented unsuccessfully could stand or fall on the result. A store with 100 departments, however, can afford to experiment in one or two of them each year.
The Masterplan will not see the end of major works at Selfridges, even though it will mean that virtually every part of the store will have been refurbished within a six-year period.
Upon its completion, a project will start to reclaim 18 580m2 of space currently used for offices and warehousing for retail use. This will include a basement, a sub-basement, part of the Duke Street block where the management suite is now located, and the building’s roof. “It’s nice to have a programme of things to do,” says Radice, in a matter of fact way.
Radice has his fans in the design industry but he also has critics. One designer who has worked for Radice is unequivocal: “We don’t get on,” he says. The designer points out that Radice is a great admirer of Terence Conran, and of the “Habitat way” of doing things, and would “quite happily just paint everything white”. That, says the critic, is not the way to approach things at a department store like Selfridges, pointing to the Habitat-esque lighting department as evidence.
But such dissenting voices seem rare. In the cut-throat world of retailing, Radice will eventually be judged, by his peers and his employers, on the trading results at the Oxford Street landmark. And that means he has as much of an interest in the effectiveness of design at Selfridges as anyone, including its customers.