Peter York On Ads

Harrods still thinks it's posh, but is it classy?

One of the unique glories of Britain's post-industrial economy is the extraordinary degree to which it is built around residential property. Or more precisely the market values attributed to it. It's our alternative FTSE because the entire UK private housing stock seems to be constantly on sale and valued on an hourly basis.

Any celebrity interviewed for a 'My Money' piece always says he doesn't understand the stock market or pensions so he's looking to that house in Muswell Hill to provide (but how does it work? Sell the five bedder and move to a one-bedder in Enfield? Cancel the Groucho sub and buy a second-hand Vectra?).

We've always assumed there is a straight line from house prices via consumer confidence to shopping. And everyone saw the last M&S results and assumed the worst coming as it did after the DSG (Curry's, PC World, etc) story. But a few days later John Lewis was saying it had a bumper Christmas and a good sale, particularly in the categories you might have associated with DSG – electricals and computers. And then Sainsbury's reported rather impressive sales growth in the run-up to Christmas, provoking the analysts to ask what characterised retail winners when there were quite so many losers. The conclusion seemed to be that it was all about class: the classiness of the brand and, by implication, its customers.

So if there's really a flight to quality, and upmarket means recession-resistant, where does that leave Harrods? Until the early '80s, that was easily answered. Harrods was the reliable – if very stodgy – store of choice for London's carriage trade. It had a huge tourist footfall but its branding was still clear. It was unequivocally, substantially upmarket and it served local elites because the global rich hadn't taken over Big London yet. It had a raft of Royal Warrants and it was owned by a dull holdco – House of Fraser – where it was the jewel in the crown.

Knightsbridge, like Harrods, hasn't got much to do with England now – it's a stateless zone for the global rich. Harrods has lost its warrants and a lot of its old domestic franchise. But it is still advertising its sale with commercials that promise a bit of trad posh in a very 1980s Brideshead-y way.

The advertising's been admirably consistent – the music is still 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from 'Rinaldo' by Handel, the on-screen type-faces are gloriously classical, and the voiceover speaks ever so nice. But now that couth London goes to Selfridges for its retail theatre and John Lewis for its reliable quartermastering, who exactly is the target market?

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