What an interesting career was had by our July speaker, Sue Smart. She spent all 43 years of her working life in Harrods, from the age of seventeen as a Junior until she finally retired after being a Buyer in various departments.
Harrods began as a small store in Stepney, East London, in a single room owned by Charles Henry Harrod selling only tea and groceries. The store moved to Knightsbridge and expanded in 1849, until gradually the business occupied the whole block in the Brompton Road. After the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, Knightsbridge became a very fashionable area and the store enjoyed great success. In 1898 an escalator was installed – England’s first – and smelling salts or a stiff drink were offered to its daring early passengers after their trip! In the same year Harrods issued its first Catalogue, where all its products were listed. The Harrods motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique, which is Latin for “all things for all people, everywhere”, so you can imagine the size of this publication!
As far as Sue Smart is concerned – she began her career there travelling from her home in Neasden as a Junior trainee in 1968. Her training took two years including one day a week at college and during that time she worked in several different departments. When decimal coinage was introduced in 1971 she was one of the “Decimal Pennies” who were stationed on each floor of the shop each wearing a sash to make them visible to the customers and offering help with the new currency. During the ’60s and ’70s she remembers the I.R.A. bomb threats and the store had to be evacuated a number of times. In 1974 a bomb did actually go off in the House & Garden Tools department which was sealed off in time to minimise damage and no one was hurt. The January Sales attracted large numbers of customers, some of whom camped outside to be first to get the bargains and takings often exceeded £100 million in this month!
One of Sue’s unusual roles as a Buyer was in the Pets Department, and one of her first trips abroad as a Buyer was with the merchandise director to Frankfurt to a Pets Accessories Trade Fair. After a day of walking around the stalls she was told that the next day she could buy whatever fancy accessories caught her eye – and the more unusual the better!
As a Buyer for the Linens department Sue visited China, India and the USA in search of beautiful hand-made products, and one banqueting-size tablecloth covered in hand-made lace which she brought back actually sold for £40 000!
Famous customers who Sue remembers include Priscilla Presley (who regularly visited the linen department), plus countless celebrities, an Arab princess and several members of the Royal family. Sue told us that Al Fayed was a very generous and hands-on employer who was often in the store and who knew many of his staff by name. After the death of his son Dodi he eventually decided to sell it in 2010 to Qatar Holdings for £1.5 billion. It was – as Sue says – the end of an era, and soon after this she retired, taking all her remarkable memories with her. We all enjoyed her sharing some of them with us!
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