How do you light the most famous store in the world?

Mark Fleming has worked at Harrods for over two decades and his role has changed drastically in the years since his initial appointment as an Electrical Manager. With a department of just over a hundred staff, Mark is responsible for overseeing a large estate, which includes the Knightsbridge store, as well as the multiple floor Crown Court, located behind the shopping icon and the maintenance operation of Distribution Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.

Nearly seventy percent of the store is now lit with LED lighting, but the process of getting to this stage has been something of a challenge. Lux caught up with Mark in his Knightsbridge office, to discuss his experiences lighting one of the most famous department stores in the world, his tricky job of negotiating with some prestigious concessions and the upcoming overhaul of the shopping icon's famous facade.

Sections of the store's interior are protected by English Heritage, including the Egyptian Escalator.

 

Is working in an environment where there are a lot of prestigious concessions on the shop floor, each with their own demands and expectations, difficult?

The various concessions have worked hard to create their own design, which they build within their stores and set ups throughout the world and they obviously want to replicate these designs within our store, here in Knightsbridge. As part of these designs, some of the concessions have contractual arrangements with manufacturers and suppliers that we don’t necessarily work with, or have relationships with, so we can’t always support them with their proposals.

In addition some of the concessions have their own staff or contractors supporting their operation, therefore there have been times when we come in to carry out our maintenance activities and find a fixture or a luminaire that has not necessarily been passed during the approval process.

So concessions can do practically what they want?

No, that is not the case, however on a building this size it’s very hard to police every single concession, especially when there are contractual arrangements allowing them to carry out their own maintenance. When there is a light out for instance around the store, the issue primarily is mine and this is why we try to ensure that throughout the approval process we enforce an agreed specification, aiding rectification at very short notice. Obviously if this control is not managed, that is when there are delays with the rectification work and this is where the negotiation process pays dividends for all those concerned, but in most cases the design teams do understand and take on board our requirements.

Mark Fleming has worked at Harrods for over two decades and his role has changed dramatically over the years.

 

That must get complicated sometimes?

It does get complicated and on many occasion we have ended up having to carry out the repair and this obviously has an impact on contractual agreements and our workloads. Primarily the floors have to be lit and any delays caused by items that are not readily available has an effect on this process. The concessions are aware of this requirement and strive to maintain this, but they don’t, sometimes have the same degree of urgency that is required of the Harrods maintenance team.

What is the biggest challenge you face on a day to day basis?

The biggest challenge is meeting everyone’s perception of what the in house teams do. We do have over a hundred staff, on varying shifts, covering a multitude of disciplines and contracts in place supporting our operation, but with a million square feet of retail space, that is a of a lot of lights and services to maintain, add to that we are open 363 days of the year, 72 hours a week, the day-to-day operation is a challenge. I can honestly say that there have not been two days the same here in all the time I’ve worked at Harrods. It’s certainly a fascinating place to work.

One of the many famous concessions in Harrods. If there is a light out on the shop floor, it is Mark's problem, the business insists on a quick repair. 

One of the many famous concessions in Harrods. If there is a light out on the shop floor, it is Mark's problem, the business insists on a quick repair. 

 

The store itself is in such an old building, has the process of switching to LED lighting been difficult?

It is tough. We are 60 to 70 percent LED now. But what we’ve found in the past, is that we sometimes become a test bed for lights and new concepts, which we are very aware of, but using our approval process and the experience we have in the business, we work closely with Designers and Manufacturers to ensure that new ideas or proposals are thoroughly tested before installation in the store. The last thing we can afford is for new installs to work fine for a few months and then start to fail, leaving us with the challenge of getting those responsible (sometimes these people have already returned back to their European homes) back to rectify the problem.

My philosophy, on in-house projects, is to work directly with manufacturers. There is the obvious advantage that they know their fittings, they understand the specification and they have the back up to bring in a replacement if necessary.  When you are dealing with lighting consultants this is slightly more difficult, as they do move on quickly to their next project or in some cases new Consultancy, leaving us to deal with any issues. Going down the manufacturer route is an alternative, but then the project becomes ours and not the lighting consultants and with it comes all the associated risks, if any.

Is the age of the building a problem when fitting new technology?

It is a fine balance. LED can be very sensitive to any power issues, but I think I’m in a very lucky situation, where the business, as a whole, has put major investment into technology and infrastructure within the store and therefore this is now not as much of a problem as it used to be.

Are you under pressure from management to install more LEDs in order to reduce running costs?

Yes, we are under pressure to reduce our energy bills obviously, however there is a far bigger picture to this than replacing with LED lighting. Energy use is obviously a concern and we have reduced energy levels dramatically in the years that I have been with Harrods through a number of projects and installations. The difference here is that we are a major retailer, with a large estate and therefore any energy consumption is very expensive, but the major emphasis is always going to be placed on selling the merchandise and it is one of my responsibilities, with the rest of the Senior Management Team to ensure that we maintain the high standards in the store, ensure a good shopping experience for our customers, whilst ensuring that we meet our responsibilities to reduce energy. 

As with all changes there can be difficulties achieving positive results and I have learnt a lot over my years here. On one of my early adventures into replacement with LED there was a very quick learning curve, where on completion of the project, I had created a bigger issue. I had turned a room that had originally comfortable temperatures, all be it a high energy usage, into an ice box, staff were freezing because the new LEDs were not producing the heat like the old fixtures did and subsequently customers did not hang around in this room, therefore having a detrimental effect on the sales in the room, I was not popular. The learning curve was that the lighting obviously provided heat to the building, so a fine balance had to be achieved on future lighting designs and could not be installed in isolation, but now where new lighting is being installed, capital is raised to support upgrade on the HVAC at the same time. As an observation, we used to never put the heating on until November or December, however we are now reviewing temperatures in the store in October up until March, which is a change to our operation.

The impressive original interiors in Harrods are always considered when it comes to adjusting the lighting.

 

What new projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m often looking at back of house areas as they are an easy fix, changing T5s to LED for example. The major project I want to complete is the front of house lights. The iconic light scheme on the front of the building was last changed 15 years ago, when the old standard GLS lamps were removed and replaced with a Xenon lamp, which was at the time, a major energy saving as well as providing longevity. That system is now showing signs of wear and tear, so I’m working with a lot of companies to look for a viable replacement, in which we will replace with LEDs.

That sounds like a huge job?

It will be. English Heritage have a vested interest in what we can and can’t do on the building as the structure is Grade II listed, so they will be involved in the planning process. The design will have to take on any guidelines proposed by English Heritage obviously and the current warm (halogen) colour has to be replaced exactly and also be seen from both directions along the Brompton Front, which will be a challenge, as LED on its own is very directional. As stated I am working with a number of manufacturers looking for solutions. There is no ideal time to do the work, but a summer install enables, in theory, better working conditions, with a plan to have a new system in place before the Christmas run up( not sure yet which Christmas though).

In the twenty years that you have been working at Harrods, what change has surprised you the most?

I think the speed of the change in technology is the one. Retail lighting has changed dramatically in the last decade. When I first came here there was an abundance of Halogen lamps and many fluorescent fixtures whereas now there is hardly any fluorescent. Lighting is much more dynamic now.

What frustrates me in the industry though, is that at major industry events, there is often no mention of any other light sources except LED, although still, there is a requirement for alternatives. LED is developing rapidly but it’s not the answer for every lighting solution at the moment, certainly not in retail. LED is a solution to many applications, but it can create a lot more issues in the process, area temperature being a prime example. As an end user I want the benefits of LED lights, but in retail, I definitely require quality light too.

Overall, have things got better in the industry during the last decade?

With the true whites and the pure whites that are coming out now, the manufacturers are starting to listen. It’s getting better. People in the industry are now listening. Manufacturers now ask me what I want, which makes for nicer conversations. There is beginning to be more of an honest approach, which is encouraging. There is still a lot of mistrust of manufacturers, but there is more understanding now because retailers and people like me know a lot more and we are far more aware of what is out there.

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