The opening of Sheffield’s Meadowhall Shopping Centre in 1990 proved to be a pivotal moment in the career of BU retail management graduate, Jillian Aslet.
Having taken up a Saturday job at the centre as a teenager, Jillian caught the retail bug and – after studying and then working in the sector for 30 years – she is now Head of Digital Operations at world-famous luxury department store Harrods.
Jillian said: “Like many teenagers my first experience of paid work was in retail. This big new shiny shopping centre had just opened two miles away from where I lived, and me and my mates went along to get jobs there. I loved it. I was fascinated by all that went on behind the scenes and the constant change.
“I realised it was so much more than just placing items on sale for customers to buy. I was already enjoying business studies at A-level and found that I could combine these two interests with a degree in retail management at university.”
Jillian arrived at Bournemouth Polytechnic in 1991, attracted by the course and the opportunity to continue her hobby of sailing.
She said: “The sailing became a bit of a sore point with my dad as, despite the fact it was one of the reasons I decided to move so far away, I didn’t get much further than speaking to the club reps during Freshers’ Week. While the sailing didn’t happen, I quickly made close friendships with my housemates and others on the course who have since become friends for life.
“In my first year, I was staying in a B&B with other students and sharing a room. The accommodation was pretty awful to be honest, but that made it more of a bonding experience. There was a sense of being in it together and lots of laughter.”
Jillian became an active member of the RAG committee and helped to organise student events, including memorably shipping sand into the Sugarmine for a beach party theme night.
She said: “As a northerner, I initially felt like a bit of a fish out of water in Bournemouth, but I soon felt like I belonged – the university and town are big enough to give you that university experience but small enough to maintain a sense of community. I have happy memories of hanging out at Dylan’s on a Wednesday afternoon, waiting for friends to finish their clubs and activities, and of revising on the beach. I remember opening my calculator in one exam and sand falling out of it!”
Professionally, Jillian’s career has taken her from high street to luxury and now onto premium brands at Harrods. On completing her studies, she joined Debenhams’ graduate scheme and remained with the company for 10 years, including a spell living and working in Stockholm to establish the brand there.
On returning to the UK, Jillian joined House of Fraser to support the retailer’s move to a multi-channel customer experience which coincided with the rise of internet shopping. Her first role at Harrods was managing the customer service centre, but this has now developed to include responsibility for the digital customer experience.
Jillian said: “Some of this is about managing the fundamentals – like simple delivery and return options – which people expect regardless of where they’re buying from. But for a store which is so well known around the world, it’s also about how we reflect that distinctiveness in the online experience. This has become even more important during the pandemic when customers haven’t been able to visit.”
While the world of retail has changed considerably since the early 1990s, Jillian says that the basics of her university degree still hold true.
She said: “I really believe that the course gave me a solid grounding in the core principles that still stand today – the right product, in the right place at the right time, having a unique selling point and listening to your customers to build loyalty. It’s all the same today, we just have different tools and customers have different expectations.”