“We don’t sell socks, we sell dreams” (André Maeder, KaDeWe Group)

For André Maeder, KaDeWe is the department store of all department stores, a shop that unites under one roof the very best shopping ideas worldwide and builds on a vibrant history. For department stores that make the right choices, there is more to the future than ever before.

 Who says KaDeWe, says Berlin, and vice versa. The largest department store on the European mainland – 60,000 square meters of delightful shopping experience – is currently being given a complete makeover. The ambitions are high: KaDeWe wants to redefine the relationship with its shoppers and with the city. To achieve this, it appeals to the world-famous architect Rem Koolhaas and his international office OMA (‘Office for Metropolitan Architecture’). More than enough reasons to travel to Berlin, where an enthusiastic CEO André Maeder personally gives us a tour in his beautiful retail palace.

It is hard to find someone who is more experienced at retail than this man. “I’ve spent almost my whole life in the retail sector, since I was 16 years old. And mainly in the department stores. My heart belongs to luxury retail, without a doubt. Initially, my mother was not happy when I decided to work in a sports store, instead of a bank or an insurance company. But the first week I already sold six pairs of expensive skis. My calling was clear.”

Exceptional career

From his childhood, André Maeder remembers the visits to department store Globus in Bern. It wasn’t the toy department that made a lasting impression, but the music division, where he went to listen to the latest records while his mother was shopping. And the candy department, because he always got a bar of chocolate. As a 20-year-old, he started at ABM, a subsidiary of Globus, with about forty stores. “I immediately became a fashion manager, responsible for three floors. That was exceptional. That I, as a twenty-year-old, immediately got a management position, I consider a privilege.” And indeed, it turned out to be the beginning of an exceptional career that reads like an adventure novel.

Because five years later our interlocutor traveled the world as a buyer of sports equipment. “I visited all the big trade fairs, flew to Hong Kong, Paris, London… That was not a job, that was pure fun!” After a period of six years as purchasing director at Charles Vögele, a head hunter brought him to legendary Harrods to become a fashion director. “My English was terrible and I came from a discounter, but I was recruited anyway. Sometimes you need a bit of luck in life. Mohamed Al-Fayed was my boss, a very interesting and powerful man. He was almost seventy then. After three years he gave me responsibility for the entire store. At that time, we made 700 million pounds in turnover, with 6,000 employees. Harrods remains for me one of the world’s top department stores.”

At the right time in the right place

After seven years at the London department store, the Swiss manager left for S.Oliver, and then moved to Hugo Boss, where he started the retail division. Later, he could not resist a tempting proposal to return to his native country and become CEO. “But at that time Charles Vögele was already a company in difficulty. I had to realize a turnaround.” There were great moments, he said, but after three years the CEO had to leave. “It was the first time that happened to me. I had a hard time with it.”

But André Maeder did not have to stay at home for a long time: after four days there was already a phone call from Karstadt: “We need you.” For four years he was the chief retail officer. Then came the question whether he wanted to lead the three iconic department stores KaDeWe, Alsterhaus and Oberpollinger. How can you deny such an offer? What a career! “You can be as good as you want, but you have to be in the right place at the right time and surrounded by the right people,” he says.

A store for Berlin

Asked about his favorite department store, Maeder does not have to think for a minute: “KaDeWe! And that’s not just because I’m working there now. I went to visit the department store when it opened its food hall in 1995, while I was still working for Harrods. KaDeWe is really a store that reflects Berlin. It welcomes everyone and leaves a remarkable impression. It is a department store that has united the best elements of all the top department stores in the world. A bit of Le Bon Marché, a bit of Selfridges, some of La Rinascente, of the Japanese food halls … And the best department store in Switzerland is Jelmoli.”

What are the main success factors of the department store, according to the CEO? “We inspire you, we bring you into a dream world, we show you products that you may never possess. It is about inspiration and aspiration. But you can just as well eat a slice of pizza here. We are a store for your daily needs as well as for very special occasions, or just for having a good time and meeting nice people.”

A simple business

Does André Maeder have a good advice, a successful idea? “Hire the best people! You cannot win the Champion’s League if you don’t have the best players in your team. Retail is essentially a simple business. You have to love people and develop a passion for your job. That’s the key.”

When we ask him if he also visits department stores in his spare time, he finds the question a bit strange: “Of course! You can’t split up your life, can you? You do not have a private life and a business life apart, you are one. When I go to New York, Paris or London, of course I explore all new retail concepts but I also walk around the city with my eyes wide open.”

Back to the souks

But many department stores are struggling today. Is there a future? “Department stores play an important role in society, in the city. If they put the focus right, they certainly have opportunities. They do not necessarily have to focus on luxury. In Germany there is only room for five to ten luxury department stores. It’s about putting the emphasis on something special, something that sets you apart. For us at KaDeWe, this includes food, an important department in addition to fashion, beauty, accessories and home.”

Online doesn’t have to be a threat for department stores it can be a huge opportunity, according to our interlocutor. “You have to meet customer expectations either online or in the store. We are working right now on new concepts for an online experience, but to tell you the truth, the DNA of our stores is the real experience with real people. And this is our main focus: experience and service. Maybe the old idea of the souks where you can buy and meet people is more resilient than people forecast today.”

by Erik Van Heuven en Stefan Van Rompaey

About KaDeWe Group

From its opening in 1907, KaDeWe was a textbook example of what a modern luxury department store ought to be at the time: an impressive large building, with beautiful shop windows, a sumptuous interior and a rich assortment that always surprised the shoppers. Department stores were the first experience stores and they still are today. In the meantime, the Berlin shopping paradise is part of a group that, in addition to KaDeWe, includes two other German retail icons: Alsterhaus in Hamburg and Oberpollinger in Munich. Shareholders and strategic partners of KaDeWe Group are Central Group (50.1%, also owner of the Italian La Rinascente and the Danish Illum) and Signa Holding (49.9%, also owner of Karstadt). KaDeWe Group is currently investing hundreds of millions in the renovation of all three of its German department stores, to give them the grandeur of yesteryear.

Four department stores in one

What is happening at KaDeWe now? “We revamp the entire store. Every floor has to become a destination, they are all different worlds. Together they form a special entity.” An ambitious project for which the department store works with the best architects. In addition to Rem Koolhaas, there are various architects for various departments. The food halls, for example, are designed by Studio Karhard, known for its bold designs for nightclubs.

The plan of architectural firm OMA implies that the KaDeWe building is subdivided into four quadrants with an appropriate architecture tailored to four different target groups. These sections are accessible via the main entrance but each also has a separate entrance. On the roof is a large glass structure that surrounds the entire seventh floor, where the restaurants, bars and the roof garden are located. In the meantime, the first phase of the renovation project has been completed. The display windows were significantly enlarged. On the second floor there is now a glamorous women’s fashion department, on the first floor men find an unmatched range of shoes and accessories.

Retail is essentially a simple business