The new Debenhams branding might be ‘joyous’ – but is the in-store experience?

This is a pivotal moment for department stores. The ongoing House of Fraser (HoF) crisis has shown the perils of not keeping up, and just this week former giant John Lewis revealed an incredible 99% dip in profits. It’s a stark warning – but it has also opened up an opportunity for those who want to revolutionise to own the space.

For once, the financial climate isn’t the only thing to blame – especially in the face of retail sales actually rising by 0.7% in July – 3.5% higher than the previous year. July also saw online sales leap to a new record 15.3% increase compared to 2017, and department store online sales specifically reported a 35% annual increase.

I applaud Debenhams’ ‘re-launch’ and ambition to making the experience ‘joyous’ again. The department store is encouraging the public to ‘do a bit’ of shopping for fun and this has come at the right time, and with an idea and execution I love. This message is spot on in our current culture of browsing, consuming bite-size information and embracing curations for everything from fashion to beauty.

But, the burning question is: how has Debenhams ensured the actual in-store experience lives up to the hype? The experience of shopping is the right area to focus on – but how have they actually made sure their in-store journey actively supports this joyfulness? There’s no point sending customers in to re-evaluate and then giving them a lacklustre experience which feels like nothing has really changed.

I’d like to see Debenhams living and breathing their new message:

  1. Why not showcase their stores on their digital communication? Exactly what’s changed and how? Make use of some good tech to bring this to life. They talk about modernising their flagship stores, which is great – but let’s see exactly how they’ve done this and how it’s different. Online is the perfect channel for this, marrying up the digital and offline experience.
  2. How is this feeling running through to everyone’s local store, not just the biggest ones? If it’s about ‘doing a bit’ of Debenhams you’re more likely to be capturing people popping out on their lunch break than setting out for a day at the shopping centre at the weekend. Every single touchpoint with the brand should be considered.
  3. Equally, how are they catering for those who want to drop in and just ‘do a bit?’ Are there new revamped refreshment areas? What are the new beauty experiences on offer? Is there a brand new staff experience? Specific events in store? To make shopping joyous again should be making it different – and it starts with setting foot inside the door.
  4. How they are now making sure the shopping experience works for an important group: families? Take a leaf out of Hamley’s or the Lego store with instant entertainment and product demonstrations. What are they offering to ensure the experience is joyous when weary parents are pushing pushchairs or caring for babies?
  5. Do their online and offline channels now work together seamlessly? Can I order something online and pick it up quickly and easily the next day (or even on the same day)? With such a surge in online retail sales, this is a crucial area and something that’s often done well by retailers outside the department store space.

Debenhams aren’t just competing in the department store space but with the likes of Argos, who have perfected click and collect, and specialist retailers like the Apple Store. Their communications investment will be wasted unless they ensure they’re walking the talk. Otherwise their shoppers will be the ones doing the walking.

Al Keck, CEO and founder of Infinity Nation, which helps manage the ecommerce operations for many major brands

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