Weather. Calendar shifts. Experiential spending.

Retailers have many “dog ate my homework” excuses for when trading is less than stellar, but when a late snowstorm forces you to temporarily shut over half your stores, it’s bound to impact the top line.

While it’s important to acknowledge the impact of the Beast from the East, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Debenhams, like many department stores today, is struggling to stay relevant.

Strategically, Debenhams is doing all the right things, but today’s results highlight the scale of the challenges confronting UK department stores. Not only are they facing a perfect storm of rising costs and subdued demand, but the original concept of a department store – one-stop shopping – has become completely eroded by online retail. Unfortunately for Debenhams, many stores are tethered to long-term leases so there is no quick fix for addressing the shift to online shopping.

Twenty-five stores will be reviewed as their leases come up for renewal over the next five years. In an ideal world, they’d be more bullish but with an average lease length of 18 years Debenhams doesn’t have the luxury of simply closing stores overnight. Instead, the focus will be on reinvention and rightsizing – they see potential for at least 30 stores to be downsized, in a similar vein to competitors like M&S and House of Fraser.

But make no mistake – the department store model is under threat. In the past, it made sense for retailers to dedicate 100,000-plus square feet to these ‘palaces of consumption’, aggregating lots of brands under one roof. But today, shoppers have access to millions of products at their fingertips, so the idea that a bricks and mortar retailer can still offer ‘everything under one roof’ becomes laughable. Department stores must reposition themselves to be less about product and more about experience. Winning in retail today means excelling where Amazon cannot.

Under Sergio Bucher (ex-Amazon), Debenhams is trying to do exactly that. They’ve embraced store reinvention, recognising that the department store of the future will be a place not only to buy stuff, but also to eat, discover, play and even work. Partnerships with brands like Swoon and Maisons du Monde create a point of differentiation, while the installation of gyms and beauty bars and potential collaboration with WeWork allow Debenhams to make better use of excess space while simultaneously driving footfall. Store reinvention’s not cheap but it’s better than standing still.

But amidst all this talk of transformation, it’s easy to lose focus on the basics of retail – price, product, service. This is where Debenhams shoppers have arguably been left feeling underwhelmed. Pricing must be sharper and more trustworthy, range must be simplified (though more compelling) and the overall proposition must become more experiential and service-led. Otherwise, they risk a lot of empty treadmills and brow bars.

 


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