Debenhams...when retail goes Pete Tong

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

For some of those who are new to I am a researcher on omnichannel customer decision-making journeys for retail. Looking at fashion retail is one of my main interests. I am interested in exploring the ‘why’ behind purchase decision making. As I have lectured over the years on retailing I have kept a close eye on the UK's tumultous high streets and there have been a few retailers which have been on my watch list.

Image source courtesy of Retail Gazette

Debenhams, is top of that list. Once a British institution that no high street worth its salt would have been without, it enters 2020 facing even more challenges. Amid store closures and the need for reinvigoration will the nation's once loved retailer be able to turn things around? This month, Debenhams hit the headlines as it announced 19 store closures in January 2020. But I think its not just because of the high street changes but fundamentally there are more deep seated issues facing the Debenhams retail offer. Here I take a closer look at brand in more detail.

Core customer not every customer

The problem with Debenhams is that it’s trying to be a jack of all trades and master of none and is not strong enough in its appeal to any one segment. But there is a potential here. The brand needs to step from the big beauty counters and reorientate towards a target audience of families. The brand's childrenswear along with mens and womenswear collections have always been an affordable source of family fashion staples. This is even more timely now as the likes of Mothercare has moved jout of the picture. Meanwhile, Next’s is fairing much better as its strength lies in their out of town format. But there is space for Debenhams too - they have great positioning on the high street, albeit that doesn't come cheap. .

Store atmospherics & format

I paid a visit to Manchester recently and walking through the high footfall area of the Market Street was akin to tumbleweed passing across the beauty hall. From my quick walk through there was one customer at a branded beauty counter and the rest were sipping on their Joe + The Juice within the cafe concession. The store format across the portfolio looks tired and there felt a lack of energy and excitement. Having spent a few stints visiting the Middle East, Debenhams UK offer could take a leaf out of their international partners. For example, Debenhams UAE and specifically, Abu Dhabi is very much part of the retail mall scene. Stores are smaller in format but a popular hit with families where a condensed product array along with fresher store presentation makes the brand feel newer,

Experience - there isn't any

Continuing on that note, there is simply no experience in the stores. Across any of the aforementioned departments that could be solved quite easily and make it a more engaging encounter. Using the space better creating experience opportunities will help give consumers the drive to seek out the store. You just need to look at John Lewis and Selfridges for just that. But Debenhams need to do things differently. What about co-working spaces or family play areas?  

One markdown too many

With all the blue cross sales the constant discounting has affected customer perception,  with the tag line ‘it’s bound to be on sale soon’. The blue cross sales, the 20% offers all  eat away at the brand. Constant markdowns suggest there are more inherent problems with the product array and lack of understanding of the customer if they’re not managing to shift the goods. It's not all the fault of a changing high street climate.

Brands collaborations are outdated

The last time I stepped foot through a Debenhams and actually purchased something was circa 2007. From Hush Puppies to B by Ted Baker along with Studio by Preen and Matthew Williamson. There is a lack of cohesiveness between and among the brand offer. It is a confusing offer to navigate too old, too young and just a little lost. Indeed some of the brand collaborations while successful have failed to keep pace with the times and have largely remained unchanged for the 20+ years they have been featured e.g. John Rocha and Jasper Conran. For the business as a whole a company re-brand would kick start an outward sense of a new direction. 

All in all I expect to see more trials ahead for Debenhams. But there is always the chance to turn things around and it would be great to see the brand flourish and return back to its former glory.

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Dr Sam Lynch - is a researcher in consumer decision-making and omnichannel fashion retail. You can find out more by visiting the homepage or reach out via twitter @drsamlynch

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