Opinion

Under one (new) roof

If you work in non-essential retail right now you could say you’re also in the optimism business.

Remaining so has been hard of late. And if you’re a department store retailer it’s been downright near impossible. Strong online sales only provide so much relief.

We all want to get back to business. But for Debenhams that moment won’t come. Or will it?

Its demise was long and drawn out, and for the neutral observer (and shopper), painful to watch.

The disappearance of names like Debenhams from the high street depress me. Not because they deserved their place on the high street. But because their demise sends out a signal that the under-one-roof proposition is dead. It’s not.

Every department store is built on a pre-coded template…

Debenhams may have fallen short but great examples do exist, and the format remains much-loved in other parts of the world. Think Mexico’s El Palacio de Hierro, Chile’s Falabella, Japan’s Mitsukoshi and Germany’s Kadewe. Closer to home there is, of course, Selfridges.

All these though largely take a traditional form. One that has been built on and evolved greatly from the original century-old format yet is still unmistakably recognisable. Every department store is built on a pre-coded template which, in the main, has been around for decades. It made it easy to replicate in many (often hundreds) of locations, allowing customers to shop multiple categories, and brands, under-one-roof. But increasingly, it didn’t make for an engaging or enjoyable shopping experience.

So where now?

 

Online rebirth

Confidence is attractive. Right now, the likes of Boohoo and ASOS have it in spades.

Following its acquisition splurge, the Boohoo empire now includes the likes of Karen Millen, Coast, Oasis, Burton and Warehouse. Its purchase of the Debenhams business for £55million was accompanied by the news that it would “close physical stores for good”. But are they closing for good, or for better? Perhaps this is the equivalent of its ‘circuit-break’ – an opportunity for its new owners to draw a line under the past.

If reports are true, ASOS too has already got its eye on the Topshop London flagship store. It’s unlikely to be long before either of these online behemoths make the move to physical locations. But we shouldn’t expect to see hundreds or even tens of stores. Instead, these will be true destination flagships for the brand. And the experience in-store is likely to look somewhat different, too.

These will not be places that are driven by the functional need to merchandise countless lines of stock within a physical building in order to maximise sales. Instead, such stores may well adopt the approach taken by the likes of Samsung KX at Kings Cross, with the emphasis placed on providing a vehicle for customers to experience fashion and how it shapes and fits with their lives, with selling very much being the by-product.

 

Plotting return

Like all other non-essential retailers, department stores have been left largely impotent by the Covid narrative. But as stores prepare to re-open, it’s now time to get ahead of the story rather than continuing to be defined by it.

Whist having the doors of physical stores closed undeniably sucks, the concept of the department store really doesn’t have to. But it does need to be better than ever if it is to survive and thrive.

Department store retailers need to be remorselessly clear-eyed about their place in retail’s landscape moving forward. A legacy is all well and good. But customers aren’t fools. Boil it right down, and Debenhams was cast into the doldrums because it was simply too big to evolve at the speed with which modern retail demands.

Success will require explosive innovation and a renewed enthusiasm for what can be done. And if there’s one thing pure-play retailers know it’s how to first create, then deliver the purity and simplicity of an idea well.

identifying a zeitgeist, then going on to define it yourself.

You might look at retail and think ‘every trick in the book has already been done, and we’d just be copying someone else.’ The truth is, there is always room to innovate. There are always new formats to experiment with.

Think Next. That business will turn forty next year, but it’s never been afraid to stretch and pull its format. Its Oxford Street, Manchester Arndale and Sheffield Meadowhall stores have been launchpads for extended brand departments and partnerships with Lipsy, as well as Virgin Travel and even automotive giant Ford. And it has set new standards along the way. The eagerly awaited new store at Leicester’s Fosse Park, just a few miles from its headquarters, will likely do the same again. A deal with book retailer Waterstones has just been announced that will see a 20,000-title shop-in-shop launched in-store, once again extending the Next brand into new areas that go far beyond its clothing and general merchandise appeal.

Part of what makes many retailers great is their eye for what everyone else is doing.  It means identifying a zeitgeist, then going on to define it yourself. And if there’s something that pure-play retailers know how to do better than most it’s how to innovate, adapt and identify emerging trends. That’s even easier when you’re looking in from the outside and not weighed down by the albatross of a store estate that reaches into the hundreds.

It may be little more than just a name right now but, by acquiring the business, Boohoo has jettisoned all that came with it in its physical form.

Ah, the beauty of having a blank sheet of paper.

So, here’s to bringing new ideas together. To tearing some of them apart. To imagining if the reverse were true.

If there’s one thing we’ve all had plenty of time for over this past year, it’s thinking. And for me, it’s time to think hard about how under-one-roof retailers go to market.

Call a Zoom meeting.

By Karl McKeever

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