Will they tempt us back? The department store revamps designed to boost browsing IRL

Will they tempt us back? The department store revamps designed to boost browsing IRL

When L Brands tolled the death knell for Henri Bendel, the sound surely reverberated around the retail world – for Bendel isn’t the only under-performer in this category. Indeed, UK-based House of Fraser has battled all summer to avoid collapse, and will cull 31 stores from its portfolio as a result.

And while it may be too late for Bendel, and likely Fraser too – some department stores aren’t taking their channel’s slow yet steady decline lying down.

We’ve been inundated of late with stories of revamps, rebrands and high-profile campaigns designed to tempt customers back in store. Saks Fifth Avenue has opened a new 32,000 foot ‘experiential’ beauty floor at its New York Flagship, featuring 120 brands and a significant focus on beauty services and treatments.

Over in the UK, John Lewis has ditched its green and white colors in favour of a sleek monochrome and morphed into John Lewis & Partners, with several store revamps to boot. Debenhams too has unveiled a new logo, brand identity and ad campaign in a bid to ‘bring back the mooch’ (to translate for those of you not fluent in British slang, a ‘mooch’ is a protracted browse – shopping without purpose).

And while it’s too early to tell whether these retailers have got it right, Harvey Nichols announced a 9 percent rise in revenue to £210 million for the financial year ended March 2018, attributed to ‘an ambitious Knightsbridge store refurbishment’, which included men’s, beauty, fine jewellery, women’s wear and accessories.

That’s promising stuff. However, it doesn’t change the fact that all the beautiful branding in the world isn’t going to make a scrap of difference if they can’t deliver excellent customer service on the shop floor.

Because the reality of shopping IRL (and trust me, I’ve given it a good go) is frustrating. Why can’t they open more cash registers? Why is it so impossible to keep stock in all sizes? Surely there is some technical wizardry available now where you sell one, and a replacement is whisked back out to the shelf?

Because you can mooch all you like (again, totally taken one for the team on this front – all in the name of research, of course) but if every time you find a wallet-opener it’s like, oops sorry, we don’t have it in your size / shade / color, then what is the point? You learn to save the bus fare.

And on the subject of mooching – why are shop floors not designed to encourage people to relax and trial? There’s no where to put anything down, no where to pop your bag or coat while you test out a lipstick in a department store. You want your eyebrows waxed? Well, you have to put that bag on the dusty shop floor. I mean, you’re spending £500 million on a rebrand, but you can’t afford a hook? Newsflash – people in shops are often carrying bags.

It isn’t rocket science. You’re talking to someone who dropped £49 in Aveda on a spontaneous face mask purchase last week because it was raining and the sales assistant offered me a complimentary warm tea (the things I do for research, ?). Retail IRL can be done well – but it largely isn’t and it has nothing to do with the logo and everything to do with engaged, knowledgeable staff and added extras that make the journey worthwhile.

Almost every time I try shopping the old-fashioned way, I wind up wishing I’d never left my sofa. And let’s remember, while Nichols credited much of its success to its improved London store, it’s also beefed up its digital presence, signing a deal with Farfetch to enable online shopping and launching a live shopping platform with Hero that allows customers to message sales staff in real time. Yes, unless these stores can deliver expertise and comfort, the future of shopping is free shipping, free returns, IMHO. As the holiday season approaches, department stores would do well to adopt ‘comfort and joy’ as their mantra.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks! A really excellent article with great insights from your experience. Retail players who get that it’s all about the experience will do well. The others will likely die during the “Ice Age”.


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