Department Stores: Winners and Losers

“We are delighted to have delivered record results in 2014/15, a year when we focused our attention on providing an extraordinary shopping experience for our customers, however they chose to shop with us.” – Anne Pitcher, MD, Selfridges

News that the US department store sector is mired in gloom suggests that the sector has lost its way, and lost the confidence of customers and investors alike.

In the UK, Debenhams’ CEO has announced his departure amid continuing challenges for “Britain’s favourite department store”.

On the 30th August, 2014, following an exasperating afternoon’s shopping in Oxford (but it could have been in almost any British High Street), I wrote the following on Facebook (and later in this blog):

“Dear Debenhams, might I suggest you remember a thing or two about the business you are in? The point of a department store is that it offers wide choice and quality service. That way, customers get to have an enjoyable experience and buy lots of stuff.

“You, however, seem to think it appropriate to operate a largely self-service menswear department. That might be fine if you didn’t apparently also have a policy of not putting prices on any of your shoes; compounded by the staff member in that department suggesting that I could find out the price of the shoes I was interested in when I went to the till!

“I heard him tell another customer that it wasn’t possible to find out whether her local store stocked a particular item. Hadn’t he heard of the telephone? In fairness, as staff members were as rare as hens’ teeth he probably felt he didn’t have time to make the call.  Apart from him there was a totally disinterested young lady on the till, who, far from thanking me for spending an hour largely serving myself and then in effect paying her wages, avoided meeting my eye at any point.

“I could go on! The image of an enormous sales floor, almost bereft of staff, and on a Saturday of all days, may not be unusual but it is, and always will be, daft. The recession’s over, Debenhams! Staff up and make hay!!!”

I should add that I Tweeted the above lament to Debenhams  – and received a predictably underwhelming response.

Meanwhile, Selfridges – voted “the world’s best department store” – posted record profits as it continues to invest in its physical store experience. Retail Gazette reported that, “while e-commerce business is booming, Selfridges is still pulling all the stops for its physical presence. Renowned for in-store retail theatre, the group is spending £300m as part of a five-year investment to overhaul its flagship London branch and improve its appeal as a destination for shopping.”

Since Harry Gordon Selfridge opened his Oxford Street emporium in 1909, his simple philosophy “Excite the mind, and the hand will reach for the pocket” has guided successful department stores, including the group that bears his name.

To those that are struggling, the question is: “What are you doing to excite the minds – of your Customers, and of your Team?”

For support with Customer and Team excitement, click here.


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