Will Debenhams Succeed Where Other Department Store Models are Failing?

Megan Moser
Written by Megan Moser | November 2017
shopping photo


It has been four weeks since Melbourne enthusiastically welcomed the UK department store, Debenhams, to the St Collins Lane shopping centre. To celebrate their one month anniversary, which happens to coincide with Amazon’s much anticipated Australian debut, we check in to see how they are travelling.



Headwinds prevail

Revenue growth of Australian retailers continues to face pressures, including:

  • the impact of slow wage growth and increasing cost of living on discretionary spending
  • the annual 15% growth of online sales and Amazon’s impending entry, and
  • the shift of consumer preference from traditional brick and mortar retail offerings towards personalised and interactive experiences.

So how does a company survive, let alone make a name for itself, in such a volatile environment? The answer is simple: Be different, be better, and be consistent.

While traditional department stores have floundered as consumer preferences evolve, Debenhams has leveraged this shift by focusing on concierge-level customer service and an informed and simplified omni-channel path to purchase.

Overall, our observations revealed a favourable report card for Debenhams, with our consulting team reporting a simple, affordable, and enjoyable customer experience.


Our five key observations:

1. Service is back – staff that want to help (and can)

After visiting the store, it is apparent that shopper experience is at the forefront. The staff members are friendly, easily identifiable in black and white checkered shirts, and well-informed about the products. In addition to knowledgeable generalists, there are personal stylists and makeup artists to provide patrons with specialised advice and services.


2. First impressions matter

Apart from the initial hiccup of travelling ‘up’ to the food court instead of ‘down’, which one would think can be easily rectified with some clear signage, one enters a well lit, contemporary space across a single-level designed with the busy, modern-day consumer in mind.


3. The product layout is appealing

Larger, multi-level stores have notoriously caused stress and confusion for consumers who seek to efficiently purchase predetermined items rather than browse; however, Debenhams’ curated range of British brands is intuitively laid out and far from overwhelming.


4. Opportunities exist to increase dwell time

The growing retail trend of integrating food and beverage into the shopping experience provides shoppers with a place to rest and refuel, so they spend more time and money in-store. Debenhams’ self-proclaimed “Instagrammable” cafe, Haberdasher, has a modern and stylish feel and premium range of pastries and coffee.


5. When done correctly, digital can be a key enabler of spend

On the digital front, Debenhams may have bitten off a bit more than they could chew before their Melbourne opening last month. The intention is excellent, but the execution leaves shoppers wanting.

The concept of the Debenhams app, which enables consumers to reserve items from their phone, scan tags to learn more about products while shopping, and book beauty and stylist services online, is intriguing. However, the Southern Hemisphere specific product details have not been uploaded yet, preventing Australian consumers from enjoying the full range of features.

The presence of the UK product range on the Debenhams Australia website could further frustrate shoppers, as in true omni-channel form, many browse online before visiting the physical store to make a purchase, only to find their desired product is not stocked.

The only digital feature that performs as anticipated is the mobile point of sale, which although seemingly mundane, enables shoppers to purchase items wherever a Debenhams employee is present.


Will Debenhams succeed while other stores fail?

In theory, Debenhams has separated itself from traditional department stores by promising a superior shopping experience. However, delivering on this promise requires providing both exceptional customer service and an informed and simplified buying process.

In a market that contains well-established, iconic players, and where new online merchants are wooing customers on price and endless range, Debenhams must seamlessly deliver on the second half of its value proposition before it will be able to live up to its potential and capture a significant share of the Australian market.


(Source: Debenhams Australia App on Apple iPhone)

Discover how to grow your business.