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EDITORIAL The race to save Debenhams – and how to do it

The fuse has been lit for Debenhams: now to get that revamp done

The race is now on for Debenhams: revamp the tired department store experience or die. Pulling the plug on a Mike Ashley rescue bid – which would see it join a growing roster of High Street retailers coming under his control – Debenhams is now in the hands of its lenders. And they have to act now to stand any chance of saving the brand.

The department store has been embroiled in a lengthy and costly transformation plansince October, but the pressure is now on to deliver that – and deliver that in spades. While Debenhams has been wrestling to reject Ashley’s advances, High Street retail has moved on apace. One can’t help wonder that what lies in Debenhams transformation plan from six or seven months ago, could well already be old hat.

Why do I say that? Just look at what some High Street retailers are already doing. While Debenham’s plan to focus on “putting social and mobile at the heart of the shopping experience, while closing some of its 165 stores” and aiming to accommodate 30% of selling to be done online, some High Street retailers have started to actually deliver the kind of store experience that shoppers desire.

Shoppers still want to use shops: research by MarketingSignals, among others, shows that shoppers actually like going to stores. What they don’t like is what stores are like when they get there.

And this is something that Debenhams now has mere weeks to grasp and act upon.

A case in point is Primark, which has this week opened its latest – and largest – store, in Birmingham, which spreads over five floors and offers a glimpse into what a Gen Z friendly store of ‘the future’ might actually look like. Featuring branded areas and digital signage, it looks very modern. However, look more closely and the true revolutionary nature of the new store – and what Debenhams should be looking very closely at – is revealed.

Free wifi is a given. Places to sit and chill and charge, again a mobile centric attribute of the design, are also there. Aside from the clothes and home ranges, there are also cafes, restaurants and even a barbers in the store – all geared up to offer the kind of experience that shoppers crave.

Co-op meanwhile, not content to roll out delivery robots in Milton Keynes, also offers some more prosaic pointers what the new look store needs to have. It has rolled out a company wide mobile task management system across its network of stores to help its staff become more productive.

The system, while not perhaps as eye-catching as the Primark store’s opening, is another part of the technological store revolution that Debenhams needs to heed. There is much that can be done at the ‘front end’ of retail to add more experiences and make retail a destination, but it is in streamlining the back end and improving the general running of the store – including arming its store associates with technology – that will win the day.

These stores need to be an experience to visit – and that means no more queuing to pay; not more not being able to buy what you want; and no more staff just stacking shelves. Modern department stores need to be all these things, as well as click and collect points, warehouses and hubs for knowledge.

There is much to learn and apply and, for Debenhams, not much time to learn and apply it. Let’s hope that the new owners still have the time.

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