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Debenhams: Differentiating through social shopping

Debenhams’ launch of its mobile site is the first outward sign of its transformation strategy. Emma Herrod spoke to Ross Clemmow, the retailer’s Managing Director – Retail, Digital, Food & Events, to discover more about its plans for “digital, different and destination”.

In 2016, department store Debenhams merged board responsibilities for online and store retailing to align its group leadership with its omnichannel strategy. Sergio Bucher (ex-Vice President, Amazon Fashion Europe) joined as Chief Executive Officer and swiftly instigated a full analysis of the entire business, its customers, its operations and the profitability of the different brands it sells. This research has given the business a better understanding of how shoppers view the Debenhams brand itself, its proposition and its stores, as well as what they think of every individual brand the group sells. It has also revealed the profitability of each of these brands and the various promotions. In all, 16,000 people – customers and non-customers – were interviewed.

Off the back of this research, Debenhams conceived its ‘Debenhams Redesigned’ strategy, which it announced in April 2017. According to the retailer, this aims to make shopping “confidence-boosting, sociable and fun” and “to create the easiest way to help our customers look good, feel great and celebrate their love of shopping”. The first customer-facing sign of Debenhams’ transformation plan is its launch of a mobile site. This is a major element in its strategy, since mobile is being used as the glue to hold together other areas of the transformation, enabling services and engagement.


The mobile site provides customers with a faster and more app-like experience. Its Progressive Web App (PWA) was developed by SapientRazorfish and Mobify and uses Google-backed technology to create a smooth and streamlined experience for customers without the need for them to download an app. As Ross Clemmow, Debenhams’ Managing Director – Retail, Digital, Food & Events, explains, PWA provides a new front end to its existing IBM WebSphere digital platform, offering a new way of delivering headless commerce with a presentation layer separated from the underlying web commerce platform. Mobify runs the front end in the cloud with APIs connecting with IBM WebSphere.

Being able to deliver a fast mobile site was a major factor in Debenhams’ decision to use PWA. Chief among the problems that needed to be solved was the intermittent connection speeds you get with mobile web. “The [Debenhams site] code set uses the power of the device to hold more logic locally, even though it’s on the browser, so if you get disconnected on the train you can still do things rather than it just hanging like most mobile websites do,” Clemmow explains. This makes the Debenhams mobile site faster. It’s also been speeded up by first loading elements of the pages with things that are important to the customer – such as product images, price and delivery method – rather than the load being sequential. In addition, to achieve a faster, slicker experience, the most-visited pages can be stored locally using Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP).

As Clemmow points out, retail, digital traffic though apps is a very small percentage of overall mobile traffic. PWA provides the advantage of app-like speed and experience on the web without the customer having to download an app to their handset. PWA also enables personalised push notifications to be sent out to customers, and the retailer is investigating how this can be used to connect shoppers to stores. One possibility is to use this to engage with members of its Beauty Card loyalty scheme. “It is a very invasive medium,” cautions Clemmow, so Debenhams is treading carefully.

Like other retailers, Debenhams’ strategy highlights the importance of mobile as a dominant channel. Even before it launched the mobile PWA, more than half of its digital traffic was from mobile devices and accounted for over a third of its online revenue. This is growing at around 20% a year.

Since launching the PWA site – which is twice as fast as the old one – the firm has seen double-digit growth in mobile conversion rates, proof that speed was a major factor in customers abandoning their previous shopping journeys on mobile. Clemmow reiterates that the biggest pain point on the previous site when viewed via a mobile device was speed. “If it’s a slow experience on mobile, customers give up very quickly,” he says.

He explains that when developing for mobile commerce, retailers have to focus on the basics of retailing and make the site easy for customers to navigate, provide a good environment where they want to spend time and offer the products they want to buy. Consequently, Debenhams has organised its digital experience team around the fundamentals of what customers and the business rate as important:

Speed: Is it fast? Search: Can I find what I’m looking for? Content: Is there enough content to help engage me and make my decision?

Checkout: Can I pay easily?

Delivery: Does delivery work?

Internal product owners are responsible for each of the five stages of the customer journey. They work with in-house teams supplemented by external partners offering specialised experience when needed. There’s a 150-strong in-house ecommerce team with an additional 50 staff who manage UX, UI and development.

Each team works to eliminate pain points in the customer journey as well as working on the aspects that differentiate Debenhams. The to-do list for each team is made up of information from customer analytics and feedback as well as areas that advance the business strategy. A process of prioritisation keeps the lists manageable.

“Debenhams aims to create the easiest way to help its customers look good, feel great and celebrate their love of shopping”

PWA also means that enhancements can be quickly dropped in to the mobile site every two weeks. One such enhancement is the company’s Beauty Card loyalty scheme, which is being project managed by the Beauty team and built by the digital development team. The different areas will work in a matrix across the business as the project evolves.

“There isn’t a roadmap in the traditional sense, of ‘this project will get delivered in 18 months time and will cost x,” says Clemmow. “You have output from the teams every two weeks and you schedule in the requirements and work out when is best to fit that in. You don’t start the year with a view of what’s going to happen by the end, but you have a clear vision of what the work rate of those teams should be and what their overall KPIs are and what KPIs they are trying to influence.” The KPI for the checkout team, for example, is checkout abandonment.

Debenhams will be working on decoupling the front end of the tablet and desktop sites from the ecommerce platform with PWA so they deliver a fast experience for customers as well as providing a tablet-optimised experience for colleague and shopper interaction in store. The in-store tablets will enable staff to easily handle common queries, such as the location of an item. They will also evolve the omnichannel experience and enable customers to contact the same colleagues they spoke to in store to follow up on an enquiry or get more information. “The PWA will be built by the end of Q1/early Q2 and then it will be deployed onto tablet,” says Clemmow. The firm plans to roll out the use of tablets in the autumn, allowing it to retire its in-store kiosks.

Debenhams is breaking new ground with PWA as no-one has yet applied it to the desktop experience, something that could prove a challenge.“Digital is seen as the glue that binds the rest of the strategy together,” Clemmow says. Debenhams is therefore looking at how it can continue to grow its online business as well as using digital to connect customers with what’s happening in their local stores. He explains that customers are using Google maps and local search to work out how to make the best use of their time, so Debenhams’ Mobile@everywhere strategy extends this to behaviour by using mobile to introduce customers to what’s happening in stores in a relevant way.


Digital is just one pillar of Debenhams’ transformation plan. Its customers told it that shopping is not only about the pleasure of buying a great product that makes them look and feel good but also about enjoying the whole process, whether that’s through it being easy and convenient or by spending time out with friends and family.

Around 40% of Debenhams’ customers go shopping with family or friends, and when they shop in social groups they spend a lot more money. According to Clemmow, they spend up to 80% more and they want different things: “They are not just on a convenience-led mission.” He explains that these customers are looking for the right of balance of a number of elements, so the Debenhams Redesigned strategy is re-engineering the business to cater for this group. “The differentiator is about creating retail environments with the right mix of product, experience and food and drink,” says Clemmow. Food and drink make up 7-8% of its revenue currently but the retailer plans to grow it to 15%-plus.

This is all part of its plan to move the economics of stores away from just being about product margins to how each aspect contributes to the overall picture. Food, as Clemmow explains, is not as high a margin as selling product at full price; its value is in driving greater frequency. Beauty services and brands have similar margins but it’s the former that delivers greater frequency. With Debenhams starting to think about the economics of its stores in a different way, it is also discovering that the resulting profit is better if it gets the combination right and is not so reliant on just selling product. “It’s down to execution and how quickly we can deliver the proposition,” says Clemmow.

Destination and Different make up the other two pillars of the Debenhams’ Redesigned plan. To meet the aims of these, the retailer wants to enhance its position as a destination for premium beauty products and services. Beauty products are one of the main regular repeat items bought online from Debenhams and delivered via click and collect, so it is adding a bookable personal service for customers who go into a store to collect their order. More than 30% of online transactions are picked up in store, with 20% of those using click and collect making a further purchase when they collect their parcel. Debenhams, therefore, will be trialling a number of new ideas for maximising these visits and further connecting online and offline.

“PWA provides the advantage of app-like speed and experience on the web without needing an app to be downloaded to the customer’s phone”

The first of these to be tested is Click, Try & Buy, which is being piloted at its Stevenage store in early 2018, following research and concept testing. This enables a customer to book a changing room to try on their online purchase or an appointment with a personal shopper to coincide with when they are collecting their order. The personal shopper can have accessories ready for the shopper to view when they try on their online purchases and will be able to instantly issue refunds for any return items. The benefits for the customer are a good changing room environment, a personalised fitting service and an instant refund on the items they don’t want. It’s win: win both for the customer and Debenhams, which gets products back on sale quickly.

Clemmow also points out that when click and collect was first introduced, retailers thought that its key selling point was that it was providing a convenient service for shoppers. However, he says: “When you talk with customers. it’s about control. That is, ‘I can go in when I want to get that parcel because I know with surety that it’s there.”

Shoppers may have only 10 or 15 minutes to spend in the store or they may have longer, but for Debenhams, it’s a question of how it maximises the time it has with each of them and how it puts together the right experience to fit each customer’s mission. The Click, Try & Buy example is a way to help the shopper walk away with the items they actually want – and have a good shopping experience at the same time.

“It’s all about best use of time,” says Clemmow, and getting the right combination of product, service and experience. When this mix is right, customers visit more often and, says Clemmow: “We do well and the customer is happy, too.” In beauty, it’s about the customer buying the item they want as well as being helped by someone who’s impartial, so they can understand and discover what else might be of interest to them from the large and complicated range of products on offer.


Value-added services are one way to bring customers into store. According to Debenhams’ core shopper segment of 45-year-old women, service is having someone who is going to help them have the confidence to make the right decision, while being engaging and fun – and believable.

One of its services is based around beauty, a market worth about £4bn a year in the UK. Debenhams has stepped up its presence in the market by investing in mobile on-demand beauty pioneer Blow. This beauty services disruptor uses a highly responsive two-way app to connect customers to expertly trained beauty professionals who will visit clients in their home, office or hotel. Customers can order beauty and wellbeing services – blow dry, makeup, nails, massage, waxing, yoga and pilates – from 7am until late, seven days a week.

Debenhams’ stake in Blow creates a new distribution channel for the department store, whereby beauty services and treatments can be booked to take place at dedicated beauty bars in its stores as well as other out of store locations. The partnership will also enable beauty brands to forge a closer relationship with customers via Debenhams’ in-home services and sampling. The first three Blow beauty bars, offering blow dry, makeup and nail services, has already launched in Debenhams’ Oxford Street, Birmingham Bull Ring and Manchester stores with up to 50 sites planned in total. “6 to 8 will open in 2018,” says Clemmow.

He explains that although beauty services is a fragmented market, it’s one which offers “an opportunity for us not just to grow our own business but also to introduce a trusted national brand for beauty services to customers. We could have built that ourselves but we came across Blow, which is a very successful, digitally-enabled start-up in that area and we partnered with them.” He says its partnership with Blow is almost a hub and spoke service with the operation setting up in Debenhams stores and a mobile service operating throughout the catchment area from these.

“The challenge with PWA is that Debenhams is having to break new ground as no-one has used it yet for a desktop experience”

This is just one example of mobile being used to connect customers with Debenhams stores. As part of its strategy to make its stores a destination for social shopping, the retailer will be trialling in-store fitness centres this year. Its partnership with gym specialist Sweat! will see fitness centres open up in three of its stores. Debenhams says this will give shoppers more reasons to visit its stores more often as well as attracting younger, female customers. The increase in services means 2,000 staff are being moved from back-end processes in store to customer-facing roles. The firm is also enhancing its store environments and improving product presentation and customer assistance. It will continue to examine its use of space and how it optimises store performance. Operations, including store replenishment, are being streamlined, with store replenishment shifting from an eight-day to a two-day cycle.

Its new store in Stevenage, which opened in August 2017, is being used as a testing ground for many of its new ideas, including layout and merchandising. Its product range is based on the brand profile defined by online demand in its catchment area, and it has a cheaper and more flexible operating model than that used by other stores in the group. The store has already produced good results, consistently ranking in the top 20 for sales, with Womenswear and Home particularly strong. The performance of the Stevenage store’s Home offer matches Debenhams’ top outlets, even though it accounts for half of the typical space with 35% fewer SKUs. The store is also delivering positive customer metrics. “It was expected to rank 75th amongst Debenhams’ 175 stores,” says Clemmow.

Interestingly, more than 60% of the store team were recruited from the hospitality industry rather than retail. Debenhams’ recently opened Wolverhampton store is also being used for testing, while its store in Uxbridge will be the first existing outlet to be refitted and re-ranged for its catchment area, building on the ideas piloted at the new stores. Clemmow explains that scaling the new model to existing large stores is not something that Debenhams is built to do but it is something that it is having to learn quickly. New KPIs and analytics are also being introduced so the measurement of online and store retailing performance is more aligned. Simplified KPIs for store managers, for example, will give them a view of footfall and store conversion by the different areas of the store, so they can start thinking more like a digital merchandiser and understanding the levers that can be pulled around merchandising and levels of store staff. The online teams will also be thinking about offline and be made aware of how local mobile search is driving footfall to individual stores.

“It’s all about best use of time. Get the right combination of product, service and experience and customers visit more often and we do well and the customer is happy too”

Having the right environment, the right product presented in the right way with the right service feels like a different business, but scaling it quickly will be the challenge for Debenhams. What will differentiate it is how it achieves consistency of execution, because for all the transformation plans from different retailers, this is one that is really embracing the next steps of mobile-enabled commerce. Executing its plan of giving customers a consistent experience across its entire store estate will define whether it wins from repeat, frequent shopper visits and purchases. With all of the major UK department stores changing their businesses around omnichannel shoppers, consistency of execution is what will determine the winners.

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