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Debenhams: putting social at the heart of strategy

Ross Clemmow of Debenhams talks to Penelope Ody about the department store’s mission to put social and mobile at the customer’s service.

Debenhams’   strategic review in April this year promised an emphasis on “social shopping”, “new store formats” and use of mobile to “unify channels”. Six months later, the strategic wishlist is becoming a reality that is set to transform the traditional department store approach to retailing. “When we looked at our customer data we found that a third of our customers are shopping with friends and family, and that’s when they spend more,” says retail director, Ross Clemmow. “They’re not just looking for product but for leisure and food – and we believe we can be a good host for these activities.”

Adding hairdressing salons or restaurants to department stores is nothing new, but Debenhams is looking to integrate these leisure aspects with digital technology to deliver not just convenience but, the “control and best use of their time” that the company’s research suggests shoppers really want. Instead of customers simply collecting a click-and-collect order of half-a-dozen dresses and several pairs of shoes to try on at home and then returning the unwanted items, explains Clemmow, “…mobile can speed up the process”. Not just by streamlining the actual collection, but more importantly by enabling a shopper who has half an hour to spare in a lunch hour to collect the items and “reserve a fitting room and personal stylist, and try on the chosen garments there and then”.

In the same way, mobile can be integrated with the planned shopping trip to improve the customer experience: alert the store that you will be arriving within the hour and have 30 minutes to spend there buying three pairs of jeans for a budget of £75, or that you need to buy a date-night dress that must be red or pink and costing no more that £80 – and staff will have a selection ready and waiting.

Changing roles

Such personalised service needs plenty of customer-facing staff and Debenhams is making key changes to reduce significantly the kinds of non-customer-facing tasks familiar to any retailer. Over the next 12 months it expects to free up the equivalent of 2,000 full-time staff by using such tactics as delivering display-ready merchandise direct to the shop floor. At the same time, it is changing staff incentive schemes and training to give increased focus to service and customer interaction. “We want our customers to have greater confidence in their buying decisions,” says Clemmow, “and our staff can help boost that confidence so that the customer leaves the store feeling they’ve had a great experience.”

Restructuring front and back of store is a major operation, and Debenhams is currently piloting this “re-imagining” at three of its locations in Stevenage, Wolverhampton and Uxbridge, the first of which will be opening in the next few weeks. “Back of house is now ‘back stage’,” says Clemmow, “with reduced storage and greater flexibility, while front of house we have improved lighting, better zoning and – again – greater flexibility for layout. We expect that with these three stores we’ll get 85% of it right. By 2019 we’ll have a blueprint that is 100% there and we’ll start rolling that out to all stores.” Clemmow says he is not “a lover of technology for technology’s sake – technology has to support what our customers want to do”.

With this approach in mind and with mobile continuing to grow – orders through this channel were up by 64% in the year to April, while digital was almost 8% up in the 15 weeks to 17 June 2017 – Debenhams will start equipping staff with tablets after Christmas. Stores already have free wi-fi for customers so, with the tablets running the company’s new mobile site, currently under development, whatever the shopper sees on her phone, the sales assistant will see on the tablet, allowing the two to share the same experience and avoid any confusion over which garment the customer really wants to try.

Looking ahead

In future, Debenhams’ buying and merchandising teams will focus on creating a comprehensive online catalogue of both own label and branded styles. Edits of this range will then be matched to the customer profile for each individual store. If a particular line is not stocked at a specific branch, then it can be ordered for home delivery or be available at the store the following day. Again, nothing new about such an approach, but Clemmow believes that the wealth of data Debenhams is using to analyse its customer base should make this segmentation and subsequent product allocation especially accurate. With the “social shopping” concept  embracing products, food and leisure, restaurants, hairdressing and nail bars may be just the start. Debenhams’ research suggests  that customers on a “social” trip are interested  in beauty, food and drink, and health and wellness. Juice bars, pilates classes and a walk-in well-woman clinic next perhaps?

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