Debenhams needs to rethink the role it plays for the community of brands
A view from Chris Moody

Debenhams needs to rethink the role it plays for the community of brands

Department stores can be more than an outlet - they have a constructive social role to play for both businesses and consumers, writes Wolff Olins' chief design officer.

I love Debenhams – it’s part of the fabric of my childhood and early teens. Its charm was always in its ability to span generations – it's a shopping equivalent of Saturday night telly on ITV. Broad enough and open enough to have a little something for preteens to pensioners. It’s therefore sad to see its slow descent into the bargain bin.

Posting an 85% drop in profits for the most recent quarter, the once-loved retailer pointed to the Beast from the East as the cause of its woes. While the impact of a snowstorm on a brand that relies on footfall is certainly significant, the results continued a downward trend for the department store.

This is partly down to a confused and oversubscribed high street, the ease of digital shopping sprees and allowing what was an eclectic mix of products to become a jumble sale of stuff.

We work, we shop

But at its heart, Debenhams is a relevant brand and there’s certainly hope for it. The announcement that the Oxford Street branch will become host to a WeWork space is cause to be upbeat – it’s a smart answer to a tough situation and a good potential partnership.

There’s much to learn from WeWork which, in the last few years, has revolutionised the Alan Partridge-tinged vibe of office space into somewhere that is not only is acceptable to be seen working in, but a space for actively hothousing new talent.

If Debenhams could learn a few tricks and perform that magic on the eclectic shopping experience, then they’ll stand a chance of starting a U-turn. 

Debenhams has four key pillars on its website, setting out its core ambitions. One of these, "expand the brand internationally", needs to be put on ice until the tills start to ring. 

Another two  "deliver a compelling customer proposition" and "increase multichannel"  are generic and though much needed, fundamentally hampered until the brand locks down what is special about it. 

When your brand is very literally a house of brands you need to be comfortable in your own skin and be crystal clear about what you stand for, or you disappear on your own shop floor. This core differentiation must drive your proposition and define every element of your sales channels.

Becoming a beacon of the community

It is the fourth pillar that could begin to unlock the next era for the store: "focussing on UK retail". 

If approached with a positively populist charm and inclusive attitude, acting as a department store that heroes the community it serves could be the shot in the arm the label so desperately needs.

Leveraging the pre-existing partnerships with designers is a natural way to land this.

Patrick Grant, the tailor whose Hammond & Co line is a large part of the current menswear offer, also owns a brand called Community Clothing – a sustainable line built around rich stories of local manufacturers, currently only stocked by Selfridges and eBay.

The old standard was to see the department store as a gleaming beacon the local community were invited into. In a world where people build their own department stores in their browser history, it would be much more interesting to flip this mentality.

A department store that actively sought to project the best the community had to offer. Becoming a platform for regional skills, products and startups to sit alongside established names would help make Debenhams feel relevant and fresh to a generation of people brought up on The X Factor, who run their businesses in WeWork spaces.

It may feel like a dark time for those at Debenhams, but the solution is not just to get more jumpers off the shelves – it is to find a way to bring back a celebratory prime time attitude to how they are brought to the shelves. 

Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins

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