Department stores must remember the first rule of retail, says expert

Debenhams in Ipswich has Arcadia outlets in store. Picture CHARLOTTE BOND

Department stores across Suffolk have closed in recent years - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Department stores need to relearn "the art of seducing the customer" if they are to survive, an expert has said.

New research shows that 388 department stores have closed since 2016 — meaning just 79 major stores remain open.

In Ipswich the former BHS and Debenhams stores sit empty. While in Bury St Edmunds, the former Debenhams store is not expected to be filled until 2023.

And even companies which have survived are struggling, for example House of Fraser which collapsed into administration in 2019 and John Lewis which posted a £517m loss for the year to March 2021.

Professor Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research explained: "When the first ever department store was launched in Paris the concept was to seduce the customers. Whether it was fabrics they had never seen before or items they could not get anywhere else, it was the idea that they had to come in.

"When you look at how the people who run Jarrold  [in Norwich] have handled it, you can tell they never got out of bed and said: 'We need to be more like Debenhams'. They stayed absolutely true to serving who they knew their customer was - even though it may not appeal to everyone."

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Robert Jones, professor of brand leadership at UEA, said the collapse of department stores was partly down to a "failure of branding".

"Department store chains have failed to invest in their brand in any way at all really," he said. "The exception is John Lewis which takes branding very seriously and invested in a big redesign a couple of years. And, of course, spends a lot of money on those very expensive Christmas adverts."

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Professor Jones said John Lewis's ownership structure created a shopping culture that other department store chains did not have.

"I think the challenge for John Lewis now is that you can sense the shopping culture face to face in a shop. But that's only 30% of their business now, 70% is online.

"And it's much harder to try and establish that sense that you're not going to be ripped off and that you can get good advice when all online retailers look the same."

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