Experiential retail is of course not a new concept. But High Street giant Debenhams is hoping its 'store of the future' will buck the downward trend in retail.
News of Debenhams’ transformation has made headlines in recent weeks, as the legacy department store focuses on making ‘every shopping trip memorable’ through various experiential initiatives.
After announcing a number of store closures, the opening of its ‘store of the future’ branch in Watford should certainly be seen as a positive after what has been a trying summer for Britain’s High Street. Particularly when you consider the downfall of House of Fraser, there is clearly a lot of pressure on retailers who stock branded goods to compete on both an omnichannel level against the likes of Amazon, and also on an experiential one.
Experiential retail is of course not a new concept, and many successful retailers have been implementing immersive retail techniques for years. However, this is clearly a major step forward for Debenhams as it looks to compete with the online giants and offer shoppers an offline experience that will keep them coming back for more. Indeed, at a time when consumers are more money-conscious, time-poor and selective about where and when they shop, it’s increasingly important to give them a reason to enter a physical store.
With this in mind, it’s great to see Debenhams putting a renewed focus on its in-store aesthetic and visual merchandising through carefully curated fashion offers across its designer collections.
As shoppers are increasingly seeking experiences in destinations like Westfield where shops are within close proximity to each other, there’s a huge opportunity for department stores to start acting more like ‘destinations locations’ to fight off growing competition and prove their value to shoppers, e.g. working more closely with brands in different departments to create mini destinations within a store.
Debenhams’ introduction of beauty bars, luxury blow dry stations and gin-and-tonic lounges is certainly a step in the right direction and will be a welcome addition for shoppers who are looking for a superior retail therapy experience.
However, given their sheer size and breadth of merchandise, department stores historically have a harder job when it comes to making the whole in-store environment more immersive in a way that is sustainable and indeed scalable, and it will be interesting to see how Debenhams scales these different offerings across its entire estate, particularly within its flagship stores.
The role of technology in CX
When it comes to scaling the in-store customer experience, technology plays a key role in engaging, surprising and delighting customers in a more permanent way, elevating the role of shop assistants to 3.0 consultants. A virtuous example is in John Lewis, where technology devices empower shop assistants to become expert consultants – allowing them to help meet shoppers’ needs at the tap of a button.
LEGO stores, meanwhile, have created their highly engaging augmented reality solution, allowing shoppers to see Lego models in 3D. Although not technological, customers can also build products available for purchase, providing a hands-on and engaging opportunity for customers.
In the fashion world, Tommy Hilfiger offers an RFID reader, so customers can scan items and find additional colours in the same item, looking at the stock on offer. Large screens are also available to look through the whole collection. These are all great ways of how technology can improve the experience in a really simple way, making it more engaging and relevant for customers, while empowering employees to be ambassadors for the brand.
Debenhams’ recent store of the future vision has certainly struck a chord with many, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the likes of House of Fraser – when the dust settles – will soon start to reconsider the role of an omnichannel customer experience in-store. The key thing for department stores is to focus on creating memorable experiences that feel permanent and sustainable in the long term.
If Debenhams replicates the successes from its Watford outlet by concentrating its efforts on its flagship stores, we can expect to see a healthy future for Debenhams on the High Street.
Tony Rhodes is the UK commercial director at Mood Media. The group offers experiential design and marketing solutions, helping brands connect with their customers by providing music, digital signage, scent, integrated audio visual, and interactive mobile marketing solutions that help to improve customer experience.