Mid-market department stores have become the punch bag for the state of modern retail. Often the largest, most visible and expensive stores to run, they are the cumbersome dinosaurs of the British high-street and, much like those, talk is about them dying out.
Two of Britain’s biggest department store chains, John Lewis and Debenhams, unveiled their rebrands on the same day, this week. Much like a first day at school, and a fresh seasonal start, this is their equivalent of a fresh text book and pencil case. But, will it be enough?
Left - John Lewis & Waitrose adds its Partners to their new logos
John Lewis is ramming home the fact it’s a big, fat cooperative by adding ‘Partners’ to everything. For the first time in the company’s history the names of both John Lewis and Waitrose have added ‘& Partners’.
At the same time, they also unveiled the largest own brand womenswear collection of 300 designs, which was created entirely in-house and carries the new name ‘John Lewis & Partners’. Plus its first own-brand gifting collection called ‘Find Keep Give’. The range is comprised of unique pieces, the majority of which were designed in-house by Partners.
This is John Lewis really putting its stake in the ground for point of difference. The future, they think, is something desirable you can’t get anywhere else. Never knowingly sold elsewhere!
Rob Collins, Waitrose & Partners Managing Director said: “This moment is far more significant than simply adding words and changing the design. It symbolises something bigger, expressing what’s different about our business and signalling our intent to make that difference count for even more: committed, knowledgeable Partners who care about the business they own, sharing their love of food and offering great customer service.”
Right - All about the D at Debenhams
John Lewis Partnership said in June that it would continue to invest in both businesses at a rate of £400m-£500m per year, to enable the two retail businesses to differentiate themselves from other retailers by innovating in products, customer service and services with the creation of ‘Customer Service Ambassadors’ who provide warm and personalised customer service front of store. As well as healthy eating specialists, they are training Partners to offer a concierge style service and equipping ‘Personal Stylists’ with the skills to deliver daily fashion talks; as well as investing in technology to improve customer service. This will be hard for other retailers to match.
But, John Lewis is feeling the pain too. They just announced the loss of back office jobs in IT, finance and store security from its 50 departments stores with 250 roles affected. This reflects the recent plunge in profits, and the announcement in June that profits in the first half of the year will be "close to zero”.
On the other hand, Debenhams was definitely due a refresh. Devised by new creative partner, Mother, Debenhams has unveiled a “modern, friendlier logo”. A new media tag line “do a bit of Debenhams” invites customers to “celebrate their discovery of the brands and products they love”.
Debenhams chief executive, Sergio Bucher, said, “Whilst we have made real improvements to our stores and continue to improve our product offering we also want to signify overtly to customers that Debenhams is changing and give them more reasons to come in store – our new brand identity is a way of signalling the change.”
As part of the ‘Debenhams Redesigned’ overhaul, the online shopper journeys have been reduced by half and conversion rate improved by 20%. The first new logo in 20 years, Debenhams’ new look reflects the investment and changes that Bucher, who was previously at Amazon, has made.
In June, Debenhams said full-year profits will be lower than expected - the third time it has issued a profit warning this year. The department store blamed "increased competitor discounting and weakness in key markets" for the profit shortfall. It said annual pre-tax profits would come in between £35m and £40m, below previous estimates of £50.3m.
Left - Debenhams new logo 2018
“Perhaps the rebrand for both these important retailers could be have been actioned earlier, but I am pleased to see that both Debenhams and John Lewis have now grasped the opportunity and wish them both well with the next steps. I am also encouraged to see that both businesses see the initiative as much more than signage and are taking the opportunity to look at every aspect of their businesses in terms of both the relevance and the importance of excellence in delivering goods and services to their customers.” says Michael Sheridan, CEO and founder of retail and brand design agency Sheridan&Co.
One department store chain that could possibly do with a makeover is the privately held Fenwick. The Newcastle-based department store chain is to shed 421 jobs as part of a cost-cutting plan following a slump in profits. The retailer reported, yesterday, it had not been immune from the struggles facing its competitors. It said management, support and shop floor staff would be affected by the job cuts - the result of a restructuring - taking its total workforce to 2,879 people.
Fenwick posted a 93% fall in pre-tax profits to £2m in the year to 26 January. They said a 3.6% fall in sales over the 12 months was a resilient result.
A spokesperson said: "Our annual results reflect the challenging market conditions all department store groups are facing, including increased competition from online retail, declining footfall on the high street, and increasingly competitive price discounting - factors that have been exacerbated by a rise in the cost of living that has led to a fall in consumers' disposable income.”
Fenwick is a small chain, with 9 branches, mostly in wealthy market towns. They have no e-commerce ATM, and, while they plan to, I think it could be too little, too late and they would be better off investing in their stores and “owning” the towns they are in. They need to remind us why we need to go to a Fenwick’s store. They should follow John Lewis’ lead and offer good customer service and product points of difference. It doesn’t have shareholders pushing for short-termism profits so should look longer term.
We’re still waiting to see what is happening with House of Fraser, but I’m sure we’ll see a new logo and branding there within the next 18 months.
These department stores are using new logos to draw a designed line under the past with the aim to looking forward. They’ve been surrounded by negativity for so long and this must be hitting the morale of the staff and this is a way of saying “new start” and they are investing.
There’s a lot of play for, but everybody needs to become leaner and faster, and many chains have no more meat left to cut. They, now, need shoppers returning and buying more. Only exclusive products or services they can’t get anywhere else will draw them back.
John Lewis has deep pockets and Debenhams’ survival could be at the expense of another chain. John Lewis’ classic branding didn’t feel tired, but maybe they thought it was important to change before it does, but I would have kept the original dark green colour. Debenhams’ new look looks fresh without trying too hard. It looks reliable and welcoming and does reflect the changes that have been going on in-store. Debenhams has come on massively over the last couple of years and it was a good idea to have a clear out of its “designers” - read more here. Now, it needs enticing, contemporary product to replace it.
The mid-market department store, as a concept, isn’t dead, but for the bad ones it’s the beginning of the end and no fancy new logo or slogan will fix that.
Read more expert ChicGeek Comments - here
Yesterday, The Evening Standard reported the new chief executive of Debenhams, Sergio Bucher, is cutting back on some of the older fashion designers who have been selling ranges at the department store for decades as he tries to freshen up its cool credentials.
About time. They desperately need a clear out. They haven’t named who is going yet, but they’ve already said they want to shift the focus of the stores away from fashion to more experiences like dining and beauty.
Left - Who is for the chop at Debenhams?
When ‘Designers at Debenhams’ started Debenhams was one of the first retailers on the British high-street to acknowledge and react to the growing demand from consumers for a ‘name’ on a product. It was a genius move at the time. After seeing their success, other retailers such as Marks & Spencer copied with Autograph, while, strangely, never put anybody’s name on it?!
That was 23 years ago and Debenhams hasn’t moved it on. They’ve stuck with the same crop of designers and 23 years in fashion is a couple of lifetimes, especially how fast it is today. The menswear, in particular, with the exception of Hammond & Co. hasn’t seen any new life or blood for years.
At past press days, where they preview their new collections, they’ve shown me 4 rails of men's clothes, all different ‘designers’, but all looking the same because they are designed by the same people.
Many of these designers have grown fat and lazy with Debenhams. Making millions while Debenhams has become a sea of grey, black and navy. While the men’s high-street has embraced so much over this time, Debenhams has stuck with an older customer who they disappointly underestimate with their product mix. A 45 year old man today is very different from the 45 year old man in 1993.
It has lost any form of excitement and point of difference. This seems an obvious and much needed step in the right direction. Department stores are looking old-fashioned at the moment: they have to make themselves relevant if they are to survive. You have to create newness all the time with the likes of John Lewis and Amazon biting at your heels.
Bucher will update on his strategic plan for Debenhams in April.