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Debenhams: Will killer stores revitalise a dead format?

Anyone who has rugby tackled their way along the crowded rat-runs between clothes rails knows that Debs' dark and dingy shops need a good overhaul
Debenhams city centre storefront
A bright future for the chain's High Street outlets?

Here’s something in the retail lexicon I hadn’t picked up on – the concept of a destination store. My bad, of course.

Now, the destination store shouldn’t be confused with the common or garden department store – noo, noo, noo (that’s so last century daahling) - or the pile-em-high-sell-em-cheap emporia championed by Primark.

No, the destination store contains top-notch eateries, bars, beauty salons and personal shoppers to make the whole process with parting with a pound or two (sterling that, is) just a little less painful.

So it is a retail and leisure experience; a place people actually want to go – hence the term ‘destination store’.

But there is more to it than just a hodgepodge of new and trendy ideas – the destination store also needs to have the size of a mass merchandiser, the scope of the traditional department store and the low prices of a discount chain. 

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In the trade, these temples to retail excess are also known as killer stores.

Apparently Selfridges – with outlets in London and Leeds – does this very well, save for the bargain-basement prices.

Why are we interested in the destination store concept? 

Well, it is the centre-piece to a strategy overhaul at High Street stalwart Debenhams, along with the closure of 10 stores and 10 distribution centres.

It is the brainchild Sergio Bucher, the man from Amazon drafted in on £3.8mln a year to rescue Debs.

Stores need an overhaul

Anyone who has rugby tackled their way along the crowded rat-runs between clothes rails knows that these dark and dingy stores need a good overhaul.

It remains to be seen whether adding nail bars and restaurants will help in revitalising the fortunes of the chain.

It is part of a two-pronged strategy that also involves mobile – yes mobile. 

Though reading the quotes of Debs chairman Sir Ian Cheshire, a former head of B&Q who is very much ‘old retail’, it was hard to decipher what mobile would really means for Debs – other than the odd Instagram snap.

What the City wanted (as you will hear in our interview with analyst Nick Bubb) are tangible sales forecasts and profit margin targets. 

In other words, the stuff that could be slotted into a spreadsheet to give meaningful revenue and profit projections.

Retail failures

I have some sympathy for Bucher and his Debs team – it is hard to be a retail visionary when big investors are so short-term.

That said, the sector is littered with supposed forward thinkers that came a cropper.

Think Tesco buying Giraffe and Harris & Hoole and going further back Marks buying US preppie outfitter Brooks Brothers; or indeed any international push by a UK supermarket chain. 

In looking at the big picture one hopes the new Debs CEO isn’t forgetting the important elements of detail such as the customer, brand values and culture.

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October 27 2016

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