Are you being served? Why creatives should look to the department store for fresh ideas

Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins. Follow him on Twitter @MoodyThinking

The department store model may tempt advertising clients, but the high street is struggling, says Chris Moody

There is a foreseeable future in which design, advertising and brand studios simply don’t exist.

Instead, clients will browse vast creative department stores where they can be caffeinated while being served tasty concepts and ideas, less from individual agencies but by floors with acronyms instead of numbers. This will have come about because of a need to move with the times, because ‘people buy things differently now’.

The rather circular irony in all of this is that actual department stores - the ones we’ve known and loved on the high street for decades - are struggling to keep pace and, in many cases, shutting up shop.

The department store model, ahead of retail parks and hypermarkets, was the original aggregator of goods. It existed before the world got hooked on broadband, and before convenience started to trump experience.

If you’re a young, strange sort keen to know what buying a cordless vacuum cleaner would be like in an Amazon-less world, speak to someone who went to Littlewoods in the 90s and they’ll tell you the customer played the role of stock checker, warehouse manager and delivery driver.

And while department stores can be a fancy affair now, they can’t compete with digital directories and regional distribution centres that mainline products straight to your door. If 90s Argos is a leisurely doobie, Amazon is a speedball.

While my thoughts about creative department stores are unresolved, my feelings for the real thing are more affectionate. I’ve fond memories of preparing for new school terms in the likes of C&A, but beyond a hazy, Luddite nostalgia, is there any future for the department store?

With BHS still being dragged through the courts and Debenhams posting profit warnings, 2017 wasn’t a great year for retail. John Lewis - the paterfamilias of the high street – announced it’s taken a hit on margin despite a good Christmas, and M&S described its performance as ‘mixed’.

That said, it’s not time to turn off the lights in the high street just yet.

In October, Selfridges posted 18% growth and 11 consecutive years of success. The strength of the brand has everything to do with its clear sense of self. It’s a highly curated aggregator of goods and, increasingly, services. The iconic yellow bag (soon to be made from recycled coffee cups due to their ‘Project Ocean’ commitment) signals careful content selection and a brand that is smart enough to know that it needs to address tough issues.

Like some of its brightest direct competitors, Fortnum & Mason and Liberty, the Selfridges brand works hard on behalf of the customer, and works even harder on its point of difference – there aren’t many stores that would go as far as building a boating lake on their roof to sell more sweetener.

Unlike its more networked, algorithm-driven online challengers, Selfridges is able to embrace its physicality to great effect too. From the exuberance of its window displays to the rolling programme of events, it’s a million miles away from a posh warehouse of stuff. It's a destination, a place of pilgrimage for shoppers and an emotive experience that has no true digital counterpoint.

These self-assured stores are willing to push the boundaries of what they should and could be doing, relishing their individuality and idiosyncrasy, embracing interaction and, at times, chaos. They aren’t just a place for transactions. At their peak, they can create something truly moving.

It goes without saying that other retailers, regardless of price point, could learn a lot from this approach.

But at a time when agencies are urged to use the flattest, fastest, most fat-free design solutions, it’s perhaps creatives who could be learning the most from these creatively-minded department stores. That is, unless we want the lights to be turned off for creativity.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.