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The trouble with department stores: the reasons why shoppers are turning away

By Steve Looney, Research director



The Drum Network article

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June 28, 2019 | 5 min read

The department store was once a corner stone of the British high street for decades and immortalised by the popular long running sitcom 'Are you being served?' in the 70s and 80s. But if recent trends are anything to go by the department store might have had its day just like the TV show.

Mannequins in a shop window.

Can department stores regain the ground they've lost?

There have been high profile causalities in recent years notable the controversial demise of BHS and take overs and store closures for House of Fraser and Debenhams. The Opinium Retail Tracker team wanted to try and shed some light on why shoppers are turning away from these once great bastions of British retail.

Losing the occasionals

There is a good reason that John Lewis invests £millions every year in their Xmas campaigns as not only is it a key retail trading period it is crucial for department stores, with 45% of shoppers saying they visit department stores at seasonal periods during the year.

However, the number of shoppers who never visit a department is rising, from 13% 5 years ago to a whopping 20% in 2019, meaning one fifth of UK shoppers are now not even entering a department store be that in store or online.

More ways to one stop shop

Part of the attraction of the department store was getting everything under the same roof, now think back to the supermarkets of the past, and what they are today, there are elements which make the two unrecognisable. Has the change in department stores been as dramatic? When we asked shoppers why they don’t shop at department stores many quoted shopping at supermarkets as a key reason. Why go to a department store when you can pick up your new hoover or iPad while getting your weekly intake of fruit & veg?

Arguably the ultimate one stop shop is of course online, which is another key reason why shoppers said they don’t use department stores. It’s just quicker and easier in the digital age to order online than go instore...but why then aren’t the department stores fighting harder online?

Online brings widespread access to brands

Another stronghold of the traditional department store was the ability to bring all your favourite brands, and perhaps ones you’d never heard of, together for your perusal. The rise of the digital age meant that the luxury of visiting a ‘one stop shop’ for all your shopping needs was no longer a unique phenomenon.

Department stores had the opportunity to create an engaging online equivalent of their physical store experience but so did the brands themselves and the department stores haven’t impressed younger shoppers. Almost 2 in 5 (37%) 18-24-year olds said the online department store shopping experience isn’t very good and 64% of the same age group believe there to be a wider choice going directly to brands rather than visiting department stores.

Socialising and convenience offer the road to redemption

What can the department stores do to regain their place in shoppers portfolio of retailers? It’s not all doom and gloom with 61% of shoppers saying they like the variety of products on offer at department stores, and 54% like to go to one store that has everything they need. This means department stores can inherently give shoppers the convenience they crave.

However, 52% find department stores hard to navigate, 41% of 18-24-year olds don’t find the stores inspirational and 58% of these shoppers don’t see what a department store can offer that they can’t get from regular stores.

Here lies the opportunity for department stores. They have the physical size to offer a different / special shopping experience than normal stores but they need to careful on what they offer, 39% of shoppers like the social elements of bars and restaurants that many department now house. However, that number drops to 25% in relation to other services such as hairdressers and travel agent concessions. Selfridges is a good example here of how it is managing appeal to a much younger audience compared to other department stores.

50% also believe department stores offer good customer service, giving a sound base to build the heighten shopping experience.

The message is clear, extol your points of difference over other stores, deliver on the overall experience and raise your game in the online environment.

Steve Looney is research director of Opinium


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