How Debenhams is using voice of online customer in store

It is nearly nine months since department store chain Debenhams opened its fresh-looking Watford shop, complete with a whole new beauty department and a unique beauty retailing concept that marked a move away from its traditional store format.

Ways the retailer is combining its online and physical retail assets were detailed at the Future Stores event at London’s Twickenham Stadium, in May, highlighting how the troubled business is looking to engage with customers in new ways.

Debenhams’ director of creative, Mark Stevens, told delegates how the retailer’s Beauty Club Community concept – an online membership programme, where experts, novices and every-day customers can engage with each other – is being utilised to successful effect in the Watford store.

He explained how the content produced by customers is feeding into how the retailer merchandises its store and influencing what items to promote within its bricks and mortar. The products and ranges given prominence are all recommended by Debenhams’ online customers, not chosen by staff.

“We can start to see what people are talking about and we can bring them into our spaces,” Stevens explained.

“If someone recommended a product we can put the specific review [in the store]. It’s not just five stars, it’s personal to the person who has written the review and they go on to our creative fixtures around the stores and throughout the hall.”

Stevens said the Beauty Club Community and the decision to reflect its content in the stores is a result of customers “seeking authentic recommendations, driven by reviews over advertising”. He added that people are now more likely to want to learn from each other, rather than from a member of staff or advertising.

The online destination hosts video tutorials, chatrooms and facilitates un-moderated conversations between customers. Debenhams is using the subsequent content in store where its creative and store teams believe there is a commercial benefit.

“[For example], you can see the little mascaras together with the reviews with customers,” Stevens noted.

Watford was a completely new store when it opened at the end of last summer, but its locations in Reading, Cambridge, Leicester and Sheffield Meadowhall have been revamped to showcase product in new ways. The retailer will look to replicate what has been successful in Watford in other sites.

But, of course, it is going to take more than one revolutionary store and a refresh of other shops to help dept-laden Debenhams map out a sustainable path forward. Interim chairman, Terry Duddy, described the recent process to get creditors to back a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) and start a business turnaround as “gruelling”.

That CVA was given the green light in May, and Duddy said that over the next two years around 50 stores will close. Of the remaining 100 sites, 30 will need considerable downsizing – with the appropriate sq footage of shops viewed at around half the size of its current flagships.

Earlier this year, the company was involved in a major boardroom breakdown, resulting in the departure of chairman Ian Cheshire and CEO Sergio Bucher. Biggest shareholder at the time, Mike Ashley, was pushing to take over the running of the business before it collapsed into administration and was then taken into the private ownership of its lenders.

Commenting on the retailer’s future, Duddy told the Mail on Sunday: “Speak to people. Go out and ask them – do they want Debenhams on the high street?

“They are telling us: absolutely, yes. But we’ve got to re-engage with them. We’ve got to give them confidence that we’ll be around.”