Extending the life of the department store

By David Buckingham, CEO at Ecrebo

For the last few years we’ve been asking whether the high street is dead. The answers vary, with many people holding the opinion that it’s not quite the end yet, it just needs to adapt; to new market conditions, increasingly demanding shoppers, and the continued threat from e-commerce retailers. But does this extend to the department store? As a cornerstone of our town centres, the department store has been a much-loved fixture in retail for many years. However, despite recent high-profile closures, many are taking steps to breathe new life into the in-store experience.

Much like the high street as a whole, the department store needs to evolve in order meet the changing needs of the market. In the U.S., one major chain is reinventing itself by bringing an innovative storytelling approach to its merchandising strategy, while in Germany, a merger between the country’s two largest department store brands is strengthening the group’s position in the market. Looking specifically at UK department stores, how are they evolving to remain relevant?

The in-store experience will continue to play a critical role. Whether that means improving customer service or streamlining the payment process, the aim is to keep shoppers in-store, make the entire shopping process as engaging and frictionless as possible, and then convert those visits into sales.
Technology can play a major role here; smartphone apps and near-field communication (NFC) technology can help shoppers find what they’re looking for or send them targeted offers while they’re walking around the store. Endless aisle technology can be used to align the in-store with the online experience, bringing greater levels of choice to shoppers in a physical shop. Shoppers can use interactive kiosks to browse a product range, seeing stock availability with the option to order out of stock items for delivery to the store or home.

Further, many retailers are empowering sales staff with tablets, making them more mobile and more easily available to shoppers. Technology can also be used to eliminate frustrating queues at the point of sale. The point of sale itself can evolve to be more valuable, enabling staff to take payments wherever they are in-store, as well as adding functionality that can improve the overall customer experience, such as using transaction data to create relevant and personalised offers or messages at the till to drive loyalty and encourage shoppers back into the store.

Experiential retail or “shoppertainment” is fast becoming popular in the department store environment. This strategy focuses on selling customers an experience; providing a reason to come into store, above and beyond just the products on sale. It uses entertainment and engagement to elevate the shopping process and make it more than just a transactional buying experience.

The tactics and strategies deployed will vary; by retail, by location, by sector and perhaps by store size. Regardless, success will invariably involve a combination of increased adoption of new technologies, more collaboration across brands (possibly even competing ones) and new marketing approaches. Those that make the forward looking, bold choices in these areas are likely to improve their chances of riding out the storm.

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