Debenhams, the department store chain, has announed plans to expand its network of stores. It says this as the world is gripped by one of the worst recessions of recent times and the retail sector is taking the hardest pounding.
But, take off the shroud of bleakness think about things a little differently, and the boldness of the move by Debenhams and its management team could be one of those moves that not only saves a company, but projects it into the future. So far, and it's early days, the recession has seen a number of individual high street stores close their doors for the final time. Gone are Officers Club, Adams and Zavvi. The first two are clothing retailers, the very market that Debenhams is a strong contender in.
Speaking as a consumer in need of my own clothing and clothes for my family, I saw before this recession the weakness of Adams and Officers Club, their offering to me the consumer was too narrow. Over the years I have bought items from both stores, but each time it was a chance moment that they had what I wanted. All too often my experience of both stores was that their stock was not suitable to my requirements and they had little in the way of alternatives on offer. This resulted in me leaving the store without having made a purchase. Just once Adams had a good value coat for my daughter and just once Officers Club had a jumper suitable to keep an Editor warm in the CIO tower.
Debenhams on the other hand is a department store and I have a sneaking feeling that the department store is about to bounce back. In recent years retailing and fashion critics have written the department store off as a dinosaur, a relic of the cold war shopping days. But we are in an economic cold now and people are still shopping, they are just considering their purchases a little more seriously and, whisper this, they are spending real money, their own money rather than credit. So the department store is well placed. Unlike the high street stores, the department store is all about variety. If Principals doesn't have trousers you like, there are other retailers to choose from within the store. Add to that the usually better customer service experience, a nicer building and a coffee shop that you find in most department stores and all the signs are positive.
The history of the department store is also one of prospering in the boom that follows a downturn. Their haydays were post WW2 and between the wars years.
The management team and in particular the IT team, have set themselves a challenge. They will need to grow an old form of retailing in a downturn, but with clever use of technology both to streamline the business with efficiencies and stock management, and in our digital world reaching and interacting with customers they can do it.
E-commerce is without doubt the future, but people love to shop and the department store is often a more pleasant experience. Combine IT and a quality in-store experience and you have a sound business.