Australian Shoppers - Are you being served?

Here's another of my early posts from 2011. In contrast to the developments highlighted in my previous post, reading this again today, I'm not sure very much as changed...

September 2011

Australian Shoppers - Are you Being Served?

I don't want to be misleading, so I'd better say up front that the title is a reference to department stores rather than a post on customer service.

Actually it's a little more specific, in that the title conjures up memories of those traditional and somewhat fusty 'Grace Brothers' style department stores to which, in the UK, we have (in the main) long since waved goodbye.

In my opinion the credit for revolutionising department store retailing in the UK market goes to Debenhams - at the time under the flamboyant leadership of Sir Ralph Halpern and probably one of the most talented retail visionaries, John Hoerner.

In the late eighties, Debenhams turned department store retailing on its head when it spectacularly refurbished its flagship store on London's Oxford Street.

The sacrifice of hundreds of square feet of prime retail space, turned over to a dramatic architectural atrium, housing escalators to all floors was a brave and original move, but the effect was breathtaking. The substantial glass skylight at the top flooded the glossy, white space with natural daylight and if that wasn't enough, the whole space twinkled with thousands of tiny fibre optic lights.

Impactful merchandise statements demanded attention and beautifully presented and perfectly positioned displays led customers around the store with ease so that not a corner was left unexplored.

Of course much of the inspiration came from US retailers who were way ahead of us - not only in design and space planning, but in that very particular combination of art and science that is visual merchandising. With an American chairman at the helm, Debenhams honed and perfected this discipline and latterly, under the leadership of Terry Green who brought further innovation and theatre to the concept, Debenhams were a leading light in retail for some time.

Where shopping in department stores had become a functional, reluctant but often necessary exercise - it suddenly became a joy - people wanted to be there - and more importantly, stay a while...

The whole thing was very unsettling for competitor department stores, but they rose to the challenge and instead of trying to replicate the successful Debenhams formula, to their very great credit, instead carved out alternative market positions and brand images for themselves.

Sadly, though obviously successful, Debenhams seems to have lost its sparkle lately, with many stores modern border on the bland. Having led the initial charge, it now appears content to play it safe.

However, its legacy, I believe is that the modern department store landscape in the UK is an interesting one, with each player clearly defined and with a particular position and/or usp.

Debenhams with its unique mix of credible house brands and 'Designers at Debenhams', House of Fraser, more sophisticated in look and feel and home to a variety of high end brands. John Lewis will always be John Lewis - somehow they don't need to change very much and everyone is comfortable with their no frills, classical image and dependable product offer.

The incredible transformation of Selfridges into a perennially hip haven with its discerning mix of brands and designers brought another welcome dimension to UK retailing, adding cutting edge design and glamour to Oxford Street and to provincial cities as its portfolio expands, often accompanied by, Harvey Nichols, which, although probably now occupies a similar space, does so with a distinctly different style.

There are probably still a few good independent department stores out there too, alongside Fenwick, which still offers an enjoyable shopping experience (though they could do with upping their game a little to stay in the frame), and when you add M&S into the mix, who's offer has become more department store-like of late, I think Brits have it pretty good on the department store front. Even provincially, that's quite a lot of choice - then in London you can add Harrods, Liberty and Fortnum & Mason into the equation, not to mention Dover Street Market, which loosely falls into the department store category - unique, elaborate and exquisitely unconventional as it may be.

So how does this compare to Australia? Well, apologies for the inevitable comparison, but what else would you expect from a Brit living in Sydney?

I do admit that I have yet to venture further afield, (possibly Melbourne has much more to offer), though as far as I can discern, there are...................... two!

Now I do appreciate that this is a smaller market, and outside of Sydney, where I'd expect to find one or two stunning independents, two would probably be enough - IF, that is, those two were distinctive and discrete in their consumer profile, proposition and image.

But - the two players in question, David Jones and Myer, from the stores that I've shopped, appear to do pretty much the same job and in the absence of signage, I don't think I'd be able to tell them apart. I don't mean to be disrespectful - this is simply my objective impression as a shopper - and someone viewing this market with a completely fresh eye...

They still have the traditional furniture, beds and electrical departments that no-one seems to shop any more because specialist retailers and doing it better. Brands and designers appear to merge into one less than appealing mass on the fashion floors and the thought of negotiating it feels, frankly, too tiresome to contemplate - even for a shopaholic!

Think back to House of Fraser around 25 years ago and you get the picture...

It does feel like there is a massive opportunity here for someone to take the initiative, create something dazzling and shake the whole industry up a little.

Australians have to pay much more than their US and UK counterparts for just about everything they buy - I think they deserve to get more in return... MUCH more!

...and back to 2016.

One obvious correction here, now that I have ventured south is the omission of Harris Scarfe, whose existence I was unaware of in 2011.

Although I've seen their stores in passing and read with much interest about collaboration plans with  Debenhams, I have yet to venture inside one of their retail outlets. I'll be sure to explore next time I encounter one on my travels and report.

Getting to know things a little more intimately, I now appreciate that Myer has a few exclusive collaborations in the manner of  'Designers at Debenhams', and my friends tell me that David Jones is generally a little more up-market. Notwithstanding these two nuggets of information, the difference is so subtle that it is of no consequence. The two stores are interchangeable and neither one have the ability to steal the hearts of their customers and create that illusive loyalty-beyond-reason that will be critical to their future success.

So to summarise, in terms of department stores specifically, I've seen little change, but remain hopeful that someone is beavering away in the background to produce something truly amazing and shake things up a little.