Distinction or Extinction: Four Ways Department Stores Must Evolve to Survive

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The well-worn, global story of the struggling department store shines a stark light on the crisis facing high streets and malls everywhere. There are some retailers, however, that are tackling this challenge head on by revitalising the multi-brand store as a multi-experience platform.

At Start, we believe there are lessons to be learnt from how these game-changers are leading the resurgence of the department store sector.

It’s been a challenging couple of years for traditional multi-brand retail. In the UK, we’ve seen big household names such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and Fenwick, who in their heyday were stalwarts of our high streets, yet now flounder in the face of declining footfall. This is due to a combination of shaky consumer confidence, constant pressure on pricing, and the relentless rise of online equivalents with deeper ranges and broader choice. Even the seemingly unsinkable John Lewis has reported a drop in profits, laying the blame at Brexit’s door.

It’s a similar story in the US, with Barneys, Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney suffering in an over-stored market.  A plethora of innovative, direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands worldwide are also applying further pressure, bypassing department stores altogether in favour of their own social, digital and physical channels.

The upshot of all this is clear. The department store, as we know it, is almost certainly taking its’ last breath, unable to respond fast enough to the radically different ways consumers shop. Let’s face it, these days a neglected department store hardly cuts it as a millennial’s shopping destination of choice.

Disruptive multi-brand experiences

So, if consumers don’t want them and brands don’t need them like they used to, can the ‘department store’ still play a valuable role in the future of retail? There are some shining examples of resurgence from the likes of London’s Selfridges or Galeries Lafayette in Paris, now famed for their experience-based strategies. Selfridges recently turned its store into an of art gallery for its ‘State of the Arts’ campaign. Its windows featured work by renowned artists, and visitors could follow an art trail around the store. Nordstrom and Macy’s in the US, as well as newcomer Neighborhood Goods, are experimenting with smaller formats and new platforms to entice customers and brands back into their stores.

However, it’s a new breed of smaller, more agile, multi-brand retailers that are really shaking things up. The most successful are based on a mixed retail model. This involves a blend of both physical and digital channels, each informing and supporting the other, whilst delivering highly curated products and experiences sharply focused on meeting their customers’ needs and expectations. Think of Wolf & Badger, Sevenstore, Dover Street Market and Browns. Destination concepts all offering something unique to their location, their customers and their communities.

Content, Collaboration and Creativity

We believe there are four overriding factors uniting the success of many of these multi-brand trailblazers, giving retailers everywhere an inside track on how to evolve and activate their stores for today’s shoppers.

  1. They’re all ‘experiential merchants’

In the words of retail prophet Doug Stephens, those doing it well understand the value of being a true ‘experiential merchant’ (and are committed to redefining physical retail beyond a place solely for transactions. 10 Corso Como – one of the first multi-brand concept stores – is the ultimate ‘slow’ shopping experience. Its stores are the antithesis to internet shopping, designed to encourage people to spend time, linger and discover. They host regular events and exhibitions, from book launches to photography shows and collaborations with designers, architects and brands. It’s a concept that’s been highly influential – paving the way for legacy retailers such as Selfridges to similarly reinvent the traditional department store experience.

  1. They’re Kings of Content

Each of these multi-brand trailblazers is a skilled content editor, presenting a curated and revolving collection of products, services and experiences based on a deep understanding of their customers, their community, their brands and locale. Sevenstore, probably the newest kid on the block, is a great example of a concept with content and community at its heart. We helped design its latest store in Liverpool aiming for the store to constantly reinvent itself, with an entirely new edition of its store coming to life every seven weeks. A curated program of content, inspired by Liverpool’s own creative culture, intertwines music and art with changing fashion collections. The result is a store that delivers fresh experiences to drive footfall and increase sales across all its channels.

  1. They keep good company

These brands understand that they’re only as good as the company they keep, and
are experts at uniting brands that feed off one another. These concepts nurture their brand relationships, giving them the control over the selling environment they crave, often providing hyper-local insights into the bargain.

Concept store, KM20 is Moscow’s answer to Dover Street Market. KM20 is credited with bringing international brands, such as Yeezy and Raf Simons, to rub shoulders with emerging Russian designers for the first time. Its newest mega store is designed to bring out the best in the brands it showcases. It launched with a rolling programme of capsule collections from a host of brands, such as Gosha Rubinsky’s football-inspired installation and Off-White’s distinctive recreation of an ancient temple.

  1. They value visual design

The examples mentioned so far, are all masters of elevating the different elements of visual design to create a unique experience. Whether it’s KM20’s upended, raw luxury aesthetic, 10 Corso Como’s eclectic, sensorial palace or Sevenstore’s industrial minimalism, each has crafted its own visual language that strengthens their overall appeal for both brands and shoppers. For example, the team behind KM20 understand the role a strong design aesthetic can play. The concept gets it just right; subversive enough to give the space the identity it needs to pull in its target shoppers and a perfect canvas to showcase the provenance of the brands it plays host to.

Rewarding Experiences

Far from dying out, multi-brand retail is a sector to watch, as both legacy businesses and bold, new concepts respond in different ways to changing market dynamics.

Recent data from the CBI shows that online retail sales – especially for fashion – are displaying signs of plateauing compared to a year ago. Combined with various research that tells us the majority of purchases still touch a store somewhere along a customer’s journey, it’s clear that the opportunity for physical stores continues to ripen. Going shopping is still something people enjoy. But physical stores need to give us a reason to visit, beyond making a purchase and those with a rich, multi-experience strategy are well on the way to doing just that.

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