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Department store futures: the experience

Here Creative Director, David Dalziel explores ‘experience’ as part of an in-depth look at the future of department stores. Where is the value add, can department stores be more than just a shop?

Where’s the value add?

It’s no news that ‘experience’ has become vital to a successful retail strategy, however it is surprising how few departments stores have utilised and defined their unique experience proposition. In a market where Amazon can have anything on a customer’s doorstep before they’ve even had time to step inside a department store, it’s necessary to offer truly engaging, emotive experiences that guarantee visits. The time is now for an injection of innovation.

A department store traditionally offered us a one-stop shop for global brands in a single local landscape, however as we’ve discussed here, monumental shifts in the retail market have forced this model out of date.

In order for today’s customers to step over the threshold of physical spaces, they now need added value through engaging experiences. If the customer can visit Lush, for example, and have an amplified brand experience, why bother going to an uninspiring counter in a department store? We need to lift the experience from the fast and easy to the rich and emotional – we need positive friction. With the right philosophy, the department store of the future can be an optimistic and uplifting place.

The shop at bluebird is a good example of a store with excellent experience
Although not quite a department store, The Shop at Bluebird has mastered the art of editing an eclectic mix of brands while retaining its own personality.

Experience 2.0

Customers have become accustomed to amazing experiences, and with so much data, knowledge, and history, plus their positioning in key locations, department stores have all the tools to deliver such experiences. Department stores need to start thinking more boldly. If retail and culture are now one and the same, why shouldn’t department stores start acting like a music, theatre or leisure venue and become the new cultural hubs? Yes, department stores are brand partners for life, but they now have the opportunity to behave outside their traditional remits. Now is the time to act like an editor or a producer and break out of sector to not simply rival, but better this new generation of experience.

Community over commerce

Brands focusing on community over commerce will attract customers that are deeply committed and loyal, it’s a long game but feels like the only game to play. We see it today in individual brands exploiting their unique qualities; there are very few truly unique individual department stores. Where is the point of view, the reason to return? Department stores struggle to match the same immersion that brand flagships can offer, so they need to invest heavily in what their community is, get to know the tribes that shop in their stores, and then figure out how to build them a clubhouse.

Selfridges has done this really effectively with its investment in wellness and its noteworthy Music Matters campaign – both served two different consumer tribes equally well. A whole floor is dedicated to the wellness set, with a Hemsley & Hemsley café and a body studio that’s full of on-trend clothes and equipment. The Music Matters campaign saw Selfridges transform a portion of the basement into a live music venue. Not only was this in-step with shifts in culture (the closure of venues in London) it was a cross-department experience that connected the dots between fashion and music in a succinct, engaging way.

The challenge department stores face is what ties all their campaigns together. Once they have defined that, it’s not too far of a stretch to expect customers to snub Pret or a fancy cocktail bar and choose a department store as the main port of call for a morning coffee or an evening drink – it should be the place to host an inspiring range of activates and events.

Le Bon Marché installation
Ai Weiwei’s spectacular Le Bon Marché installations

What does it mean for me?

Traditional department store models can be seen by some as outdated temples to consumerism, a format that lacks resonance and relevance for today’s more mindful modern consumer. We need to open the doors of the new model, to make department stores relevant and exciting – the Ai Weiwei sculptures at Le Bon Marché do just this. A timely riposte to the reduction in Paris’s civic funding, they gave consumers that all-important reason to walk through the door and experience something truly spectacular.

All of this may feel like it’s geared towards Millennial and Gen Z consumer habits, however don’t fear that this will alienate the legacy customer – they’re surprisingly open to the new. Today’s over 60s are more urbane than ever in the past, and they will thank you for the buzz.

Whatever your brand, whatever your sector, if a bold and brave transformation is not on the agenda, you’re simply managing a slow death.

Read more of David’s thoughts on department stores:

  1. Introduction to department store futures 
  2. The customer – The customer no longer shops in the way department stores sell. What needs to change?
  3. The offer – We’ve seen it (and shopped it) all before, so how do we keep it fresh?

If you’d like to talk further about anything discussed in this article, please don’t hesitate to email c.bacconi@dalziel-pow.com.


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