John Lewis Christmas 2016

Christmas in review: Department stores missing the point

Christmas time more than any other should be the time when we really get why great British department stores have survived as a shopping destination. This is when the shopping paradise of the department store,  all missions, all occasions under one roof, comes into its own. But does it? The format should resonate with time poor, convenience shopping missions but adds the theatre of Christmas and self indulgence. Yet this is not always the case and suggests flaws in the proposition for some Department store retailers.

Hats off to John Lewis who unsurprisingly come closest to the holy grail of maintaining a high standard of basic disciplines; good availability, clear signage, well thought through adjacencies, friendly customer service and fresh brands and ranges alongside established favourites.

John Lewis kitchen at christmas

Tasteful and cheerful Christmas décor and windows and the best and most shoppable Christmas department we’ve seen in some time project John Lewis to the top of the list. That said, stepping out of the Christmas thoroughfare to more utilitarian areas leaves you with a distinct lack of Christmas cheer, it is with too subtle high level decorations and gifting opportunities missed.


House of Fraser pulled off a similar roll call of wins; the in-store teams managed the balance between friendly service and unobtrusiveness well, ranges were well laid out and availability was excellent. Where it missed the mark is for a mid-market shopper trading-up at Christmas, House of Fraser makes a confusing and patchy proposition, really strong in the good bits and badly let down by obviously unloved areas.

Each floor in House of Fraser feels like it is working independently of the others, putting together stables of brands for completely different customers and creating some very odd adjacencies in the process. There was not one customer who could successfully complete their Christmas shop there.

Gifting and Christmas ranges were tired and shoehorned in to walkways and atriums and category led departments such as eveningwear and coats were unloved and out of place amongst brand coups like The Kooples and Hallhuber. In the Oxford Street store, the tired customer has only a kitch afternoon tea for refreshment which after happily shopping strong menswear and womenswear offers, seems like a serious omission.

debenhams quirky christmas

Debenhams cycle of discounting continues apace with store wide offers on each of the occasions we visited. But behind all the 20% off signage we saw some real green shoots of a strong customer proposition coming together. The exuberant Christmas windows and in-store decorations were just the right side of quirky, giving the impression of a Debenhams committed to offering their customer upbeat and aspirational products at a price within range of the high street.

Christmas gifting at Debenhams was confident and abundant in contrast to generic product categories, where space was overfilled and rails overpacked with items only ever destined for the Sale. If Debenhams can wean it’s customers off the constant cycle of discount events, invest in shop floor staff engagement, reduce overstocking of the shop floor and maximise the opportunities left by the loss of BHS such as lighting and kids wedding-wear, this new fun, more confident approach looks promising.

selfridges Jarring Adjancency

The high end Department stores were much clearer in communicating with their target audience and more focused on delivering a tailored offer. Only Selfridges showed a wobble in this confidence – a desire to be everything to everyone meant some jarring adjacencies such as Lloyds pharmacy to Cowshed toiletries, or Mont Blanc to WH Smiths. Positioning in ladieswear and menswear was better, with clearly zoned propositions. The Selfridges customer is evolving though, top end brands serving as eye candy or for personal shopper experiences leaving the volume of trade in more contemporary, younger, more accessible ranges. This customer wants to feel every inch of the trade up but is still a high street customer too, investing in some key status pieces and enjoying the high end shopping experience.

Harrods was much more focused on true luxury with the exception of the tourist attracting Christmas and gifting areas. The super-brands and high end luxury floors all had customers shopping and browsing, a lot of the trade clearly coming from visitors making the most of the sterling exchange rate. The layout and store environment is appealing to the shopper used to the Middle East and Far East high end mall experience and the collection and curation of brands is confident and unparalleled making it the clear destination of choice for those with the budget to shop. This is a store that knows exactly what it is offering and to whom.

John Lewis Busters Garden

In summary, if the department store Christmas department is a barometer of confidence in Christmas trade this year we would only be backing John Lewis and Harrods. For Debenhams especially with its dominance in gifting this is a huge missed opportunity.

We would be advising department stores to be thinking quickly and honestly about the reason for being and what they can offer their customers to lift them away from the high street trudge and make themselves indispensable. Clarity of target customer will prove to serve John Lewis and Harrods well, the others lack that clarity and confidence and result in a patchy proposition that defies the department store proposition.

Whatever the budget, as a shopping destination these stores should feel special. By maintaining high expectations for your defined customer across all disciplines there is a huge opportunity to fulfil multiple shopping missions under one roof.

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