Heritage name looks to ‘new department store’

St. Collins Lane 2UK giant department store giant Debenhams has launched its first Aussie store at Melbourne’s St Collins Lane retail precinct.

The store’s small-format layout – across two storeys and 3600sqm – was a new concept specifically developed for the Australian market and draws on over two centuries of retailing experience, offering in-store services such as a style suite, beauty rooms, mobile POS and a cafe. It joins a portfolio of 243 Debenhams stores across 28 countries worldwide.

Graham Dean, managing director for Debenhams Australia, told IRW that St Collins proved an attractive first cab off the rank for the UK heritage brand, after the “stars aligned” from a commercial and locational perspective. It was a case of right size and price – much like the offering Debenhams expects to offer fashionable Melbourne shoppers.

Debenhams will occupy the entire lower ground floor between Collins Street and Little Collins, plus the double entry on the ground floor.

After failing to find a suitable location in Melbourne’s other prominent retail location, Chadstone Shopping Centre, Debenhams found the right spot in the CBD precinct that now counts a host of other high-profile, international retailers making their Australian debuts.

“Retail is definitely not easy and I don’t anticipate it to be easy in the future either, so what was important was that we took on a location that already had strong traffic,” said Dean.

Debenhams sits well-positioned on the city loop between Flinders Street Station and Melbourne Central, with approximately 17,500 people passing through the St Collins Lane precinct and 840,000 descending upon the CBD each day.

“The Melbourne CBD is tremendous in terms of the mix of brands available and Melbourne shoppers love fashion. The centre itself has a number of new entrants to market like Reiss and The Kooples. The precinct already has a reputation of bringing new brands to market,” Dean pointed out.

Dean is confident that any unfamiliarity with Debenhams brand will be quickly mitigated by its value proposition as “Australians love the opportunity to shop multiple brands”, evidenced by the opening of H&M on Bourke Street where customers were “queuing up for weeks”.

“We are bringing new brands to market so it gives the consumer more choice. The vast majority of brands available are exclusive only to Debenhams or to the British high street and not being available in the Australian market is a huge point of difference for us.

“Differentiation is the name of the game in retail right now.”

Debenhams_opening_ST_COLLINS_LANEDean said the UK brand has curated a bespoke merchandising mix to the Melbourne demographic, both in mix and format.

“Three thousand six hundred square metres is way smaller than any Debenhams would open historically around the world. The fixtures and finishes we’re using have all been elevated…and we are able to curate from a vast array of products and basically cherry pick to bring the best to market,” he explained.

“We’re not a traditional department store in the way that you would view a David Jones, Myer, or indeed a Debenhams back in the UK. This is a new format, new proposition to market. A curated offer with majority exclusive products.”

The smaller format is an aspect that the head office in the UK will be monitoring closely, with key executives set to see first-hand how the store is performing while in town attending the upcoming Melbourne Cup.

“They [UK HQ] definitely see this as the way of the future for department stores and super keen to see how it trades.”

Slow and steady

Debenhams is currently working on “a number of opportunities” on both the east and west coasts of Australia, however, the first step is to get the first location up and trading. Key learnings from how consumers respond to the format will inform how Debenhams approaches its next Aussie locations.

“It could be another year before we get another store off the ground. It’s a longer-term play, it’s certainly not a race to get as many stores as possible. We just want to get this right before we make those commitments,” said Dean.

“The beauty of having a smaller store is that you’re not covering multiple floors. We think another important point of difference is our level of engagement with customers.”

According to Dean, Australia is the second largest market outside the UK for online.

“It’s a very strong online community,” he said. “We are able to map exactly how these customers are and that gives us a pretty strong read…on the types of products as well that have been sold into the market.

Debenhams-St-Collins-Lane-Australian-first-store“That data’s pretty rich and it has helped us form a view on what kind of products to range. That’s important because you can’t just take a UK brand and assume that the UK look and feel is going to work in the Australian market.”

The primary focus will be on fashion and beauty, as oppose to “trying to be everything to everybody”. The retailer will appeal to a “customer that knows their fashion” and expects good quality, styling and fit, all at “exceptional prices”.

“That’s why we are going to pick locations that already have that traffic in place, rather than trying to be a destination in a regional shopping centre – that’s not going to happen,” Dean explained.

“There’s too much competition to assume that people are going to come and find you. We are going where the customers are and offer [them] a point of difference.”

Staff will be enabled with mobile POS, using technology to elevate speedy interactions particularly in the busy CBD.

In the New Year, Dean said in-app purchasing will be introduced, allowing customers to be able to transact themselves in-store.

“All they’ll need to do is scan a barcode so they’ve paid, then we will wrap it, bag it and away they go. It’s all got to be about the customer and how convenient everything is.”

“We will learn as we go what our customers want, how fast they want things done and we will adapt and evolve. That’s the beauty of having one shop for the time being – we can change it pretty quick to get it right.”

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