Industry Articles





Department stores, a reincarnation for some

Photo by   Artem Beliaikin   from   Pexels

Gill Kingston

The department store has journeyed through many evolutions. Our first experience of these grand dames of the city was probably through Hollywood movies, as the protagonist moved through the rarified air of service and style. 

The second was more likely as a tourist experiencing their size and stature whilst searching for a token of store merchandise to signify you had in fact been to this retail nirvana. In cities such as New York the stores knew only too well that they were deemed a must-visit destination. They more savvy capitalized on their chic by creating ranges only purchasable in person, such as the Big Brown Bag from Bloomingdales, now available online, which has somewhat diluted the bag’s original cachet. 

The idea of a department store as a conduit of style curation, made tangible by an invisible celestial body called ‘a buyer,’ was an emporium of the unattainable.  This arbiter of taste was, for many, the nursery slope instructor into their first foray of an informal fashion education. These stores were a cornucopia of information, knowledge and intelligence until the arrival of the shopping mall. 

The shopping mall killed the idea of the department store. Department store brands were lulled into being the anchor business to sprawling out-of-town monoliths with zero architectural merit and a customer that would look but not buy into the exotic, forcing the store buyers to pay the rent by dumbing down their ranges to a point of blandness and ubiquity. I personally cannot count the number of identikit malls and department stores from San Diego to Abu Dhabi with identical in lighting, fixturing, muzak and goods on display, to a point where I actually forget which city I am in. 

Now Instagram and Pinterest have replaced the shopping mall as the go-to destination for all things fashion. One can follow brands, stylists, fashion editors and influencers to learn of the latest trends from the comfort of a couch or the commuter train. The ability to look and buy online has meant visits to out-of-town shopping malls has become even less appealing and those middle of the road department stores shutter at a rapid rate, especially in the US. 

So is there hope for the luxury department store? I think there is.

A renewed and emboldened desire to be unique, offering a distinctive range of goods that reflect the character of the city and being able to be a social space with high-end restaurants rather than homogenized cafeterias, has reinvented our relationship with these grand dames of their home cities. The aching Nordic air of Illum in Copehagen to the cloistered Hogwarts of Berdorf Goodman in New York. From the bulbous sculpture of Selfridges Birmingham to the galleried entrance to Oberpollinger in Munich, the city department store as destination is back. 

Visual merchandising is taken to levels of high art, the buying teams are again educating their customers on makers of such quality and talent that the experience is one of dizzying possibility for self-actualization. The attention to detail from window display to till point is one of high drama and accessible luxury. However there is a problem and that problem is digital. The online experience of these cathedrals of modernity is somewhat underwhelming, as I recently found when trying to source a gift for a family member based in London from my desk in Sydney. I looked at four luxury department stores and became so frustrated I turned to a design museum online shop instead.  A city’s leading luxury department store’s dot com is not only its global calling card but possibly their most effective and efficient prime retail estate, so it deserves the same investment and attention to detail lavished on it as if it was a Christmas window display.  

As digital is now at the epicentre of the creative process rather than a bolt-on to commercial channel demand, the potential for those involved in all aspects of the store experience is vast. The unsung department store heroes need to be as much part of the creative process as they are in own-brand digital teams, such as with Gucci or Nike. Concept to consumer teams, visual merchandisers and stores environment designers sit at the top table of digital-first brands as a means to capture every opportunity for brand immersion. Why can’t department stores do the same?

Luxury department store digital teams, whether agency or in-house, need to fling open their doors to the wealth of bona fide creative talent in their midst and make the online storytelling experience as much of a destination as the physical one. The digital opportunity to create disruption is there to be had.  Selfridges in London are making noises in this direction with a campaign and the much-watched Neighborhood Goods in Dallas are part of a new in-store curation approach that is yet to properly realize itself beyond the physical but there is so much more that can be achieved to recreate their unique lavish experience. From digital showrooming of brand collections - currently disrupting the B2B buying process - to social black doors giving exclusive private shopping with your very own personal stylist, wherever you are in the world, the opportunity is woefully under-realized from landing page to cart.  As well as the remote customer there is also the local one and department stores need to think about how they digitally engage within the cities they serve. The most advanced market for boundary-less retail experiences seems to be Shanghai and an IFAB delegation is heading there to report on the next wave of digital immersion in the retail environment. 

With all this digital opportunity it seems the grand dames of the world’s key cities are stuck in a physical rut as sales leach away to more savvy online operators. So come on department stores, you have some of the best retail talent in the world as well as distinctiveness of product. 

You have millions of potential customers only a finger-tap away. We are waiting.  But not for much longer.

Gill Kingston, Digital Strategist, Marketing and Communications Director.

Gill Kingston