Can Sergio Bucher transform Debenhams Customer Experience?

The retail sector in the UK is highly competitive. The Debenhams’ customer experience that will deliver Mr. Bucher’s strategic vision could be a real differentiator

As I went for my Saturday morning run this week, I ran along the river in Guildford and passed the imposing building that has housed Debenhams for many years. We’ve seen the announcements about Debenhams this week in the news. Interim results were ‘unexceptional’ but in line with expectations, with UK like-for-like sales increasing by 0.5% and gross transactions up 2.9% to £1.7bn. Profit before tax fell by 6.4% to £87.8m.

On Thursday last week, Debenhams' new (since October) chief executive Sergio Bucher unveiled his strategic vision for the future growth of the department store group. It focuses on making Debenhams stores a more enjoyable destination for 'social shopping'. He also stressed the need for efficiency by 'simplifying and focusing' the business. Part of making the stores a more enjoyable destination includes creating more places to eat and adding ‘other experiences’. What that looks like for customers, isn’t yet clear. Redeploying 2,000 staff into customer-facing roles is a good first step in demonstrating their commitment as an organisation that is built around the customer; It begs the question what were these people doing previously.

Mr. Bucher said: "Our customers are changing the way they shop and we are changing too. Shopping with Debenhams should be effortless, reliable and fun, whichever channel our customers use. We will be a destination for 'social shopping' with mobile the unifying platform for interacting with our customers."

Mr. Bucher’s comments suggest there is an emphasis on delivering a better digital experience given the shift in customer buying behaviour. This makes sense and if anyone can achieve such a change, Mr. Bucher is well placed to with his previous online and offline retail experiences at Amazon and at Nike. Debenhams has a large physical estate of stores, many of which have long (20 years) leases remaining. So, the answer for Debenhams won’t just lie online; it will mean joining the virtual and physical into one unified customer experience.

A recent survey by Dimensions Data showed that 70% of businesses have few (or no) connected channels. I wonder how easy it is for Debenhams customers to move from one engagement channel to the next without having to start from scratch and being recognized as an individual.

According to Trust Pilot, Debenhams currently has a score of 1.9 out of 5 from 1106 reviews, so it is a far from perfect experience for customers. 72.5% of reviews are 1 star. The online and store customer experience certainly doesn’t appear to be ‘effortless, reliable and fun’ quite yet. The online experience is described as “shoddy” by one lady customer, the call centre is branded “ineffective” and other customers say they will not be shopping with Debenhams again. These are just a handful of reviews from March this year. Despite this, when you look hard there are some great reviews, so the experience may be negative overall but it’s also variable and inconsistent.

When you look at what it’s like to be a Debenhams employee and how they rate their experience, according to Glassdoor, it is given a score of 2.8 out of 5. Again, this appears to be an ‘average’ score as there are positive employee experiences, alongside many negative ones. Although Mr. Bucher’s reported hand delivery of 1700 Lindt bunnies to his London Head Office staff at Easter was a simple but personal touch. Who doesn’t love a Lindt bunny as a surprise.

The plans for change sound promising but Debenhams as a well recognised brand is not necessarily associated with innovation or known for its inspiring customer experience. Mr. Bucher’s ambition raises some immediate questions:

  1. How well is Debenhams delivering its customer experience right now, irrespective of the channel?

  2. How well is it positioned to design and execute a valuable customer journey of this order? 

  3. How aligned, integrated, seamless and consistent will the experience be for the customer?

  4. Will the digital experience be as good as the bricks and mortar one in the absence of a real human touch?

  5. Is Debenhams’ culture aligned around the customer?

  6. Is the customer promise clear, is the leadership team committed and is there an owner of the (total) customer experience in place?

  7. Will they be able to avoid the common pitfalls and barriers that we see, when this level of centric transformation is required?

The retail sector in the UK is highly competitive. The Debenhams’ customer experience that will deliver Mr. Bucher’s strategic vision could be a real differentiator, but it needs to beware of disconnected channels and have a clear customer experience strategy in place. Debenhams needs to ensure the organisation has the capability, systems and people to deliver. My fingers are crossed for them.