With the holiday season in full swing, department stores are decking their halls with enticing display windows, exclusive gift sets, and branded advent calendars galore. Debenhams—the British department store chain which launched in 1778 in London’s West End and at one point accumulated 200 stores across 18 countries selling $780 million worth of products a year—is an institution in that landscape. In recent years, the company has navigated challenging terrain, with a liquidation announcement when its main concession operator Arcadia entered administration in December 2020.
In February 2021, with new backing, Debenhams shifted course, revamping both its online and in-store offerings. Two hundred new brands were added to its e-commerce platform. A brick-and-mortar presence was launched in Manchester in the form of a two-level 7,550-square-foot space with brands including Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Lancôme, as well as digital elements such as interactive screens and real-time posting via social media platforms.
The UK retailer is now ringing its expansive assortment across color cosmetics, skincare, fragrance, and personal care to customers in a personalized shopping experience with the Debenhams Beauty Showroom; a self-described “utopia for beauty lovers” and phygital retail experience. Located in Soho, customers can book bespoke consultations and personal shopping experiences, as well as a host of professional treatments ranging from facials to makeovers. “Our customers love a personalized, tailored experience—not only can they book services such as manicures and pedicures, but our beauty consultant offers a build-your-own makeup-kit or glow-up services. We'll also offer the foundation or fragrance finder so we will have something for everyone. The one-on-one service allows a real relationship to be built with our customer,” Dan Finley, CEO, tells BeautyMatter.
Away from the busy rush of holiday shopping, customers can have a closer and more curated encounter with brands including MAC, Estée Lauder, Urban Decay, Benefit, Yves Saint Laurent, The Organic Pharmacy, and NuFace. Virtual try-on and skincare diagnostic tools further help navigate the assortment. The space is also used to run monthly customer events and masterclasses, with brands such as Decree, REESON, and Trigwell. It’s this one-to-one, client-first approach, supported by technological innovation and paired with a broad product range, that is building Debenhams' beauty strategy.
“The Debenhams beauty studio in Soho offers a curated selection of Debenhams beauty, and a true personal shopping style service ensuring the customer receives the very best experience. We like to think of ourselves as the beauty best friend: putting our customer at the heart of everything we do—serving our rich mix of customers with the right brands and products, ensuring we are a destination for every customer and spreading joy at every touchpoint,” Finley says. “We continue to stock an eclectic mix of brands from true luxury to viral/ trending brands, as we know this is how the customer shops—they can be brand promiscuous but are product and trend-focused.”
Finley sees a customer-focused experience that translates into both online and offline as paramount to differentiating the company in the competitive beauty landscape, allowing its customers to shop an “endless aisle.” Debenhams beauty spaces are also being utilized for interactive branded environments. In August 2023, the retailer paired up with MAC Cosmetics for a cake shop that showcased products in edible form to celebrate the brand’s introduction into Debenhams beauty world. Visitors also received goodie bags and exclusive discounts at the event. The activation also served as the showcase for MAC’s newest release at the time—the Squirt Plumping Gloss Stick—which soon went viral on TikTok. While Debenhams was not able to disclose what growth numbers this investment in activations has brought them, Finley states that Debenhams is “making great progress in meeting our expectations.”
As beauty shoppers gear up for the Christmas season, it will be interesting to see where most spend their cosmetic dollars: department stores, beauty retailers, drugstore chains, or online-only retailers. However, in-store services and experiential retail have an evergreen quality that will draw in customers year-round. Ultimately amidst such competitive stakes, it is those truly listening to and catering to their customers who are likely to reap the biggest benefits. Debenhams’ bet on providing bespoke services and an ever-growing roster of brands—from indie breakouts to legacy brands while being consciously aware of the interconnected presence of online-offline interactions—speaks to the current consumer landscape while boding an exciting new future for the retailer. As Finley concludes, “The showroom is our most exciting opportunity and ever-evolving—we like to think bigger, better, bolder, and to show up in unexpected ways.”
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