LONDON — Debenhams isn’t letting corporate turmoil get in the way of its beauty floor strategy. The retailer, which is undergoing a major restructuring and plans to shutter 22 stores next year, putting 1,200 jobs at risk, is focusing on its beauty community and retail experience. Beauty accounts for 25 percent of Debenhams’ overall sales per year, or around 600 million pounds.
The store’s managing director of beauty, marketing and digital, Richard Cristofoli, believes the beauty counter layout is broken, and instead wants to focus on creating a flexible and dynamic space off-line and online. “It’s brilliant for big, established brands to have retail space in a department store, but as brands evolve and others become dynamic, we need to mirror that and create spaces that welcome mono-product brands,” Cristofoli said.
He’s created new, zoned spaces, or labs, that are flexible and do away with the traditional beauty aisle design. Shelves have replaced beauty counters to create more open space. Among the shelving units are tables for customers to play with products. These spaces will be rolled out across 20 Debenhams stores by the end of the year.
“Experimentation and breaking down barriers encourages customers to browse more. Our customers don’t have mono-brand makeup bags so this is how we can help them and introduce new brands to them,” he said.
The department store will also be rolling out new product categories such as skin care, hair care, men’s grooming and a minibar area that stocks travel-sized or miniature-sized versions of products. The store wants customers to try items risk free and without investing in the full-sized product.
To encourage experimentation, Debenhams sales staff have been trained across all product categories — instead of by a specific beauty brand — in order to mirror the store’s online beauty community and forum, which launched last year.
On Wednesday, Debenhams will host an awards ceremony for its online beauty community, which has 40,000 active members, recognizing top beauty gurus or highly active members on the site.
“Increasingly, we could see customers saying they trust peer-to-peer advice while only 20 percent trust influencers’ advice. So we created this forum where people can connect. We provide them with a platform where they can ask for advice and talk with confidence,” he said.
Not only has the online beauty community driven sales and encouraged customers to purchase new products online (as opposed to making repeat purchases), it has also provided Debenhams with an accurate reading of which brands or products it should stock next.
The online community encourages engagement among brands and customers. “What is fascinating is that our brands are using [the online forum] as a space to test products by asking for volunteers. They immediately get feedback and reviews,” Cristofoli said.
To bring this into the retail space, top products are often merchandised alongside quotes from the beauty community forum. Debenhams is also testing a lounge area in its beauty halls where brands can do product demonstrations and conduct master classes.
The past year has not been an easy one for Debenhams, which had been struggling with a pile of debt, loaded onto the company by former private equity owners; a slowdown on the high street; expensive leases, and an activist shareholder in Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley, who wanted to buy the company.
In April, its lenders took control of the department store group via a pre-pack administration in which the company was pulled off the London Stock Exchange. The lenders plan to pump up to 200 million pounds into the ailing retailer. Not long after the company went into administration, its chief executive officer Sergio Bucher stepped down; his successor is yet to be named.
Cristofoli addressed the crisis head-on in the interview. “It would be ridiculous for me to say it has not been disruptive to us in terms of our brand partnerships and deals,” said Cristofoli.
“I have to say that many of our partners have been hugely supportive through it all. The key for us is having an ongoing dialogue and we have gotten feedback from them independently. We are focusing on what happens now, and beauty is front and center of our new strategy,” he added.