THE STORE SOLUTION: TIME, SPACE, QUALITY
DEPARTMENT STORES AROUND THE WORLD FACE UNPRECEDENTED COMPETITION, FROM DISCOUNTERS IN THEIR OWN BACKYARDS TO TRADITIONAL STORES AND E-TAILERS ALL OVER THE PLANET VIA THE INTERNET. AND WHILE SOME DOOMSAYERS HAVE BEEN HERALDING THE EXTINCTION OF WHAT ARE OFTEN TERMED RETAIL DINOSAURS, DEPARTMENT STORES AREN’T GOING DOWN WITHOUT A BATTLE. HERE’S WHAT SOME STORES IN EUROPE ARE DOING TO FIGHT BACK.
Byline: Robert Murphy
ACCENT ON LUXURY
PARIS — The Bon Marche department store here has undergone major plastic surgery. Only recently, its face was wrinkled and dull due to overstuffed racks, cramped floors and surly service. In the last few years, however, the Left Bank store has polished its image by bringing in designer fashion and unique in-store shops as part of an attempt to redefine its direction.
“It was essential for us to evolve with the market,” said store president Philippe de Beauvoir. “We had to devise a strategy that would differentiate us from the competition: We wanted to become more luxury-oriented.”
The move toward luxury underscores a general development here among the city’s largest stores. For example, both of the Boulevard Haussmann behemoths, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, have also engaged in massive renovation projects, putting the accent on luxury.
But de Beauvoir says he wants his store to be the most exclusive.
“The Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are in the busy Right Bank shopping district and frequented by a lot of tourists,” he said. “The Bon Marche is in the heart of one of Paris’s most affluent neighborhoods, and just for that reason it has to be more exclusive.”
Additionally, Bon Marche’s 320,000-square-foot surface area is much smaller compared to the other two, which average 550,000 square feet. “Because our floorspace is limited, we have to be selective,” said de Beauvoir. “Today, selectivity is synonymous with luxury.” The Bon Marche was first given a new life when, almost 15 years ago, French luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault purchased the store. It was four years later, when the unit was added to his LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury conglomerate, that the store first started to change.
De Beauvoir attributes the recent industry-wide changes to the new high-profile investors who entered the sector. Arnault’s key business rival, Francois Pinault, who controls the Pinault-Printemps-Redoute distribution concern, acquired Printemps in the early Nineties. Likewise, the Galeries Lafayette brought in new management, hiring Philippe Houze and Philippe Lemoine as presidents and charging them with the task of reinvigorating the store.
“With new investors, the stores were finally able to invest in changing and reinventing their way of doing business,” said de Beauvoir.
De Beauvoir also cites key industry transformations that necessitated the evolution. He cites the explosion in France of hypermarkets, which offer everything from food and hardware to apparel — all at a discount price.
“Ten years ago, the sector was competing with hypermarkets,” says de Beauvoir. “It was becoming impossible to match their pace, so department stores had to evolve toward more luxurious, selective merchandise.”
For instance, a decade ago the Bon Marche had a cobbler, a locksmith and a photo-developing lab on its ground level. Today, in-store luxury shops from Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Loewe have taken their places.
“We were like a supermarket before,” explained de Beauvoir. “And investment in the future was almost nil.”
Today, however, de Beauvoir compares the Bon Marche to upscale specialty stores like London’s Harvey Nichols or Barneys New York, even if he thinks the latter has taken “elitism to a point of excess.”
The first modifications came when de Beauvoir assumed presidency of the store in late 1994. Soon thereafter, plans were drawn up to overhaul the entire store, starting with the first floor, which features accessories, beauty products and the men’s store.
Apart from adding in-store luxury brand accessories shops, Bon Marche added hip young designers like Kate Spade to its selection. In the beauty department, products like Neal’s Yard and Caudalie were brought in. In-store shops for Dries Van Noten and Paul Smith were added to the men’s department.
To find a niche that separates the store from Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marche concentrated on parlaying its differences into what it sees as advantages. “Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are known for their exhaustive choice of merchandise,” said de Beauvoir. So today, he said, the store’s identity is determined not so much by what it stocks as by what it doesn’t.
Late next year, the renovation will reach the store’s second floor, where a radical $6.5 million project will completely change the visage of the women’s apparel and shoe departments. Already, the store has set up designer shops from Van Noten, Comme des Garcons and Helmut Lang in the women’s area.
“We turned ourselves into a luxury destination,” said de Beauvoir. “If we carry a product, it’s because we think it’s the best available of its kind, the reason being that if we take on a new brand, we have to eliminate another one.
“Our idea was to create a store that wasn’t a true department store. My personal obsession is to create a store with soul. I think quality, creativity and selectivity have become more important in today’s world than exhaustiveness.”
De Beauvoir has also tackled the problem of poor customer service, which is often cited as a problem in France. Although sales staff don’t work on a commission basis, each department earns extra when sales are high. Additionally, the store requires sales staff to participate in customer service seminars.
“In today’s world, the client needs to feel satisfied. We want people to feel they’ve bought the best product in the best atmosphere so that we can build a long-term relationship based on confidence.”
De Beauvoir says continuing to improve the store will determine its future. He predicts that in upcoming years, department stores will close because they all will have gravitated to a similar niche: luxury.
“About 20 years ago, many of France’s department stores went out of business because they didn’t compete with the hypermarkets. Today, since there is an inevitable push to go toward luxury, there will be more closures.
“It’s a small niche, with a limited number of clients. There won’t be enough air for everyone to breathe.”
And it’s because of the store’s concentration on becoming more luxurious that, for the moment, the Bon Marche has foregone creating an immediate Internet strategy to sell its goods on line.
“I believe in the Internet,” said de Beauvoir. “But I think that a department store still has an advantage if it becomes part of a shopping experience. It has to offer an added value that can’t be found elsewhere.”