“We have to make shopping fun again,” says the boss of Debenhams, Sergio Bucher.
There’s a lot riding on his vision of the future.
The department store chain will open a new branch in Watford on Thursday as it tries to revive its fortunes on the High Street.
Debenhams has lost more than two-thirds of its share price value since January, and has been under increased scrutiny after its rival House of Fraser collapsed in August.
At its new look store, you can get a facial or a blow dry as well as try on new outfits in posh changing rooms – in which you can choose your own mood lighting – and finish off with a tipple at the Pinkster gin bar.
‘Bring joy back’
“For way too long we have turned stores to be like these big warehouses full of product with a till at the door,” says Mr Bucher
“We just want to bring the joy back.
“We have to make sure that every shopping trip is memorable,”
The beauty hall, with its industrial style ceiling, certainly looks different.
There are several dedicated “lab spaces” to showcase new and upcoming brands, which can be rotated to maintain excitement.
There is also a “minibar” where shoppers are able to experiment with different brands in travel sizes.
And there is a beauty “clubhouse”, where customers can get advice from assistants who are not connected to a particular brand.
The space can also be used to host events for Beauty Club members. This is a new online loyalty scheme and forum, featuring tips and advice on products from regular customers.
It has generated around £150,000 in sales in just ten days.
There are big changes on the fashion floors, too.
Walk into many Debenhams stores and the racks are often stuffed with as much clothing as they can physically carry.
Now, less is more.
This new store has around 25% fewer products in women’s fashion, but they are better displayed, with a more curated look. There’s a New This Week Hub, showcasing the newest, best, products giving what the company hopes will be a reason for customers to visit.
Whether it’s beauty or fashion, Debenhams is convinced newness sells.
The company won’t reveal the price tag of this new store, saying only that a capital contribution from its landlord, Intu, has paid for most of the cost. Debenhams will be the anchor tenant in the shopping group’s new 400,000 sq foot development.
The big challenge for Debenhams is how to roll these new ideas out to the rest of its stores, when its budget for investment has been slashed to save money.
Around 40 stores will see elements of the new-look beauty hall before Christmas.
But Debenhams’ boss won’t say which stores, or how many, will get a complete makeover, just yet.
“We have to see the return we are able to get… that will inform us what we can afford in the future,” says Sergio Bucher.
In other words, with limited funds, Debenhams needs to get the maximum bang for its buck as quickly as possible.
Debenhams is in a race against time to transform its business to keep up with the huge structural changes sweeping through the industry, along with rising costs.
This year’s festive trading period will be even more crucial, given the chain’s disappointing Christmas sales in 2017.
But despite three profit warnings and recent questions about its financial health, Debenhams has come out fighting.
“There has been a lot of rumours, a lot of talk, but sometimes not a lot of facts, says Mr Bucher.
“We are a three billion pound [in sales] company, we are profitable.
“We have 19 million very loyal customers and we are investing in our stores.”
This former Amazon executive would also like to see a more level playing field when it comes to business rates.
“If Debenhams had been taxed as an ‘online pure player’ last year, we would have been three times as profitable,” he claims.
“The government needs to adjust to the new reality of online.”
In the meantime, Debenhams is focused on pulling more shoppers into its stores. It knows its future depends on it.