Would Debenhams have survived if they had invested more energy into their digital channels?

Laura Dixon, Marketing Executive in London, UK
27 May 2021

Debenhams was one of the UK’s first department stores, which opened its doors in 1778. But in the last few months, this impressive 243 year-long high street presence came to an end, as Debenhams closed down the last of their physical stores. Like many businesses, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrous for Debenhams and, at the beginning of 2021, they sold their brand and website rights to popular online fashion brand Boohoo. 

Debenhams’ downfall can be attributed to a few things, most importantly the lack of energy and money they invested in their digital experience. As far as websites go, Debenhams’ was pretty basic and they were one of the few major retailers who never took advantage of a delivery subscription model. Their loyalty programme undoubtedly helped to keep some customers, but they could’ve done so much more throughout their time in business to embrace innovation, to not only improve their digital offering but also their physical customer experience. 

Consumers want convenience, whether it’s a seamless online searching system, amazing and intuitive product pages or a speedy transactional process, a convenient shopping experience is key. By properly investing in digital, Debenhams could’ve combatted their shortcomings to create a seamless customer journey and – as a result – could possibly still be in business.

On top of a below par digital presence, their inability to keep up with mainstream fashion trends also put them on the back foot to the younger market. Whilst Debenhams once stocked brands like Topshop and Miss Selfridge, the range never quite hit the mark and appeared to be targeted towards a more middle aged and older demographics. This made it difficult to compete with other brands who not only have lower prices and a wider range of products, but offer a more pleasant shopping experience in general.

Over the years, Debenhams have owned and operated hundreds of stores throughout the UK. However, as shopping habits moved online and when the high street fell silent in 2020, Debenhams failed to adapt to the changing landscape and their stores began under performing. This has led to Debenhams overextending themselves financially, allowing their business rates and rental agreements to sky rocket. Consequently, they couldn’t keep up with their online-only competitors like Missguided, Pretty Little Thing and Asos, who were better and quicker at responding to customer behaviour changes happening in the retail space.

Brands like Asos, for example, have perfected a seamless digital experience for their customers. With features like a virtual catwalk, size matching quizzes, restock notifications and an increasingly popular next day delivery subscription package. These features are a part of both their website and their app. Asos is entirely digital. So when highstreet stores like Debenhams were scrambling throughout the pandemic, Asos was able to take advantage. 

Digital has played a fundamental role in the retail experience over the last decade, and ignoring this has led to Debenhams’ failure. By embracing and investing in the digital side of their business, not only would they have survived the last few years, but possibly would have thrived like their competitors.