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Sunday Soundbite

No silver bullet for Debenhams

Chris Field
Chris Field

Last week, the Telegraph suggested that sales were down at UK department store chain Debenhams because of consumer caution.

But surely all retailers are facing that issue?

No, at Debenhams, there is a unique set of challenges that the company needs to work through, and the suggestion that there could ever be a ‘silver bullet’ solution is nonsense.

It’s a question of working out the priorities and attacking them in the right order. For instance, if Debenhams’ growing beauty business is up 5%, it makes sense to invest further there; while in the troubled core fashion business, mere investment is not the answer, as the competitive environment has changed, so a more fundamental rethink is needed.

Easy for me to say – I’m not the one who has to make the tough decisions – but I do feel that, for many troubled retailers, the changes they know they need to make may not go far enough to save them.

WHSmith is also facing an existential crisis. Kate Swann was a miracle worker who managed to cut costs year after year and keep the train rolling, but she’s gone, and cost cutting alone won’t hack it.

The question is, can these and other retailers not only make the right changes, but make them fast enough? In a sector increasingly influenced by Amazon, and by other companies outside retail getting in on the action, the answer for many will almost certainly be ‘no’, because the incumbents need time for their transformations to work – and time is not on their side.

One answer, provided by the tech industry, is that retailers need to be braver and experiment with new technology. Some are, but most are not, and while I could go through a long list of why it is not happening, chief among the reasons is that the growing number of IT decision makers and influencers has created not consensus, but stasis.

It’s as if retailers are paralysed by having too much choice, too many nerves about making the wrong decision, and too much complexity in the decision-making process – so much so that the deal often doesn’t get done.

And yet, we now live in an age where technology works and delivers more value than it ever has. Every good IT decision has a commercial ROI, and the benefits are visible to all.

Of course, more tech is only part of the answer for retailers that are having to contemplate their survival, but it must be more firmly in the mix. The single biggest challenge for all retailers is the customer – knowing who they are, what they want, and making sure that they receive it.

That’s well known, but perhaps retailers have yet to understand just how critical tech is to delivering the solution. The presence of more tech decision makers is great for having a conversation about all the wonderful things technology can do – but someone has to start making the big decisions on adoption.

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