House of Fraser and the shifting foundations of retail

It was announced this week that department store House of Fraser is planning to close 31 of its 59 stores with the potential loss of around 6,000 jobs. House of Fraser chief executive Alex Williamson has described the move as "brutal", and it certainly represents yet another blow to our already beleaguered High Streets.  House of Fraser is not alone, with Debenhams also planning to shut stores as profits fall, and although not technically a department store Marks & Spencer has also had its fair share of challenges in recent years.

As a seasoned shopper, this news made me consider my own relationship with House of Fraser and the many other brands I’ve fallen in and out of love with on the High Street. A decade ago if you’d wanted to locate me on a Saturday afternoon the womenswear department in my local House of Fraser would have been a good bet. Not only could I find many of my favourite brands in one place, but I enjoyed the whole experience of wandering through the store, often for hours, perusing the latest fashions and trinkets. Nowadays a 20 minute whistle stop tour is enough to convince me that I’m not missing anything. The store itself hasn’t changed very much at all, so why have I?

Well that’s part of the problem – House of Fraser has failed to keep up with the times. Today’s shoppers are a discerning bunch, they don’t want to spend hours navigating the aisles and concessions searching for an item that catches their eye. The retail experience has evolved to become exactly that – an experience. When walking into a store shoppers want to feel both at home and transported, it should be immersive and full of exciting possibilities and promise.

Exclusivity also has a role to play, and the fact is that most brands are now readily available online or in other stores, making differentiation a challenge. House of Fraser’s own brand lines simply don’t offer the same quality and appeal as those of rival John Lewis, for example. And for the quick fix bargain hunters amongst us? The fast fashion brands – Primark, Zara, etc. – have got it covered.

It’s not just about the instore experience, offline is just as important. That includes the website, mobile, and will increasing mean interconnected devices and sensors. Always on and providng instant gratification, the lure of a truly omnichannel experience tailored to individual preferences and desires is hard to resist.

In many ways House of Fraser is a classic example of ‘disrupt or be disrupted’. For established organisations with legacy infrastructures – in terms of technology, structure and operating model – this is a challenge as they are forced to take a fresh look at what their customers expect, what challenger brands offer and reinvent themselves to surpass both. It’s a tall order, but it is possible.

And while this applies to all industries, it is perhaps seen most acutely on the High Street as more and more stores close their doors. So is it all over for House of Fraser? The answer to this depends wholly on whether it is prepared to embrace the potential of digital commerce and offer its customers a truly differentiated and seamless experience. I for one would be happy to have an excuse to wile away a few more Saturday afternoons in the company of House of Fraser. What I’m not looking for is a trip down memory lane. House of Fraser, over to you…


Natasha Scott - June 8 2018

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