Looking at the numbers, it can’t be said to be the best first year a chief executive has ever clocked up.

Debenhams’ pre-tax profits dived 44% to £59m in its first year under new boss Sergio Bucher, while UK like-for-likes were flat.

But look behind the scenes and the potential is clear to see. Bucher and his team have been busy “redesigning” Debenhams, putting in place myriad initiatives across the business as he seeks to create a business centred upon a “social shopping” proposition.

So, what does Bucher’s grand plan consist of – and is it paying off?

Services and partnerships

What’s been done:

Debenhams has been busy in this area, acquiring a minority stake and a place on the board of beauty services provider Blow; teaming up with Sweat! – a ‘woman-friendly’ gym established by the co-founder of Virgin Active – and testing a new own-brand restaurant Loaf & Bloom, which will replace its own-brand carveries.

What will be done:

The retailer opened its first Blow beauty bar in its Oxford Street flagship yesterday. Two more will follow by the end of this year while another four will open in the New Year.

It aims to have nationwide coverage within three years, operating Blow beauty bars in-store and taking a cut from the earnings that will come from Blow’s new customer acquisition – the service is at present only available in London.

“There are a few new ideas in the mix at Debenhams, notably with Sweat! and Blow. The synergy between the two is clever”

Debenhams’ partnership with Sweat! is in its infancy. The retailer is testing three gym locations, which centres on a female-friendly, value offer. Cleverly, Sweat! and Blow are tied together – Sweat! members who reach their fitness goals benefit from Debenhams’ Beauty Club points which can be redeemed against Blow services.

The restaurant refresh is the result of Bucher’s reaction against Debenhams’ own-brand carvery, which was probably more appropriate to the 1970s. Loaf & Bloom is one of five concepts developed by an undisclosed food brands firm.

Three of the five tested resonated with customers, Debenhams said today, and will be rolled out over the coming years alongside partnerships with third-party restaurants such as Nandos and Patisserie Valerie.

Retail Week verdict:

Partnerships are nothing new. While their benefits – such as utilising excess space and increasing footfall – are well known, it’s also hard to get excited by them.

But there are a few new ideas in the mix at Debenhams, notably with Sweat! and Blow. The synergy between the two is clever, as is Debenhams’ decision to get in on the ground floor with both businesses.

All in all, Bucher has proved himself to be an astute operator here, knowing that partnerships need to work harder and smarter than they have previously.

Debenhams, Stevenage

Debenhams, Stevenage

Debenhams new Stevenage store


What’s been done:

Debenhams has undertaken a property review and found that while only one of its stores is currently unprofitable, 10 more are in danger of becoming that way soon.

Today it announced the closure of two stores – in Eltham and Farnborough – in the new year.

“Debenhams may only have one unprofitable store on its hands but it has excess space aplenty”

It has also wangled a deal with the landlord of its Uxbridge store to decrease its square footage and lease length by 20%, with the landlord throwing in cap-ex to improve the store into the bargain.

Debs has also exited four overseas franchise markets, including Romania and Russia, where there were low levels of profitability.

Of course, there have also been the highly publicised revamp in Wolverhampton and the new store in Stevenage.

Both are being used as test-labs for new ideas. Crucially, Bucher threw out the original plans for Stevenage, arguing they were not good enough.

What will be done:

Debenhams is now in active discussions with landlords to do Uxbridge-style deals to “right-size” stores and will continue to exit low-profit stores and markets wherever it can.

It’s been tight-lipped on details but is clearly, as Uxbridge shows, driving a hard bargain.

Retail Week verdict:

Debenhams may only have one unprofitable store on its hands but it has excess space aplenty.

Closing stores and exiting markets is a necessary evil, but striking deals such as the one in Uxbridge is smart and, should enough landlords agree, could serve Debenhams very well.


What’s been done:

Bucher is in the process of reorganising the business around three categories: fashion and home, beauty and beauty services and food and events. Debenhams lifer and group trading director Suzanne Harlow was the first casualty of the shift, exiting this month.

Former marketing director Richard Cristofoli now heads beauty and beauty services while ecommerce director Ross Clemmow has been charged with looking after food and events.

What will be done:

Debenhams is still on the hunt for a fashion and home boss – Retail Week understands it’s currently shortlisting for the position.

Once the recruitment is complete, Debenhams will be able to fully put its reorganisation into practice.

Retail Week verdict:

Bucher said today that the reorganisation was entrepreneurial and that the three units would be run like separate businesses, with the sense of ownership encouraging ambition and execution.

The jury is out on how effective the reorganisation will be in practice because one of its most important components – the fashion and home boss – is absent from the mix.

In theory however, it’s very logical and if the directors and units take the entrepreneurialism to heart it could work well.

Customer service

What’s been done:

Debenhams’ customer service has been sub-par for a long time – sometimes staff seem more intent on killing time than serving customers.

Bucher’s plan to revitalise customer service includes adding customer satisfaction metrics to in-store colleagues’ key performance indicators. This initaitive has brought a double-digit uplift in net-promoter scores.

“Its current thinking could bring it up to scratch, and is more along the lines of what might be expected from John Lewis recently”

Debenhams has now changed its recruitment strategy to focus on attitude rather than career history in a bid to draw people who genuinely enjoy serving customers. Consequently, many of the recruits at the Stevenage and Wolverhampton stores have been drawn from the hospitality and service sector as opposed to the retail industry.

What will be done:

The retailer will push on with its new recruitment strategy, hiring in-store colleagues on the merits of their attitude rather than their CVs and continuing to measure customer satisfaction as a store assistant KPI.

Retail Week verdict:

This is basic stuff but it’s an area that has long been neglected at Debenhams.

Its current thinking could bring it up to scratch, and is more along the lines of what might be expected from John Lewis recently.

While Debenhams may never be able to provide the kind of service that John Lewis does – and would be wrong to, given its different business model – it shows that the retailer is improving the basics, and at pace.

Clearly, Bucher’s many ideas have great potential and his perfectionist approach is what the lacklustre Debenhams needs.

However, whether the market will give the retailer time to achieve that turnaround may be another matter.