After months of speculation, false starts and near misses, we learned last week who has been tasked with leading Debenhams.
Sergio Bucher may be a relative unknown to most retail watchers, but a glance over his CV reveals why Debenhams chairman Sir Ian Cheshire was drawn to him. It also gives us a few pointers on the direction of travel for the business.
Bucher joins from Amazon, where he leads its European fashion arm; that role alone ticks the right boxes for Debenhams, which has put global expansion and multichannel development at the heart of its strategy.
His experience also includes top jobs at Puma and Nike and, before that, Inditex, all of which should help him drive Debenhams’ own-brand development.
But does that prepare him for leading a retailer with a vast store estate? As it happens, yes it does. At Puma he was managing a portfolio of 3,000 stores across 60 countries.
So Debenhams’ 253 stores, including 71 franchised outposts overseas, should be manageable. It has a lot of legacy leases, in some cases as long as 20 years, according to analysts, but Bucher is used to renegotiating leases from his time at Puma. So we may expect some work done in that department, and no doubt one of Bucher’s first priorities will be to get to grips with the part shops have to play in Debenhams’ overall offer.
The department store group has been striving to make its shops more of a destination in recent years, revamping its flagship Oxford Street branch and adding restaurants to the mix across the estate in 2015.
When it comes to online, the former Amazon executive clearly has a lot to offer. Debenhams’ digital proposition has been lacking when compared to its great department store rivals, due to a relative dearth of innovation that has resulted in online sales accounting for just 15% of total revenue – versus House of Fraser’s 18.9% and John Lewis’s whopping 33%.
Debenhams wants to increase that figure to 30% and Bucher will be looking to introduce a more inventive and differentiated online offer. A focus on improving the shopping experience through better personalisation and more attractive delivery options would be a good place to start.
It will be interesting to see how Bucher manages the move away from fashion that Debenhams has outlined recently, as it strives to reduce its susceptibility to volatile trading conditions. Clothing accounts for around 45% of overall sales and some have suggested 40% is a more reasonable figure.
Bucher does not have an easy ride ahead of him. The collapse of BHS reveals how challenging the department store market is at the value end and, when compared to its more premium rivals, Debenhams has looked lacklustre.
There is no certainty that a focus on international expansion and multichannel will pay off – that was, after all, Marc Bolland’s growth plan at M&S, and few could say that it worked out exactly as planned.
But with improved trading momentum behind it, and fresh thinking at the helm, it would be too soon to write off Debenhams yet. Bucher and Cheshire will be pulling out all the stops to ensure the retailer can give its more successful rivals a run for their money.
- Nicola Harrison is content editor at Retail Week