Daily Dose of iQ: Upscale Department Stores Aspire to Be More than Just Stores

In a recent Globe and Mail article (Dec. 15), Amy Verner and Marina Strauss told of the famous Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché, which not only stays open on Sundays (a rarity in Paris) during the Christmas season but also offers a merry-go-round and puppet shows for kids. As a result, on a recent Sunday, the place was "teeming with young children," Verner and Strauss wrote.

"To thrive, department stores need to be much more than simply a space to buy stuff. They need to tap customers at a deeper level –- the level of ideas and dreams."

These may seem like lofty goals for a store, but connecting with customers' dreams and how they play are concepts that retailers and brands have been paying closer attention to (see Designing Next-Gen Retail Places and FITCH: Be Generous, Dream More and Play Everyday).

From 2003 to 2010, many department stores' dressing rooms were scuffed and funky, and the aisles were empty...

"Many department stores, let’s face it, were seen as dowdy, and looked the part," wrote Verner and Strauss. "Dressing rooms were scuffed and funky, and spotting a sales clerk was about as likely as seeing another shopper."

Verner and Strauss identified the following improvements made by major department stores in recent past:

  • "Last month, Hudson’s Bay Company launched a sizable initial public offer."
  • "Holt Renfrew is currently pouring $300 million into expanding its stores and has plans for another chain, HR2."
  • "U.S. retailer Nordstrom is feeling bullish enough to expand into Canada in 2014."
  • In Europe, the chief executive of Galeries Lafayette expects 1.5 million euros in sales in 2013 (up from 1.4 million euros in 2012).

In the late 19th Century, the original French department stores embodied "the good life."

The whimsical, opulent identity of upscale department stores was once their raison d'être. Recalling Le Bon Marché in the late 1800s, Verner and Strauss wrote: "There was an almost spiritual aspect to going to market. The department store was an embodiment of 'the good life' as a church was of the 'good self.'"

Of course, a great shopping experience does not have to be an expensive one. Take-home message: Retailers should do whatever they can to connect with their customers on an imaginative, fun, and aspirational level. Especially at Christmas.