Where are department stores going wrong? 

As alarming headlines continue to emerge about some of the most established UK department stores. It’s natural that the industry is questioning the future of retail and the place of brick-and-mortar stores. But in retail as we know it beyond repair or is it set for a revival?

The ability to have an emotional resonance with a customer and add genuine value to their shopping experience, are key differentiators that department stores still hold over e-commerce, but these can quickly become lost. Tom Downes, CEO, Quail Digital discusses how retailers can keep hold of this differentiator, improve their customer experience and still rival the e-commerce competition.

The Core Issues

It’s obvious really but attractive stores, interesting products, and motivated staff are the lifeblood of bricks-and-mortar retail, and always have been. Department stores that sold-up, closed down or failed altogether were almost certainly making basic mistakes well before the internet became their newest competitor and accelerated their demise.

Sears being just the most recent example of a retailer that had it all; longstanding supplier relationships, a great distribution network and an enormous and loyal customer base, only to let it all slip through their hands like sand.

Turning the browsing shopper into a buying customer is about giving them the reasons and means to ‘treat’ themselves, and while that’s achieved partly through presentation and partly through the available products, it’s also about the enthusiasm of the store associate.

A well-trained associate creates the moment and through engaging with other team members ensures that the correct expertise, samples, products, sizes and alternatives are produced effortlessly for the customer, creating a quick, easy and positive shopping experience, inspiring them to spend.

Consider a recent UK-based retail trends survey that found that whilst 74% of consumers still prefer going to a physical store they have little and dwindling patience poor service. According to an additional study, 60% of customers have walked out of a store in the last year due to poor customer service. Those asked cited more friendly members of staff, less waiting time and better communication between in-store teams as the top three critical points for customer service.

This shows that a traditional human element is still a big part of what the customer wants and expects when shopping in-store, particularly so in a department store where customers would be expecting a higher standard of service than one might experience in the high street.

Connected teams – a solution

To provide the quickest, smoothest experience retailers need to simply connect their teams to one another. Traditional communication needs such as tannoys and radios are intrusive on the customer, don’t instil much confidence and are easy for staff members to ignore. Some retailers have adopted mobiles and tablets into their retail teams as a potential solution, but 41% of consumers believe that headsets are more likely to improve the overall customer experience and speed of service.

Using single digital channel headsets ensures that all staff are continually on message and as a result, managers can efficiently reallocate store associates to specific tasks as required. In addition, staff can also communicate with each other – asking questions of product specialists to immediately answer a customer query, for example, or quickly getting someone on the shop floor to fulfil a two for one offer for a customer already at the check-out. This immediate and shared communication enables store associates to work together as a team in order to improve overall efficiency and productivity.


In order to encourage shoppers to not only come in but return time and time again, department stores need to be built around the behaviours and needs of the customer, not the other way around. A good customer experience is the foundation of retail success and the right department stores have this in bundles.

But in order to thrive when others are dwindling, stores must realise that their secret weapon really is found in the store associates. They have an essential role to play in executing a good customer experience across every touch point and if they are armed with the tools they need in order to excel and exceed customer expectations, then the rest will follow.