spa-urban-oasis-at-debenhamsForget the Clone Wars and the Jedi Knights. A much fiercer battle is emerging across Britain’s retail landscape. Department stores are striking back against online giants such as Amazon and Asos. Real-world retailers are adding bells, whistles and foot spas to their offerings in a whirling Dynorod of feverish creativity.

Debenhams is typical. No longer is it enough to sell fluffy fascinators for Aunty Margaret’s trip to Cheltenham Races. Oh no. Debenhams stores now come adorned with beauty treatments, restaurants and Prosecco bars, in the hope that Aunty Madge will hang around.

But House of Fraser and John Lewis kicked off the trend, with yoga studios, spas and champagne bars.

It’s all been sparked off by panic in the US, where more than 3,500 stores are set to shut up shop for good in the next few weeks.

And not just any shops, either. Big boys such as Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney are all reeling from the rise in ecommerce, a blow heavier than an uppercut from Anthony Joshua that has left US shopping malls deserted.

In the UK, department stores are quaking in their cut-price Ugg boots, desperate to avoid a similar fate. Already this year Marks and Spencer has announced that it’s to close six shops. Retailers now want people to make shopping a day out. So what next? Rollercoaster rides and petting zoos?

Says Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst, ‘These shops have to follow their customers. Just sitting there and being the department stores of three or four decades ago isn’t going to get them anywhere.’

John Lewis is looking to ‘reinvent’ the department store by offering bikini waxes and introducing opticians, travel agents, spas and extra restaurants. Says new boss Paula Nickolds, ‘Our brand is our secret weapon. We need to offer customers things you can only get from John Lewis.’

House of Fraser has cut back on the number of brands it sells. Now, it’s focusing on a core shopper known as ‘Jo’. Jo’s a graduate who earns two or three times the national average and has children. Unlucky, then, if you’re called Susan.

Lucky Jo will be feted with yoga studios, wellbeing centres and restaurants. And, in Manchester and Belfast, with champagne bars, presumably so she’ll get so tipsy that she might even buy something.

Debenhams, meanwhile, is making its beauty floor ‘social-media friendly’. Customers are being encouraged to share in-store pictures on Instagram. Says Chief Executive Sergio Bucher, ‘Customers who eat with us or use services visit our stores three times more often than those that don’t.’

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Author Chris Painter

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