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Le Bon Marche in Paris.
Le Bon Marche in Paris.

RETAIL

How upscale department stores are reinvigorating themselves Add to ...

But a compelling space is not enough. As museums have learned, the draw for visitors is not just being in a beautiful building with beautiful things – it’s how you interact with them, it’s offering them an experience. The payoff is keeping customers in the store, and coming back to it.

“The department stores gave permission to look,” explains retail expert Paco Underhill, the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. “Up to that point, if you walked in, it was expected you would buy. The ability to browse whetted people’s appetites and what the original merchant learned from that was if you don’t buy now, they have put a seed in your head and at some later point, you will aspire to buy it.”

The revival of the upscale department store, then, is partly reviving a feeling of largesse, of scale and monument – hundreds of stores have undergone massive renovations in the past decade – and partly a recognition of those intangibles that make up “thrilling, disturbing hours.”

This is why you are more and more likely to see a live fashion show at the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, or a musician at a grand piano in one of Holt’s “shoe halls.” And the trend goes beyond the West: Isetan recently overhauled the women’s department of its flagship store in Tokyo, adding art and fashion installations.

Sometimes the experience department stores offer are somewhat counterintuitive. In Britain, Selfridges (owned by Canada’s Weston family) is introducing at “no noise” campaign at its Oxford Street store this February. Inspired by a silent room introduced in 1909 by the store’s founder, the campaign will include a soundproof area, meditation sessions and a “quiet shop” selling “debranded items.”

“Customers are suffering a deluge of information and communication and deluge of brands and choices. We know we’re part of all that,” creative director Alannah Weston says. “So what can we do to ease it up a little and give slice of silence?”

If this seems risky, Ms. Weston says, “it takes confidence to think of [the department store] as a dwelling space and not a shed full of product that people are forced through.”

Confidence is still sometimes hard to come by, however.

Even as they amp up the drama of in-store shopping and draw on their roots as places for social interaction and shared dreaming, there is pressure to match the efficiencies of digital shopping: Nordstrom now has mobile checkouts to cut down on lineups at the cashier; Hudson’s Bay (which also owns Lord & Taylor in the United States) is ramping up its smartphone shopping services and, earlier this year, introduced a “virtual greeter” named Anna at its Toronto flagship, which allowed customers to buy products simply by touching the shelf they were on with a QR-embedded card.

In retail jargon, this approach is called omni-channel shopping, since it allows shoppers to buy products wherever and whenever they want, from a home computer, a laptop, a mobile phone or at a physical store. “That’s what every department store is after right now,” says Marc Metrick, chief marketing officer at HBC. “Whoever cracks it first and right is going to be a big winner.”

But it’s harder than it looks: The Bay let Anna go a few months ago.

“It’s an inevitable downward spiral,” said Mark Cohen, former chief executive officer of Sears Canada Inc. and now a professor at the Columbia Business School in New York. “E-commerce is an enormous threat. It’s the second biggest shadow that crosses their enterprise.”

Another shadow is the challenge of fragmented markets: Even high-end shoppers now buy at places like Target Corp., which will start opening stores in Canada next year. And while shoppers want that element of fantasy and luxury at department stores, they also demand at least a hint of accessibility (thus the inclusion of moderately priced British line, Topshop, at The Bay, Nordstrom and Selfridges).

For all that, though, the days of deathly sluggish high-end department stores – even in Paris on a Sunday – seem behind us. Back at Le Bon Marché, the team seems particularly pleased with the way their year has panned out.

Asked how they think Mr. Boucicaut would feel about the message the store conveys today, Mr. Bodenes replies, “The business is important, of course, but beyond the business, this was to be a place where women could come with their kids and have a place where they could rediscover themselves. He wanted an experience that was truly pleasurable. Aristide would be very happy to see this tradition continue.”

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