Can Sergio Bucher transform Debenhams Customer Experience?


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As I went for my Saturday morning run this week, I ran along the river in Guildford and passed the imposing building that has housed Debenhams for many years. We’ve seen the announcements about Debenhams this week in the news. Interim results were ‘unexceptional’ but in line with expectations, with UK like-for-like sales increasing by 0.5% and gross transactions up 2.9% to £1.7bn. Profit before tax fell by 6.4% to £87.8m.

On Thursday last week, Debenhams’ new (since October) chief executive Sergio Bucher unveiled his strategic vision for the future growth of the department store group. It focuses on making Debenhams stores a more enjoyable destination for ‘social shopping’. He also stressed the need for efficiency by ‘simplifying and focusing’ the business. Part of making the stores a more enjoyable destination includes creating more places to eat and adding ‘other experiences’. What that looks like for customers, isn’t yet clear. Redeploying 2,000 staff into customer-facing roles is a good first step in demonstrating their commitment as an organisation that is built around the customer; It begs the question what were these people doing previously.

Mr. Bucher said:

“Our customers are changing the way they shop and we are changing too. Shopping with Debenhams should be effortless, reliable and fun, whichever channel our customers use. We will be a destination for ‘social shopping’ with mobile the unifying platform for interacting with our customers.”

Mr. Bucher’s comments suggest there is an emphasis on delivering a better digital experience given the shift in customer buying behaviour. This makes sense and if anyone can achieve such a change, Mr. Bucher is well placed to with his previous online and offline retail experiences at Amazon and at Nike. Debenhams has a large physical estate of stores, many of which have long (20 years) leases remaining. So, the answer for Debenhams won’t just lie online; it will mean joining the virtual and physical into one unified customer experience.

A recent survey by Dimensions Data showed that 70% of businesses have few (or no) connected channels. I wonder how easy it is for Debenhams customers to move from one engagement channel to the next without having to start from scratch and being recognized as an individual.

According to Trust Pilot, Debenhams currently has a score of 1.9 out of 5 from 1106 reviews, so it is a far from perfect experience for customers. 72.5% of reviews are 1 star. The online and store customer experience certainly doesn’t appear to be ‘effortless, reliable and fun’ quite yet. The online experience is described as “shoddy” by one lady customer, the call centre is branded “ineffective” and other customers say they will not be shopping with Debenhams again. These are just a handful of reviews from March this year. Despite this, when you look hard there are some great reviews, so the experience may be negative overall but it’s also variable and inconsistent.

When you look at what it’s like to be a Debenhams employee and how they rate their experience, according to Glassdoor, it is given a score of 2.8 out of 5. Again, this appears to be an ‘average’ score as there are positive employee experiences, alongside many negative ones. Although Mr. Bucher’s reported hand delivery of 1700 Lindt bunnies to his London Head Office staff at Easter was a simple but personal touch. Who doesn’t love a Lindt bunny as a surprise.

The plans for change sound promising but Debenhams as a well recognised brand is not necessarily associated with innovation or known for its inspiring customer experience. Mr. Bucher’s ambition raises some immediate questions:

1. How well is Debenhams delivering its customer experience right now, irrespective of the channel?
2. How well is it positioned to design and execute a valuable customer journey of this order?
3. How aligned, integrated, seamless and consistent will the experience be for the customer?
4. Will the digital experience be as good as the bricks and mortar one in the absence of a real human touch?
5. Is Debenhams’ culture aligned around the customer?
6. Is the customer promise clear, is the leadership team committed and is there an owner of the (total) customer experience in place?
7. Will they be able to avoid the common pitfalls and barriers that we see, when this level of centric transformation is required?

The retail sector in the UK is highly competitive. The Debenhams’ customer experience that will deliver Mr. Bucher’s strategic vision could be a real differentiator, but it needs to beware of disconnected channels and have a clear customer experience strategy in place. Debenhams needs to ensure the organisation has the capability, systems and people to deliver. My fingers are crossed for them.

Amanda Davis

Amanda writes and shares Thought Leadership, drawing on her 15 years of coaching, guiding, mentoring and consulting for clients in various sectors and sizes around the world. She helps establish organisations understand how to connect to customers; find ways to align their expectations with the culture & capability of the organisation. She has a particular focus on customer experience transformation in the digital age, ensuring that technology development starts and finishes with the customer. Amanda has been a regular featured columnist and advisor for Customer Think since 2018.


  1. By coincidence I also went past the Guildford store on Saturday, although I was in a boat, and had a similar thought.

    I think your points are well made: the only thing I would add is the extent to which Debenhams’ people across the estate are engaged with improving customer experience – often overlooked by senior execs – and how they are gathering data on areas for improvement.

    In my personal experience, Debenhams is pretty average. I recently bought something there and followed the link to their customer satisfaction survey ( It’s a bog-standard NPS survey and I think it’s insufficient to provide the kind of data they need to pinpoint areas of improvement. My feedback, such as it was, is that it was a simple transaction and was highly unlikely to make me recommend Debenhams to friends and family, however I could have provided more detail, if they had asked, on what was good and bad about my experience. However it’s good to know that, according to the sign-off screen from the brief survey that my feedback, such as it was, “will help make our service fabulous”

  2. Hi Amanda: To use an adage, products don’t disrupt, strategies do. I feel the same about leaders and their ability to transform. Outcomes depend less on the leader than on the strategy. I’ve never shopped at Debenham’s, but based on your blog, I can appreciate the difficulties the retailer’s new leadership has encountered.

    But if the vision for turning things around is to make shopping at Debenham’s ‘effortless, reliable, and fun,’ I am not bullish on the prospects. Those qualities seem tepid, and unlikely to spark consumers flocking to the store, which is what’s needed. Part of my reaction may be cultural. In the US, we’re conditioned to flamboyant marketing, and British consumers might find our approach abrasive. Maybe these understated terms will elicit sufficient excitement and change perceptions.

    You’ve asked some great questions, and I believe there is a way to fix the retailer’s problem. Assuming the company survives, I predict in five years, the customer experience will be drastically different from what it is now. And for many people, the purpose for going there might not be to buy merchandise, which means reinvention. Which new revenue streams will replace the legacy ones is among the many open questions for Mr. Bucher’s strategy. This will be interesting to watch. Thanks for posting!

  3. Thanks for the comments Andrew and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you about products vs. strategy and for the most part about leaders vs. strategy. Maybe a flamboyant approach is what we Brits need? And yes the problem is fixable. Let’s see …

  4. Thanks for your comment, Nick. Yes absolutely – leadership and employee alignment are key and so are acting on insight or voice of customer. That depends on asking the right questions – which is demonstrated by your transactional nps survey. A shame they missed the engagement opportunity to learn and improve.

  5. Yes absolutely Nick. Thanks for your comments. Leadership and employee alignment are key and so are acting on insight or voice of customer. That depends on asking the right questions – which is demonstrated by your transactional nps survey. A shame they missed the engagement opportunity to learn and improve.

  6. The main problems with Debenhams are faulty processes and lack of empowerment. I ordered garden furniture which arrived on Saturday 3rd June 2017. The same day, whilst unpacking and building the furniture, I realised that certain parts and bolts were missing. I immediately phoned customer care and was advised that the missing items would be dispatched as soon as possible and that they would be with us within 3 working days. Since then, my husband and I have received the same promise, not just from CSAs, but from managers who have handled the escalation. Coming on 3 weeks later, we have not had the pleasure of using our furniture, and once again this evening were promised the same. With patience run out, I have demanded money refunded and pick up of the furniture. When asked why could’t they have sent TNT overnight, the response was ‘its not the way we do it’. Empower employees and they will resolve issues quicker. Fix your broken processes and positive customer experience will follow. It is not rocket science. Sergio Bucher should be asking some uncomfortable questions of his highly paid, yet ineffective executives such as Peter Swann and Angela Morrison.


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