Debenhams rolls out the red carpet for shoppers for its grand debut in Penang.
AT the opening of the third Debenhams store in Gurney Paragon, Penang, the 200-year-old department store celebrated by offering first-day shoppers a return air ticket to London packaged with a RM2,500 shopping spree at the flagship store in Oxford Street.
Shopper Debi Phuah won the lucky draw with her RM328 purchase receipt, while two other shoppers received a week’s free drive in a Mini Cooper and RM2,000 worth of clothes by British fashion designer Henry Holland.
Mollie Jackson, a fashionable grandmother, was declared the recipient of RM2,000 worth of shopping vouchers after the opening fashion show lucky draw. Over the moon, the 60-something sprang from her front row seat to claim her prize from Phil Topham, Debenhams international operations director.
However, her revelry was short-lived when Andy Jackson, the managing director of Debenhams Malaysia, rushed on stage and whisked the mike away from emcee Patricia Kneudsen.
“I am sorry, but I cannot let my mother claim the prize!” declared Andy.
The amiable Scotsman, whose name first cropped up in the early 2000s as the director of Early Learning Center, a British toy retailer, is best described as the man who revived Debenhams after Berjaya Group terminated the franchise agreement in 2006, three years after the opening of a 9,290sqm store at Times Square.
However, Debenhams never really wanted to leave because investors were confident of the potential growth.
Through market research, Andy realised its short-lived start may have been the result of incorrect scaling of store space to market size.
“It is important to know if the surrounding population is able to support the business needs of a store. If a store is too big, then it will be difficult for it to survive,” he said.
So, the game plan was to bring the store back, but in a compact format. When Debenhams made its re-entry at The Curve, Mutiara Damansara, Selangor, in 2008, store space was only 1,068 sq m. Andy also eschewed the norm of consignment counters in favour of the Debenhams formula of in-store designer brands, a concept introduced in 1993. He has a reason for such confidence. The decision to stick to 100% Debenhams- branded goods, which offered a fresh, exciting perspective in affordable designer wear, saved the British company as sales started to decline in the late 1980s.
On how much Andy and his partners have spent to bring the latest in British fashion to Malaysia, the reply would be “sleepless nights”. The figure, according to Business Times, is RM13mil, starting with The Curve and later Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur and now, Gurney Paragon in Penang.
Crucially, one must have a good eye for location.
Offering insights into the Penang store, it is interesting to note the entrance is positioned just across from where the Uplands School headmaster’s office used to be in 1925.
This was a powerful impression at first recce – appreciation of the developer’s effort in preserving the 88-year-old building, originally St Joseph’s Novitiate run by the De La Salle brothers.
For the benefit of history buffs, the building was owned by the De La Salle Brothers who constructed it in 1916. This parcel of land was sold to Hunza Properties in 2004 for RM97.86mil to build Gurney Paragon. The restoration project cost Hunza RM10mil. Foundation works alone came up to RM3.5mil.
Though Andy does not believe in feng shui, he reckons positive energy from such good intentions will help business prosper. The fact that 80,000 people had visited the mall on its first day of business in July this year must have given Andy and his two partners the confidence to invest RM4mil into 1,068sqm of retail space.
But in a store where a decent shirt is no less than RM109, it is a point of interest to look into the Penangite mindset when it comes to thrift. As Penang-born author and personal development coach Khoo Kheng Hor succinctly put it: “To Penangites, 20sen is the size of a bullock cart wheel.”
In Gurney Paragon, the store is sandwiched between H&M on the ground floor and Brands Outlet on the third floor. In the other two stores, RM99 will buy a really nice sleeveless women’s top, with lace trimmings to boot. How would Debenhams compete?
Cheng Jih Min, chief operating officer of Hunza, said the golden word lies in variety.
“Penangites may be careful with their money, but fashionwise, they also want to have a sense of individuality. So, the challenge for the retailer is not to be generic, but unique,” said Cheng.
Debenhams’ winning strength, he implied, is not on winning the price war, but in the constant piquing of shopper interest.
A look into their collection revealed a parade of ready-to-wear high street fashion as interesting as the British designers behind them.
There are vibrant prints from Jonathan Saunders, whose clientele list includes Madonna and America’s First Lady Michelle Obama.
J by Jasper Conran is another line to look out for.
Then there is Henry Holland, who had flown in for the opening. Holland’s H! line of knitwear and debonair personality had so enamoured three local fashion journos, they wore it to the store’s first day of opening, though it was blazing hot outside. Also sharing the limelight with Holland’s fashion collection is his voluminous quiff, a never-missed subject in every press conference.
Last but not least is the creation of a conducive atmosphere.
Visual managers Hadi Yusoff for Malaysia and Andrew Martin for Britain revealed an interesting detail.
One often ignored but crucial element is hanger placement. Hadi and Martin said the guideline is to place them one finger apart following the shape of a question mark and hooks from opposing sides must form a heart-shape. So, when a shopper takes out an item from the left rack, she will not disturb the display on the right. The hanger issue may seem unimportant in a home wardrobe, but in a store with hundreds of racks, getting this right can do wonders in achieving a classy, streamlined look.
In the end, the secret of Debenhams’ long life is about looking into the little things, just like how a smile can be the start of a wonderful, long-lasting friendship.
But the biggest push that had spurred him on would be a review of his fashion show in 2008 by Sarah Mower. Then, Holland’s concentration was still solely centred on T-shirts.
“Mower said it was a good idea, but it would only last five minutes. Basically, she meant it was time I had something new to show instead of just one item,” recalled Holland.
Instead of walking off in huff, Holland took it as constructive criticism and began developing a full line.
Today, the House of Holland collection comprise swimwear, handbags, shoes, eyewear, denim and wedding dresses.
Holland’s style straddles the quirky and fun. Some quarters say he ventures close to punk but remains loyal to traditional roots. His knitwear, featuring motifs of repetitive teddy bear patterns and skaters twirling on ice, are ideal partners for tartans, minis and jeans.