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Debenhams looks beyond UK expat base in Australia

In April of this year, British retailer Debenhams launched a local e-commerce site in Australia, ahead of its first department store slated to open at Melbourne’s St Collins lane in September 2017.

Six months on, the Australian site has seen double-digit growth in its womenswear, accessories and homeware divisions. Internet Retailing spoke with Debenhams’ head of international e-commerce, Dasha Melyushkina, about growing the brand beyond the built-in base of UK expats in Australia, finding a unique selling point in a maturing e-commerce market and using online data to hone a bricks and mortar strategy.

Heather McIlvaine: Before launching a local e-commerce site, Australians were the biggest international spenders on Debenhams UK site. Has the local site had the desired effect: to grow the base of Aussie online customers? 

Dasha Melyushkina: The launch of the Debenhams localised e-commerce site, Debenhams.com/au, has been a huge success for the company both in terms of increasing our customer base and, in reflection of this, increasing our sales. Since the launch, the website has experienced high double digit growth in most of our women’s, men’s and kids’ product areas across the site and this is continuing to increase. Women’s fashion in particular has performed really well with formal wear sales increasing by 140 per cent year on year during the racing season.

HM: How successful has the local site been in acquiring customers beyond the built-in market of UK expats living in Australia?

DM: In April this year we ran an advertising campaign focusing mainly on acquiring new customers and building brand recognition. As a result of the campaign our customer base has grown significantly and, we believe, beyond purely just the expat community. This is reflected in the fact that the share of revenue has shifted from Perth to Melbourne and Sydney.

HM: What has Debenhams learned from its e-commerce presence in Australia that will help it hone its bricks and mortar strategy going forward? For instance, are you looking at best-sellers online to determine instore stock? Are you looking at online demand to plan store locations?

DM: Having a localised e-commerce presence in Australia has given us a fantastic opportunity to learn more about customers’ key shopping habits and trends. Racing season, for example, was a very new concept to us, as UK racing events appear throughout the year and do not create such a buzz in the fashion world. With the Debenhams store opening being planned for September next year, we will be working with our partner, Harris Scarfe, to reflect some of these learnings in the product selection.

HM: Debenhams has suggested that it has an advantage in bringing Northern Hemisphere products to the Southern Hemisphere, because it can select best sellers thanks to the offset seasons. Does this advantage hold true online? If not, how do you handle the counter-seasonal problem in e-commerce?

DM: We have a broad product range allowing us to make it easy for our customers to purchase any product related to any category, fashion trend or season throughout the year. For instance today on the site we have around 400 products of women’s swim and beachwear as well as a selection of 160 sandals and flip flops if she wants to get ready for summer; equally we have 200 options of jeans if she’s in a more transitional mood.

We also localise our offering for the customer and currently have a summer edit of products on our Australian website. Many products, however, are not dependent on temperature, our festive party and formal wear, for example, is currently performing really well in Australia and we have even found Christmas jumpers to be popular despite the warmer weather.

HM: Deloitte recently surveyed Aussie retailers ahead of Christmas and found that they feel least threatened by foreign-based online retailers. How does Debenhams see its ability to compete in a maturing Aussie e-commerce market?

DM: Our ability to compete in Australia, like in the UK or anywhere else, is about being able to persuade a customer that our product is worth buying versus the competition. Our unique selling point is about offering unique and accessible products fashion and home products from exclusive British designers including Henry Holland, Jenny Packham, Matthew Williamson, Julien Macdonald and Preen.

HM: What is Debenhams planning for its local e-commerce site in Australia going forward?

DM: We are constantly innovating and looking to respond to the customers mindset at relevant moments. The next thing for us is trading throughout the Christmas festive season and then continuing to build towards key trading events in the New Year like Valentine’s day or Australia day. We are also constantly looking to further localise our delivery proposition.

This interview has been lightly edited.

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