Data can’t save our department stores

myer david jonesThe world of retail is constantly bombarded with claims that data is what drives success. So explain to me how Myer – between Flybuys and the Myer One card database – sits on one of the world’s richest sources of big data, fails to compete with retailers that have – in some instances – none.

David Jones is much the same. Hundreds of millions of dollars of shareholders funds spent over the last three decades on data collection, warehousing and reporting have produced nothing but declining sales and shrinking margins.

Data can only record outcomes. It cannot tell you why. And data can be misleading. What retail data is progressively doing is dumbing the shopping experience down to commonality and – as technologists and financial modellers increasingly dominate the retail world –  eradicating merchant flair and differentiation.

Far from being a ‘burning platform’ as some media analysts have suggested, department stores are becoming more not less relevant as a model, as customers struggle with the vast sea of me-too product options where the only life raft out of confusion is cheap price. It’s just that very few leadership teams in modern department stores around the world understand and can execute their proper place in the retail ecosystem.

Department stores used to be THE comparative shopping zone for customers. They should be the number one choice of customers to shop in any fashion or home lifestyle or gift related category. They should be, but very often they aren’t any more. That is because of what they have been allowed to become – little shopping centres rather than comparative and complimentary shopping zones that are a joy to shop.

Retailers like Myer and David Jones used to curate collections and present “this goes with that” stories to customer bases that floor staff knew by name. The store was not arranged in mini-stores (concessions) but rather set up so that customers could browse and select complimentary options in a category and have store staff take them through what would be best for them and why, at the same time as adding more items to the basket by embellishing the initial item to deliver a better outcome for the customer.

Width of range and depth of service is what drove customers into stores because width meant all options and all categories of need in one place and service meant best personal outcome. Yes – on paper – capital efficiency could be improved by tightening ranges. But it killed customer connection and drove department stores into competition with other retailers who could match them on tighter ranges and beat them on price.

Efficiency is not the sole driver of retail success. Today we have department stores driven by concessions, with no connection between branded range options and very little service in stores that aren’t built for self-service. Historical strength categories have been removed entirely. Yet some are suggesting we combine two poorly performing retailers together as a solution as if ‘synergies’ will solve it.

Our department stores cannot only be saved, in time they can flourish. But ‘can’ and ‘will’ are two very different things and it will take blood, sweat and tears to get them back to where they should be.  Something investors are becoming less and less willing to tolerate.

Peter James Ryan is a retail expert and head of Red Communication. 02 9481 7215 or



  1. Peter posted on January 25, 2018

    I totally agree with this article, so many companies rely on data or have data and dont know how to use it, but then again you can make data look anyway you want too. Myer totally lost the plot and in doing so alienated their existing and loyal customers. This article has relevant and great advice for Myer and David Jones, shopping at these stores was an experience and but the mentality of the Myer board and its executives will need to change or they will continue to flounder and become irrelevant.

  2. Peter posted on January 26, 2018

    Pretty simple to reveal their problem if you go back to what made DJ'S and Myer in the first place. Three things: PRODUCT, PRODUCT & PRODUCT. The ultimate solution is to chuck out the non floor walking strategic management guru's and take things back to basics. Buying is an art.

  3. Brian Koop posted on January 29, 2018

    Agree with this article . Stores have lost the staff and management that had the merchandising skills to make the merchandise star . Visual merchandisers follow strict guidelines which stifle any creativity . Head office managers visit stores to enforce the company direction which is generated with little knowledge of the local market and customers needs . Working creatively with products builds exciting merchandise displays as well as ownership by store teams and enthusiasm for the business product and customer . The end result Is sales . There needs to be a balance between data and old fashioned merchandising skills . As far as marking down or moving merchandise that is slow selling more control should be given to stores to avoid loss of profit .

    • Terry O'Neill posted on March 10, 2018

      I totally agree with all the articles written. I am writing this as a former manager who was proud to say back then that I worked for Myer. I was so saddened to visit Myer Chadstone 10 minutes after opening time on a Sunday morning. The mess had to be seen to be believed with expensive shirts, ties trousers still lying where they landed from the day before. The floor was a sea of garments and plastic bags that once held expensive shirts. Realizing I had been standing stunned for at least 5 minutes I dared venture into the fitting room only to struggle to open the door as there was so many garments blocking the entry. This sight was the same for all the fitting rooms. I was in that department 30 minutes before I encountered a person I know as a department manager. He walked past oblivious to the mayhem as he was far too busy barking instructions to a group that appeared to be new recruits although the instructions did not include applying some housekeeping standards to menswear. My wait at the payment counter confirmed my feeling exactly when I over heard a customer ask her friend to "please get me out of here". As I was leaving I encountered a staff member I recalled from my days with the company. When I asked what had happened she promptly replied," no staff, no morale, no direction, no pride and no care. She went on to tell me that she hated telling people she worked for Myer. As I sat sipping my well earned coffee I could not help but think that over the previous hour that was exactly what I had encountered. Where was management on such an important trading day ?. Where was the direction for staff?. Where were the staff?. How could a store manager let this flag ship store present itself to customers in such a terrible state?. First task in the road to recovery. Take the managers, directors and board through this store on any given morning and let them see for themselves what they expect their customers to endure. Let the directors and board ask the coal face workers where they see the problems. For a proper reality check do not let management nobble the staff first as there would be some very worried managers should the staff be able to tell the truth as only they can. Now wouldn't that be sight for sore eyes. The board listening to those that really matter. When you lose the staff you have nothing worth keeping.

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