Beware the Ides of March! Or in this case, the Ides of December. You know, there used to be a comedy show in the UK called Up Pompeii, in which a soothsayer (played funnily enough by an ex-Doctor Who) would wander on in every episode and cackle “beware the Ides of March!”
I only mention that because predictions surrounding Debenhams’ likely performance over Christmas reminded me of that show. Not only were the ‘soothsayers’ predicting gloom of Imperial proportions, but some (such as Goldman Sachs) suggested the whole basis on which the business is built was at risk.
So, did it all the bad stuff come to pass? Of course not. Debenhams is a mature business that’s been managing its trading well and for the Christmas period it had a long list of positives. That included more full price sales, careful management of weather-dependent clothes and accessories so it didn’t get stuck with a load of unsold coats and knits, rising beauty sales and online increases that DIDN’T devastate store sales (are you listening Goldman Sachs?)
True, it didn’t quite match John Lewis or House of Fraser but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.
So what actually happened?
Well it seems the Christmas Found It ad campaign hit the mark. Comparable sales rose 1.9% in the 19 weeks to January 9. OK, that may not sound anything special but it was against a background of a very weak season for fashion sales, expectations of tough times for Debenhams itself and shoppers holding out for bargains.
Online sales rose 12% with a 36% surge in the final week before Christmas. And, importantly, full price sales both online and in-store rose 5% over the period, helping to protect those crucial margins.
For Black Friday, the company processed 220 orders a minute at a peak on the day, with BF online orders up 20%. Stores benefited too, with face-to-face sales surging.
The company did well in beauty, and fitness wearables were popular too with Fitbit products being a big part of its 50% rise in wellbeing-related sales. Debenhams sold 9m seasonal gifts in the period. Oh, and it also sold an awful lot of Lego (85,000 units) and Star Wars products (70,000). In the process it shifted 8,000 Light Sabers, leaving me to ask “am I the only person in Britain who still doesn’t own a Light Saber?”