Why would a department store close its online store while building a new one?

And, having done that, what should the company do to make sure the relaunch maximises the opportunity?

Here are 10 suggestions for one particular retailer doing exactly that.

Fenwick was one of the last ‘big’ department stores to start selling online. And now… it’s stopping.

The site seemed to tick along, selling stuff, albeit a little quietly. It’s now announced a very bold move: building a NEW online store and, while it does that, closing the current one.

fenwick - closing down

Having made such a bold move, the big question now is: What should Fenwick do to ensure it maximises the success of the new store?

10 recommendations for the Fenwick online relaunch

With the big, big caveat that I do not know the overall strategy, I have not seen internal data, and do not know the limitations from a ‘knowledge’ and ‘money’ point of view, here are here are 10 recommendations.

1. The brand

Ideally, it should buy ‘fenwicks.com’. Everyone calls the company “fenwicks”, and a .com is hugely preferable for international sales.

If you’re reading this, Fenwicks: Buy ‘fenwick.com’ too if you can, but that looks a little harder to acquire. (while you’re at it, buy fenwicks.co.uk from the domain squatter who has it).

Here’s the graph of searches for ‘fenwick’ vs ‘fenwicks’ as an example. (plural in red)

fenwicks vs fenwick

You may remember that John Lewis used to have a series of brands across the country: ‘Cole Brothers’ in Sheffield, ‘Bainbridge’ in Newcastle, ‘Peter Jones’ (which still exists) in London.

It very neatly transitioned that to simply ‘John Lewis’, then pushed TV advertising, then pushed online, and has done very, very well as a result. The job for ‘Fenwicks’ is arguably much simpler.

2. The level

In terms of the ‘level’ of things, Fenwick should start higher end and move down from there later if need be. Closer to Liberty/Selfridges than John Lewis.

  • It’s easier to move ‘down’ than it is to move ‘up’.
  • It’s easier to be talked about if you’re higher end than lower
  • It’s easier to protect margin that helps you spend on marketing if you’re higher. etc.

And this isn’t to say that all of the products should be £500+; but that the way it proactively merchandises the site – the products featured on the homepage, category page, emails, social, etc – should push the brand toward the higher end of the market than the lower.

3. Category coverage

Here’s the old Fenwick header, from which you can figure out the kind of things it was selling online:

fenwick old header

That looks quite small scale doesn’t it? As an extra piece of context: Fenwick’s flagship store (Newcastle) is 250,000 square feet. Yet John Lewis’s enormous flagship on Oxford Street isn’t much bigger: 320,000 square feet.

In other words – Fenwick’s actual spread of products is much, much greater than the header there would have you believe.

Really it should sell all the product categories online: Fashion, Appliances, Electronics, Homewares, etc. Aside from fashion: it doesn’t need massive coverage in all categories – the previous John Lewis tactic of stocking ‘a few of the best’ should work to start.

According to @GeoffreyB, Fenwick buys separately for each of their stores. Perhaps treating online as the new flagship might be a good idea.

Perhaps medium-term linking up store inventory with online might be useful but, in the meantime, having a greater range of stock online & the ability for staff in-store to say “we haven’t got that size, but let me check online” (as per John Lewis, Schuh, etc) may be an ‘open door’.

4. Fashion?

For fashion specifically: it should aim to achieve very good brand coverage on fashion brands, and PPC bid on those to acquire customers online (ie. products which are higher margin, with high search volume).

Lean on the bigger/higher interest fashion brands to help with PR and buzz and getting talked about among influential people. It’s very easy to test brands online too, both from the point of view of ‘product interest’ and of the ability to sell.

5. Marketing channels

Outside of the link-up with shops: Paid search, remarketing (display and social), and email should be the core online customer acquisition & sales engine.

It has the brand to get links naturally if it gets everything else right. Build SEO into the site development plan, but spend more time and money on paid & email for the day-to-day initially, with PR to spread the brand and grow organic results.

For email: put tons of effort into growing the list and getting that right. Don’t worry about too much about segmentation/personalisation at the start, but do build toward it.

PPC: Lean on brands for some of this For example, bidding on the phrase “Ted Baker” or “Max Mara” is nice, as it’s roughly equivalent to a brand search – highish volume, highish purchase intent, highish clickthrough rate if you can become present.

Having excellent product range coverage and good user experience from that stage onward therefore allows you to acquire customers.

Alongside that, product listing ads have helped some retailers grow massively. Eg, search Google for ‘max mara jackets’, and you’ll see Matches soak up a huge amount of available clicks with product listing ads – a place where Fenwick could easily be present across all of their brands.

6. Menswear

Sort out the menswear online. As you saw from the screengrab of Fenwick’s old navigation, it did nothing around menswear online. 

There isn’t really a ‘mid-market Mr Porter’ at the moment, and there is definitely space for that. See the growth of brands like Grenson, etc (and even Ted Baker, etc) as proof.

ted baker uk search graph

7. Delivery

It should make sure delivery is very, very good both from a ‘speed’ & ‘flexibility’ point of view, and in delighting customers at the point their products arrive.

Fenwick should partner with someone for click and collect if it can. It should – as mentioned earlier – push online from store, and make sure they can deliver to stores to keep current, core customers very happy.

8. Devices

Fenwick needs to recognise most views will come from mobile, most sales & revenue will come from desktop, and that many of the highest value customers will browse on tablet.

Making sure the site supports each of those uses properly, and making sure that the ‘mobile browse to desktop/tablet purchase’ journey works well are essential.

9. Content… or not?

Focussing on content is good, but only if you can produce lots of high quality content. See M&S as proof that focussing too much on content too early doesn’t necessarily reap rewards.

If Fenwick is going to do this, it should hire good, prolific fashion journalists with massive product knowledge.

10. Community… or not?

Finally: Focusing on community is good too, and there is often a big temptation among offline retailers to focus on this as it is something they understand from having people wandering around their shops all day.

But technology, stock, and more ‘direct’ digital marketing have to be excellent for this to really work.

By all means Fenwick should grow its social accounts (and perhaps centralise them – eg. it has @fenwicknew, @fenwickbondst on Twitter and Facebook at the moment).

But, if it is going to try and grow a community online, Fenwick may instead start by focussing on delivering value to its best customers, and getting the ‘onboarding’ process right for new customers (ie. growing them from first-time buyers to loyal customers).

Once that’s working well it’s much easier to then lean on those customers to help build, and participate in, the community (for good examples, see the wine industry: The Wine Society & Naked Wines are particularly good).

Extras

That’s it. There are all sorts of massive considerations outside all of this of course (As just a few examples… People: hire some absolute experts who have grown great online brands. Technology itself: make sure the platform is bulletproof. Location: I think it should be run out of Newcastle – the biggest store – with a smaller London office too), but hopefully by this stage all of that is sorted, or very far down the line.

Again, to finish off, it is worth recaveating things. I’ve worked with lots of online retailers, and perhaps a couple of dozen with a strong fashion bias within that pool, but I have not seen Fenwick’s internal data, internal objectives, or know anything about the financial situation. 

Normally I’d want access to the data, and the current plans, and what has/has not worked, etc to suggest things like these.

This is therefore really a runthrough of 10 recommendations on the basis of the situation from the outside looking in. But, having seen how John Lewis (around 40 physical stores) has ‘beaten’ Marks and Spencer online (around 775 physical stores), I think there’s a massive opportunity for ‘Fenwick to push itself forward online.

What do you think? And what would you do, having made the decision to start again online?