This week Debenhams became the latest department store group to reveal that it too had enjoyed rather good trade over Christmas, despite the turmoil endured elsewhere. House of Fraser, John Lewis, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols have all said the same.
This success has been attributed to the fact that the typical department store customer is more affluent than your average high street shopper. They are therefore largely immune from tedious talk of crunching credit and falling house prices, and are unlikely to defect to the likes of Primark on the promise of a pair of £4 trousers.
As Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose slightly sulkily pointed out when his business’s performance was compared unfavourably with that of John Lewis, the latter doesn’t have to compete with Tesco and Asda on sales of men’s underpants, while he does.
This is all true, but it wasn’t long ago that the market was writing off the department store as a relic or, in some cases, an expensive indulgence. It was just three years ago that the Allders chain was crumbling ignominiously, and Debenhams’ stock market return little more than a year later was met with ambivalence, if not derision, by investors who saw no value in the business.
So what have department stores done to turn the tide, apart from having the good fortune to attract a customer base with discerning taste in Y-fronts? Well, quite a lot, such as refurbishing their stores, expanding their product offer (at the top and bottom ends of the price scale), going online, improving customer service and generally making shopping a more pleasurable experience. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Yet it is an encouraging tale nonetheless.