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Drapers Hit or Miss: London department stores

London department stores face Drapers’ secret shopper’s scrutiny

When the seasons change, Drapers’ secret shoppers hit the high street to put retailers’ offers under the microscope. Previous editions of the series have focused on the womenswearmenswear and footwear collections from the big-name multiples of the UK high street. This season, we have extended our review to include department stores.

It is a pertinent time to examine this corner of the market, which is perhaps the most troubled and turbulent in the retail sector.

Sports Direct International, which bought department store chain House of Fraser out of administration last August, labelled the retailer’s problems as  “nothing short of terminal in nature” earlier this year. Another, Debenhams, is still battling to turn around its fortunes after also entering administration in April. Even John Lewis, a stalwart of the sector, swung to a pre-tax  loss of £25.9m in the six months to 27 July 2019.

Questions have been raised about the future of the department store model in today’s retail landscape. Seen by some as outdated and outmoded, critics argue there are simply too many players chasing the same slice of a rapidly dwindling pie.

However, the department store sector is not without its successful shining lights. It is too soon to write off the sector entirely, despite the challenges it faces. Retailers around the world continue to look to UK stores such as Selfridges and Liberty for the latest innovations in enticing store experience and stand-out visual merchandising.

For example, heavy investment at its Oxford Street flagship in London drove a 6% rise in sales to £1.85bn at Selfridges in the year to February.

Drapers visited the womenswear areas of the London flagships of leading department stores, which were split into two categories: high street and premium. At premium department stores – Liberty, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods – the contemporary womenswear offer was assessed.

All stores were given a score out of five for the categories of product, presentation, service and overall shopping experience, giving a total of 20. Stores were visited in early November.


High street




High street

John Lewis: 16/20

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Service: 4 
  • Shopping experience: 4

A good product mix, including own brand, in an attractive store

The 40,000 sq ft womenswear floor at John Lewis’s Oxford Street flagship was revamped just last year, so I am expecting good things. There is a comprehensive personal styling service at this store, which gives customers a reason to visit bricks-and-mortar retail.

An enthusiastic and friendly member of staff says hello to me as soon as I step off the escalator into womenswear, which gets my experience off to a promising start. He seems genuinely happy to help and I hear him direct customers to various products and services, chatting knowledgeably about both.

The space is attractive and well designed. The minimalist fittings lend a sophisticated atmosphere, and oval lights and copper wall panels further elevate the space. I particularly like a map of London decorated with neon pink writing, which feels like a nice local touch.

It is also relatively easy to shop. There is a lot of product on display across the sprawling space, but each brand has its own clearly delineated area. Disappointingly, some of the dedicated brand areas – such as Whistles and Hobbs – are messy and need a good tidy.

The product offer feels nicely balanced: there is plenty of choice for a variety of different shoppers without being repetitive.

John Lewis has been revamping its fashion strategy with the aim of growing sales from own-brand or exclusive product to 50%. 

Each own label now has a distinct handwriting. John Lewis & Partners offers good basics, such as roll-neck cashmere jumpers for £95. Pure cashmere for less than £100 feels like good value. Modern Rarity, meanwhile, is more focused on glitzy, seasonally appropriate partywear. I am very impressed by a sculptural leather hoop bucket bag (£135) from the range, which feels buttery soft. It seems sturdy and long lasting, and therefore good value for money.

The changing rooms are impressive. There is no mess, and curtains in turquoise and soft pink make the space feel modern and fresh. Service at the fittings rooms is friendly and efficient.


House of fraser oxford street

House of Fraser: 11/20

  • Product: 3
  • Presentation: 2
  • Service: 3
  • Shopping experience: 3

A mixed bag: some unique product but parts of the store are lacking

I am not particularly impressed by my journey to House of Fraser’s womenswear department. Signposting from the ground floor beauty department could be improved and I initially struggle to find the escalators leading to other floors.

Heavy black marble around the lift and escalator area feels imposing and outdated, but I am pleasantly surprised when I reach the shop floor. The shopfit around a large area dedicated to womenswear brand Mint Velvet is particularly impressive, and product is attractively displayed on marble tables and wooden benches.

However, some parts of the floor feel considerably less sophisticated. There are a few sections in the space where discounted brands have all been mixed together on plain metal rails. There is no visual merchandising and the overall effect feels confused and jumbled. The complete absence of music makes the entire womenswear area eerily quiet.

Changing rooms here are disappointing. A bulky heater dominates the entrance and I spot a big pile of rubbish. There is very little in the way of decoration, and the walls of my cubicle are very scratched and worn.

Service is better. I am greeted by a member of staff as soon as I walk on to the shop floor and the same person also warmly bids me goodbye when I leave. There is someone working in the changing rooms to check how many items I have when I enter, who is also polite and friendly.

House of Fraser offers some of the same brands as John Lewis – for example, Mint Velvet and Ralph Lauren. This highlights one of the key challenges facing department stores in today’s market. 

However, I do spot some strong products that I do not see anywhere else, such as a rose-toned fake fur leopard print coat (£195) from French Connection. The pink ombré effect makes this product feel unique, which, combined with how thick and fluffy it is, helps to justify the higher price tag.


Debenhams kley aw19 (5)

Debenhams Kley

Debenhams: 10/20

  • Product: 3
  • Presentation: 3
  • Service: 2
  • Shopping experience: 2

Own brand Kley is a high point, but more effort is needed all around

My eye is drawn to an attractive display from Debenhams’ Brand Mrkt edit of on-trend third-party pieces. Clothing is arranged around attractive pale wood and pink boxes accessorised with cacti and neon lights.

Much like John Lewis, Debenhams is focusing on revitalising its own brands to give it a crucial point of difference in the market. There is some nice visual merchandising on display around Kley, Debenhams’ newest own womenswear brand, which launched in September this year. Copper baskets and soft pink seating fit with the contemporary, premium feeling the range is trying to project. I am also impressed by the Kley product offer. A soft grey jumper (£39) and long Borg coat (£150) are both high-quality wardrobe staples that represent good value for money.

Despite the splashes of nice visual merchandising, in general the womenswear area feels in need of some love and attention. I notice dust on the floor as I browse, and dirty mirrors are smeared with handprints and cry out to be cleaned.

The changing rooms here are just as disappointing as at House of Fraser. As I enter, there is a strong chemical smell. The space feels unloved and unfinished. There is nothing in terms of visual merchandising or decoration, and no personality has been added to the changing area, which is disappointing considering how important a step trying on products is in a customer’s shopping journey. A handwritten sign in red pen warning that one of the cubicles is out of order is unprofessional. I do not feel inclined to linger.

There is a staff member on hand at the changing rooms who greets me and hands me a tag, but I have no other interaction with staff during my visit.   



Selfridges: 16.5/20

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Service: 4.5
  • Shopping experience: 4

Attentive staff in a well-curated store result in a very pleasant experience

Selfridges oxford street corner shot oxford street duke street (1b) photo credit andrew meredith

Source: Andrew Meredith

London landmark Selfridges has put experiences – including a three-screen cinema that opened this month – at the centre of its offer. This focus on pushing the boundaries of retail is on clear display during my visit to the Oxford Street flagship. As I walk on to the contemporary womenswear floor – which is easy to find from the beauty and accessories halls on the ground level – I quickly spot the department store’s new concession with second-hand clothing resale platform Vestiaire Collective.

As premium and glossy as all of Selfridges’ other concessions, it feels in tune with customers’ changing shopping habits and brings something new to the retailer’s offer. A friendly and helpful member of staff talks me through how it works with warmth and intelligence.

The womenswear offer here is massive but well curated, spanning everything from luxury London Fashion Week label Ashish to premium brand Acne Studios, and high street names including Topshop and AllSaints

This plethora of choice is complemented by an extensive collection of activewear, such as Sweaty Betty and Lululemon, as well as lingerie in the nearby Body Studio.

Customers looking for contemporary womenswear should be able to find exactly what they want on one floor, which makes for an easy shopping experience. I also notice that Selfridges feels considerably more spacious and brighter than rivals Harrods and Harvey Nichols, again making for a more pleasant shopping experience.

Service is good, once I find it. The number of staff available varies from space to space, and I am ignored by a couple of team members as I browse. I have to ask someone where I can try on my chosen item (a puff-sleeve blouse from Danish label Ganni, £150) as the fitting rooms are roped off. She is polite and friendly, and shows me to another set of changing rooms. 

Another member of staff tells me how much she likes the blouse when I come out to ask for an alternative size. She is extremely friendly and warm without being over the top. Her enthusiasm feels genuine.

However, I am disappointed by scuffed walls and stained carpets in my cubicle, which are at odds with the high-end experience of Selfridges.


Liberty: 15/20

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 4
  • Service: 3
  • Shopping experience: 4

Great product in a unique store, but more staff members are needed

Liberty store front

The black-and-white Tudor store front of Liberty is one of London’s most Instagrammed spots. Inside I am able to find the contemporary womenswear floor quickly and easily. Wide aisles make the area easy to shop and soft music adds to the overall pleasant experience.

I am slightly disappointed that the pretty pink floral visual merchandising that I spot on the ground floor has not been continued upstairs, as it would have elevated the experience still further.

Key contemporary names – such as Ganni, Rixo, Nanushka and APC – are ticked off. Liberty also differentiates its offer with labels and products I do not spot anywhere else: I am very tempted to buy a cream jumper with face motif (£90) from Paloma Wool. It is a fun, unusual product that feels relevant to Liberty’s quirky, well-heeled target customer. Made from a wool and alpaca blend, it is also excellent quality for the price, and represents good value for money.

Such a large space would benefit from having more staff. I am not greeted as I enter the contemporary womenswear level, and I only spot two staff members on the shop floor during my visit. The limited number of assistants means their time and attention is in hot demand. To their credit, I hear one member of staff on the floor dealing politely and professionally with another customer who has a complaint. Originally somewhat disgruntled, they end up praising the team member for how well she handles the situation. When I ask her for help and sizing advice, she is friendly and knowledgeable.

Changing rooms are spacious and well designed. Velvet curtains and a wicker chair make the cubicle a pleasant place to be. It is also spotless, unlike other department stores I visit.


Harrods: 13/20

  • Product: 4
  • Presentation: 3
  • Service: 4
  • Shopping experience: 2

A dim, maze-like store does not let the extensive product range shine

Harrods exteriornew

I find Harrods the most difficult store to navigate on my shopping trip – among the warren-like luxury accessories halls, I struggle to locate the escalators leading to the contemporary womenswear area. It takes a lot of wandering around until I am able to find the right place, although the department store’s famous Egyptian escalator is still an impressive spectacle.

Overall, the store is darker and less inspiring than rival Selfridges. There are some nice splashes of visual merchandising around, such as a dramatic spray of flowers around a display from French label Ba&sh.

I am also impressed by a pretty floral wall around the store’s “Dress Boutique”, which includes labels such as Shona Joy, Love Shack Fancy and Rhodes. My eye is caught by a wine-toned shirred midi-dress from resort label Rhodes (£320), which I do not see anywhere else.

There is a lot of choice on offer, including a large denim collection, and brands such as Self-Portrait, Shrimps, Weekend Max Mara and Ted Baker. However, the sheer number of labels for customers to choose from makes the space feel cramped in places, which is not helped by the relatively low ceilings and dim lighting.

Service at Harrods is attentive. I am greeted quickly, and a member of staff spots me looking for the changing rooms and shows me where they are, offering advice on the fit of my chosen item. I am also asked how I found the item and bid goodbye as I leave the floor.

Changing rooms also get a tick. Pink palm print wallpaper contrasts against soft green accents, which feels fresh and modern. They are also spick and span, with minimal marks or scuffs.


Harvey Nichols: 10/20

  • Product: 3
  • Presentation: 2
  • Service: 3
  • Shopping experience: 2

A complex store layout and lacklustre merchandising are disappointing 

Night time high res9

Night time high res9

I would have liked to see more in the way of interesting visual merchandising at Harvey Nichols. Areas are decorated to reflect each brand’s individual handwriting, such as pops of vivid blue at Danish label Stine Goya. However, the Christmas decorations around the escalators here are quite basic compared with the more impressive, luxurious display I see at rival Harrods.

Contemporary womenswear at Harvey Nichols is spread over two floors. While there is a lot of choice, this makes it more annoying to browse. It takes a few trips up and down the escalators until I have worked out where all the different brands are located.

Changing rooms are initially more welcoming than at Selfridges, thanks to the squashy armchairs and array of magazines on display just outside. However, there are signs of wear and tear in the actual fitting room, which detracts from the overall experience: the walls and the pale purple carpet are covered in marks and scuffs.

There is some crossover on labels such as contemporary brand Batsheva between Harvey Nichols and its competitors. However, the retailer has complemented these popular contemporary names with labels such as Danish brand Brøgger, so the offer provides some variety and does not feel too repetitive.

I am not greeted as I walk around the shop floor, but a member of staff quickly spots me as I approach the denim wall and asks if I need any help. She is able to advise on different brands and fits, and takes the time to show me to the fitting rooms. I also hear her offering styling advice to another customer. Another member of staff bids me goodbye as I leave the store.


Readers' comments (1)

  • Hi. Did you do Fenwick in Bond Street as I don’t see that report?

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