As a child she was impressed by the perfume sellers at Vroom and Dreesmann, later she started working at V&D and Karstadt. The love for department stores remains, says Debbie Klein in our interview series 'A Love for Department Stores'.
The department store sector is in heavy weather, but there is certainly a future for the luxurious buildings in the big cities, provided that they invest enough in experience and service, Debbie Klein thinks. Even though she has left the department stores sector in the meantime, she remains impressed by the beautiful retail palaces on each visit. And she enjoys the human interaction in the store: a compliment from the saleswoman, that makes your day, right?
How and why did you start working in the department store business?
Debbie Klein: “It happened to me. After four years at Nike and four at Adidas, at the purchasing department, I returned to the Netherlands from Manchester. Vendex KBB had just been bought by investment group KKR and they were looking for young managers. Vroom & Dreesmann was known as 'the ministry of retail', it was a bunker, a closed company with dark offices. Nevertheless, I became enthusiastic. As a twenty-nine-year-old I became responsible for the fashion accessories, a department with high margins, on the ground floor. That was quite a challenge: I went to work every day with a stomachache the first year. But look: I survived, I even met my husband.”
“Then V&D was sold for the second time and I felt a need for change. We went on a world trip with the family, and when I was on Mount Hood in New Zealand, I got a phone call from Karstadt. Now, I had to think about that, because the head office was in Essen... I started anyway, and it was a great adventure, I enjoyed the great willingness to change. But the home front did not like the travel distance to Germany after a while, so I became general manager at Beter Bed, and then at Leen Bakker.”
Do you have a childhood memory of your first visits to a department store, something that stayed with you?
“I was ten or eleven years old and went to buy a present for Mother's Day, in the largest Vroom & Dreesmann in the Netherlands, Hoog Catharijne in Utrecht. It was impressive: that huge entrance, the uniformed ladies selling perfume... They looked like stewardesses, in their dark blue outfits with blue-white-red scarves. Even today I like to be overwhelmed by the palaces, the beautiful buildings, the big entrances, the nice smells, the beautiful people... I love the atmosphere, I like to discover new brands. Especially when I am looking for presents, I am happy to be inspired. Perfumery and cosmetics are the departments that I associate most strongly with department stores. On holidays, we visit every department store that we encounter. I'm a believer! Look, everyone now has an opinion about V&D, but this was the company where I received a thorough education. Moreover, in that period I met my husband, who was a store manager in Rotterdam. We then had our first child, and later at Karstadt our second one, so when I talk about department stores, I'm talking about the love of my life.”
What is your favorite department store?
“Selfridges in London remains great: the building, the city of London... You'll find fun, exciting new things every time. Beautiful window displays, a brow bar, or exclusive ice creams on the basement floor. Always an experience.”
And what do you think of Hudson's Bay?
“A beautiful store, it looks fantastic. They didn’t cut costs on the interior. But it lacks brand awareness. If they had bought the name V&D, then undoubtedly they would be much stronger, the Netherlands would have been grateful for saving the company. The question is whether the Hudson's Bay assortment is sufficiently locally relevant. You also have to bear in mind that operating a department store is very expensive: the rent, the staff... It's just very difficult. Nevertheless, there is a place in the market. Everyone knows De Bijenkorf, but it is very premium. There is no one below, with the exception of Zalando. So I'm curious how it will go.”
If you visit shopping cities in the Netherlands and Belgium today, you will see a lot of vacancy. What will happen to the department stores?
“Large players with few branches, such as the Bijenkorf, will survive, but only in majestic buildings in the top cities, where they find a sufficiently large catchment area. Experience remains a key element, supported by a good omnichannel proposition. What else can we do with those beautiful buildings? You can see here and there in the cities that pop-ups, start-ups and young designers come together in such large buildings. They then form a kind of department store of the future.”
And what do you think of the German market?
“That country is slightly more conservative in terms of retail, the economy is more stable. Large cities quickly become more modern, but a city like Berlin is very international. The danger is that ultimately only one player remains. I'm not sure about Kaufhof. You feel the impact of Zalando.”
How big is the threat of e-commerce for department stores?
“We must all be concerned. As consumers we are spoiled: a long tail assortment, free same day delivery, extensive return options, recommendations by algorithms... And the big cities are getting so busy that it is sometimes more convenient to visit smaller stores, outside the centers. But the distinction between online and offline is no longer relevant. The internet can also be a strong medium for department stores, it offers customers the possibility to browse through the offer, to be inspired and then decide to visit the store or buy online. Social media or digital media in general are also a great way to reach customers and create publicity for your brand.”
Service and advice
Is there a success formula for operating department stores?
“The combination of delicious food, inspiration, experience and an amazing service. One stop shopping is an asset, you have all your favorite brands under one roof. The art is in making the right choices for the customer, and in making use of the selling space by outsourcing parts of the range to specialists. I also think that we have to go back to the golden times, when you still had real 'buying demonstrations'. Wasn’t that the essence of the department store? That combination of innovation, workshops and human interaction... This is the biggest trump card for retailers. We find convenience rather pleasant, but the human contact with a saleswoman, who gives you a compliment because you look good, that is something the internet can’t compete with. So I see a counter-movement coming up. We have to bet harder on service and advice. But it is difficult. Your employees are not computers. No matter how hard you train them, it also comes down to human chemistry. You enter the store as a customer, ready to spend your money, and then the saleswoman happens to have a bad day...”
Haven’t many stores become boring? Did they forget to invest in the future?
“Well, it's a catch-22. Your margins are down, because you have to compete with online players who have started a race to the bottom. If you want to invest in the store of the future, you will have to enter into difficult discussions. Will you reinvest everything in the future of your brand, or go for short term profit ? Every company must conduct that internal dialogue. Changing small things is not an option. Burberry's fantastically inspiring stores prove that it is possible.”
About the project
With the interview series 'A Love for Department Stores', retail expert Erik Van Heuven and journalist Stefan Van Rompaey (RetailDetail) set out to explore the world of department stores. Discussions with international investors and managers will identify the challenges and opportunities for this retail industry. In the digital age, department stores are not relics from the past, but the ultimate example of retail as entertainment. The interviews will appear on the RetailDetail websites in the coming months, in RetailDetail Magazine and will result in a book about the history and future of department stores in Europe.
As a former top manager at, among others, Galeria Inno and Karstadt, Erik Van Heuven knows the sector through and through. As chief editor of StoreCheck and RetailDetail, Stefan Van Rompaey has been following developments in the retail sector for decades.