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Secret Shopper: Manchester's Debenhams Beauty flagship

Tom Shearsmith
04 February 2022 recently visited Debenhams's new and only beauty store just weeks after it opened in Manchester, looking at how Boohoo Group is handling the iconic retailer's new flagship location.

Before its collapse, the department store chain Debenhams had six million beauty shoppers and 1.4 million Beauty Club members. Boohoo – which acquired the Debenhams brand and e-commerce operations from liquidators at the start of last year – later re-launched the website with a beauty offer, which currently includes an ever-growing range of more than fifty big-name beauty brands including Benefit, Lancôme, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent and Versace.

In October of last year Boohoo announced it would be opening one physical beauty location in Manchester to satisfy the requirement of many beauty brands that any stockists have a bricks and mortar presence. Initially described by the brand as "spanning across two floors and 7,552 sq. ft of retail space", the store appeared to only be accessible to customers on one level during our visit.

Debenhams hopes the store will offer a fresh, modern and unique space for customers to experience the latest in beauty first-hand. Emphasised by retailer, the store reflects its new vision and takes inspiration from high-end beauty and fragrances brands.

The Windows & Entrance

Located in the Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester City Centre, the new location is a great example of how big name brands still need to have a presence on high streets and in shopping destinations. Unfortunately the new location is slightly overshadowed by the old Debenhams store which is located nearby, where many shoppers and commuters pass daily - still featuring its signage.

The store front features floor to ceiling glass windows, much like the Apple Store located next door. Considering the unit previously housed Monsoon, the location is unrecognisable and has been completely redeveloped. Shortly after entering the store, which I must stress was surprisingly quiet, I was approached by a sales assistant who offered to help me with any of the products in her section.

The Store-fit & Displays

The store has been fitted out to a high standard, with a large screen at the entrance showcasing selected Instagram posts that have tagged the location. One surprising aspect was the underutilisation of space, perhaps due to the lack of customers during my visit. I felt like the product displays could be expanded to showcase a wider variety.

Featuring a rich colour palette of dark grey, cream and royal purple, the new store feels welcoming but unfinished - perhaps partially due to Boohoo Group's urge to establish a physical retail base for the beauty brands that Debenhams stocks.

Every product category – lips, skincare, make-up, fragrance - has its own display and shelving where products are stacked with the occasional tester available. Unfortunately the products didn't meet my exceptions - both in terms of presentation and accessibility. Various products across all categories had no prices on display (on the product or close by), meaning I had to use the website to find the correct price.

Manchester's Debenhams Beauty

The Try-On Experience

With products across the make-up category varying massively in price point and the lack of clear prices, I didn't feel comfortable asking for any try-on experiences, instead opting to do my own testing. On the shop floor almost all makeup products are still in their packaging or difficult to access, meaning a customer without confidence may feel unable to explore specific products. Testing almost felt discouraged in the make-up category. I would have expected more staff around this department to help customers feel relaxed.

However, in the fragrance department various testers were available, with samples of both aftershave and perfume available. It wasn't until after I had chosen and purchased a product that I realised I had sampled fragrances for men and women, as the store features very little reference to gender - a positive step towards inclusivity and de-gendering beauty products.

The Service

The best way to describe the staff in the new Debenhams Beauty would be very 'Big Brother', with several staff keeping an eye on me throughout the store, but only one approaching me to ask questions about what I was looking for. The overall service was good, such as at checkout, where several perfume samples were placed in my bag - I only wish they had not assumed the scent I may be wanting to try.

More could be done overall to improve the atmosphere and service in the location, especially in regards to the customer/staff relationship and openness to product education.

Manchester's Debenhams Beauty

The Products

The product selection is not as extensive as you would find at H Beauty by Harrods or Selfridges, but the products on offer include popular brands Urban Decay, Moschino, Diesel, bareSkin, BareMinerals, YSL, Valentino and Lancôme.

Boohoo has already stated that 2022 will see its range of brands "increase dramatically", so it may be too early to draw conclusions, however it does raise concerns that customers may already be expressing disdain at its lack of product variety.

In Conclusion, Debenhams Beauty flagship is a location that serves its purpose - it gives a physical retail opportunity for some incredible brands, but it doesn't go beyond what was seen previously in Debenhams retail locations, perhaps even takes a few steps backwards. It was a necessity for the business and definitely needs a little more work. I am optimistic that Boohoo Group can utilise its skills to fine-tune and improve the location, such as exploring the second floor space, labelling items clearer and creating a warmer atmosphere.

Boohoo Group also needs to be aware of the challenges it will face in the chosen location; it is not far from discount beauty locations in the Arndale or luxury retailers including Selfridges. It simply needs work out its target demographic and work hard to convert them into regular customers, which it currently does not appear to be doing successfully.

I am left wondering how long it will take Boohoo to introduce its own beauty products into the store...

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