Monday, 23 April 2012


When you’re having a mid-life crisis, it’s best not to advertise the fact. Yet that is precisely what David Jones decided to do on the weekend.

The distinguished department store, now a sprightly 178 years of age, is publicly flirting with the bright young thing in the office, the adolescent and extremely attractive creature known as online retail; current darling of the tabloids. Clearly infatuated, DJ’s has expressed its desire to make whoopee together, beginning with a mea culpa that profits are plummeting and hinting that the jilted missus, the dreary old women in black, are to blame for not offering the services expected of them. Adding to the embarrassment came Saturday’s list of seven promises, with David Jones sounding like an errant husband at a counseling session.

Whether these promises carry any more weight than a Labor Party pre-election commitment remains to be seen, but they don’t offer any enthralling insights. Condensed into one simple sentence, the copy might just as well read: “our promise is to be all things to all people because we don’t know who we are.” Even Miranda Kerr looks like she’s not quite sure what the point of the ad is. “Do you want sexy, or serious?” you can almost hear her saying to the hapless creatives. Even her choice of wardrobe (one shoulder covered, the other bare) hints at compromise.

Which is not surprising. David Jones’ real problem isn’t anything to do with online retail and better in-store service – these things are taken for granted by today’s consumers – but rather a crisis of identity that department stores the world over have confronted in a variety of ways. David Jones have no idea what their positioning should be, as is evidenced by their tag-line; the quasi-existentialist “Is.Was.Always” – a phrase devoid of allure, excitement, purpose or creativity. This is a planner’s phrase, cobbled together the morning after a depressing focus group: “oh, we musn’t forget our heritage, but we’ve also got to be up-to-date, oh, and, er future focused as well.”

Compare it to “there’s no other store like David Jones,” a slogan that apart from scanning well to a pretty tune was full of promise and a sense of magic and occasion. Why on earth they ditched it (let me guess – they changed ad agency?) is beyond me. Or was it simply because the old boy, seduced by the exotic allure of the internet, realized that “there’s no other omni channel retailer like David Jones” didn’t quite work.

“Omni channel retailer” is the ominous-sounding concept CEO Paul Zahra is currently spruiking. The term, much like the navel-gazing strapline, is an advertising planner’s wet dream; all things to all people. Based on the U.S. retailer Nordstrom’s strategy, it offers an accountants way out of the current problems rather than a creative one.

David Jones problem is simple. They need to attract lots more people into their stores. To do so, they have to generate excitement about what’s in there. Get that right – Zahra himself admitted that online works best when there’s a store nearby - and everything else will fall into place, with or without the “promises.”

David Jones needs to get creative. In their marketing and in their stores. Being creative means being single-minded and taking risks by breaking new ground.

House of Fraser, Harvey Nichols and even Selfridges in London are all similar department stores to David Jones (in one way or another), and all have boldly tackled the same problems.

Last year, House of Fraser challenged Mary Portas – a celebrity “secret shopper” and harsh critic of department stores in general - to create her ideal store and gave her an entire floor to do with as she pleased; turning it into a reality TV show at the same time. “There's only one rule in my shop: it's not for girls, it's for women," she announced in a move that would terrify the timid marketers of David Jones. (“Bye bye Miranda? Never!”)

Harvey Nichols went in the opposite direction, releasing a controversial TV ad that highlighted the “walk of shame” – when girls come home in the clothes they wore out the night before. In other words: “Keen on promiscuity, hedonism and guilt-free shagging? Are we the shop for you!” Now that’s an insight guaranteed to stimulate the target audience. Meanwhile, the faceless board of David Jones, when confronted with their own headline-grabbing real-life sexual assault case, ran like nervous nellies and hid under the bedclothes.

Selfridges, who have remained masters of the ever-evolving department store, have grabbed the “heritage” tag and done something genuinely creative with it; a new “Downton Abbey” - era TV drama called Mr. Selfridge is currently in production.

David Jones needs to get over it’s mid-life crisis and get creative. Quickly.

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