Debenhams: a view from the inside

Debenhams is on the brink of collapse. What’s it like to work there?

Update! The store I once worked in is going to close.

Debenhams, one of Britain’s largest department stores,  is the latest high street store to be in financial trouble.

Just look at these articles from  The Guardian, the BBC, and Money Week explaining how it has gone into administration, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

A few years ago, I worked in a Debenhams store, as a temporary staff member during the lead up to Christmas.

With previous experience working in customer service and retail roles, I thought that a couple of months in Debenhams would be a breeze, an easy way to tide me over until my next job started.

With any retail job, increasing sales and profits is paramount. Customer service is equally as important, though, otherwise no-one will shop there.

Even though Debenhams talks the talk when it comes to customer service, they don’t walk the walk.

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I had a day or two of staff training, where the importance of customer service was drilled into me. We give you all the cutting edge tools, they said, to make sure we provide the best customer service.

True, they had installed in-store screens where customers could order items that were not available in that location.

True, they had set up free delivery on orders to be picked up from store locations.

True, they had developed a shopping app.

True, their website was pretty good.

But, all of these innovations were undermined by another Debenhams policy, which was in complete conflict with providing decent customer service.

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Every time a customer came to the register to pay for their items, we had to offer them the option of opening a Debenhams credit card.

We had no choice about this; we had to try to get as many people as possible to sign up, no matter what.

Every store had unreasonably high credit card targets to meet, and at our store we had a chart which kept track of how many credit cards each member of staff had successfully ‘sold’ to customers.

I only had ‘1’ next to my name, but there was another member of staff who somehow convinced 50 people a week to open a store credit card. I have no idea how she achieved this.

If, by sheer miracle, a customer actually said that, yes, they would love to open a Debenhams credit card, the sign up process was not straightforward.

It involved asking the customer a string of questions to make sure they were eligible, and filling out a complicated and extensive online form,  which meant holding up all the other customers who were waiting in line to pay.

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Image: Wikimedia commons

The whole thing felt uncomfortable, like we were trying to trick people into signing up.

I hated having to mention the credit card offer during every interaction with customers; it left a bitter aftertaste to every conversation, staining otherwise good service.

Many customers got visibly and audibly fed up at being asked about it multiple times.

I’m not saying that an obsession with promoting the Debenhams credit card is the cause for the company’s debt and downfall, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

I haven’t even told you about the appalling management, the bitchy atmosphere between departments, and the lack of training for new staff.

The cash register training I received, for example, lasted just twenty minutes, after which time I was expected to know how to use all the functions for any possible scenario.

Of course, I could not retain this information, and another temporary member of staff and I used to laugh about how ridiculous it was for us to be thrown at the desk together, facing long queues of people, without really being able to help them because we didn’t know simple things like how to process all the different gift vouchers and discount coupons.

She quit before the end of her contract, because the whole thing was unbearable.

Thankfully I only had to work there for a couple of months, during that Christmas rush, and then from the first week in January, I was free, and started a new job elsewhere.

I haven’t shopped there since.

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