Debenhams didn’t have a very merry Christmas this year – first they advised of a projected £115m year on year decrease in pre-tax profits for the six months to April 2014, their shares dropped 12.2% on the last trading day of 2013, and now very early into the new year they have announced the resignation of their chief financial officer.

Analysts have been scrambling to explain the problem the chain has experienced, with verdicts ranging from excited discussions on aspirational offers (or a lack thereof) and discounting strategies to more shoulder-shrugging in the direction of the general economy, but something that has stuck out for me is a comment from the managing director of competing brand John Lewis, Andy Street:

“Our shops and our online channel, bricks and clicks, came together and it’s a story of the two being hand in glove and that giving the customer what they really wanted…”

This comes off the back of a BBC article commenting that John Lewis have experienced a great trading Christmas, with like-for-like sales up 6.9% from a year earlier. A grim contrast to the situation at Debenhams, and it is great to see how on the ball John Lewis have been in attributing a good portion of their performance to online, especially their click and collect service. Bricks and clicks indeed – and what a great turn of phrase that is!

Not that I ever need much of an excuse to start poking around into department store SEO but even the briefest skim over their desktop sites reveals them to be largely on a par – landing page H1s, paragraph copy, anchor text links, not to mention missing image alt and titles plus the disregard of image file naming so common to eCommerce the world over – and they even have a very similar mobile site setup (separately on an m.brand domain with, alas, no responsive design in sight). Both stores offer a click and collect service so what exactly has gone so wrong with Debenhams and so right with John Lewis?

On a whim I added a couple of dresses to basket on each site to see if there was some fatal flaw in the checkout process that could explain Debenhams’ woes, but again nothing obvious leapt out that could be clearly identified as the culprit. It was only when I had a closer poke around at the delivery options that the eureka moment happened. See if you can spot it.

Debenhams Click and Collect

John Lewis Click and Collect

Here’s a hint – the crux of a lot of the problems Debenhams has experienced have been attributed to “not [experiencing] the anticipated final surge in sales in the last week of the [Christmas sales] period.”

The key, I strongly suspect, is actually nothing to do with SEO, PPC or any other particular facet of marketing, digital or otherwise – the key is timing. By the time retailers are into the last week of Christmas sales they generally become highly reliant on in-store footfall – many last delivery dates come and go, and panicking shoppers combing stores for presents before Christmas Eve start to really impact the bottom line of many brands. This is where John Lewis have immediately outperformed Debenhams – not in marketing, but in fulfilment logistics.

John Lewis Click and Collect Timescales

Debenhams Click and Collect Timescales

The magic words are “collection tomorrow.” There’s the answer (online at least) for those last-minute Christmas shoppers – browse and pay online at leisure in the comfort of your home, and only have to brave the crazy world of holiday retail for a quick stop off to pick up your purchases the next day. Not “estimated within 3-5 days.” Tomorrow.

Assuming that this Father Christmas-like fulfilment wasn’t a possibility for Debenhams for infrastructure reasons, could they have done something more, or differently, to avoid losing revenue? Of course – there’s plenty they could do, not least address the classic mistakes make in their mobile website, paid more attention to optimising their medium-tail landing pages (I’ll be brutal here – the URL and general state of their promoted “sequin dresses” page made me wince) and better leveraged content to benefit the shop by keeping it on the same subdomain rather than splitting authority onto – something which John Lewis, it must be pointed out, do much better with their Inspiration and Advice section.

This is where competitor analysis can get really tough, and why it isn’t just enough to do what your competitors are doing when it comes to online. If all you’re doing is sitting on a par with them and they find a way to beat you down in another arena where you can’t necessarily equal their performance – such as John Lewis’ fulfilment infrastructure – then you end up losing out on market share, revenue and brand image. So please, take a lesson from Debenhams for 2014 and stop trying to pull alongside your competitors when it comes to digital performance – in the online retail race you need to pull ahead as often as you possibly can or you’ll never win the race.

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