Debenhams, the UK retailer, has just launched a multilingual pilot scheme in its flagship Oxford Street store in London. Added to the standard signs are translations in Nigerian, Simplified Chinese and Arabic.

The signs carry the messages “Thank you for shopping at Debenhams” and “Great value prices”.

According to the last census Londoners speak over 300 languages, more than 2.2 million residents were born abroad and the city has more than 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more.

Could this be the beginning of the British high street becoming more a global market place?

By recognising that not everyone speaks English as a first language, Debenhams have taken a very brave first step into applying translation to a retail setting where online is not the focus. They decided on the translations for the store by analysing the number of foreign shoppers who claimed back tax and then matching the most used languages.

Why would Debenhams have these signs translated?

The figures speak for themselves. Visitors from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East spend an average of £1,678, more than twice as much as Americans. Up to a third of spending by tourists during the busy summer months is forecast to be by shoppers from the Middle East.

Retail website Global Blue estimates Nigerian visitors are up 71 per cent on last year while Chinese tourists have risen by almost one third.

Translation of retail websites

This theory has been applied to websites for a long time where it’s very quick and easy to analyse where shoppers are visiting and buying from. The argument for a translated website is pretty easy to quantify.

  • Web users are four times more likely to purchase from a site written in their own language.
  • 64% of web users speak a language other than English.

While applying this to a retail store isn’t as straightforward as a website, the fact that one of the biggest high-street names in the UK is trying this says that others will surely follow suit.