A brief history of the rise and fall of the department store

A man being confused by a hat, Selfridges, London, 1978. Image: Getty.

Department stores seem to be in terminal decline. In the UK, the demise of British Home Stores and Poundworld, together with store closures by Marks and Spencer and House of Fraser, are local symptoms of a wider malaise. Luxurious Parisian store La Samaritaine closed in 2005 and Sears – once a cornerstone of North American retailing – has also shut dozens of stores in recent years.

The job losses and economic fallout from these closures are enough cause for upset. But what makes this decline all the more significant is the role that department stores have played in shaping towns and cities for the last 150 years or more. Their closure casts a shadow of doubt over high streets and town centres across the UK. That’s why it’s worth reminding ourselves what is being lost – and why department stores are so special.

Most department stores in Britain started small, often as drapers – such as House of Fraser. They grew bit by bit, adding new lines and gradually growing their premises through piecemeal acquisition. By the early 20th century, most small towns had a department store and many larger centres had several competing for customers or targeting different social groups.

Regional chains of stores grew in the early decades of the 20th century, but many were swallowed up – along with a large number of independent stores – by national chains such as Debenhams, the Drapery Trust and later House of Fraser. Carefully tracing stores through trade directories reveals 600 or more department stores across Britain by the 1930s. Their influence was widespread, even though they never enjoyed more than about 5 per cent of total retail sales.

Shaping the high street

The impact of department stores on the high street grew with the size of their premises. The companies built large, integrated stores – such as Beatties (lately House of Fraser) in Wolverhampton, which occupied most of a block in the centre of town. Once established, these stores often became linchpins around which other shops congregated, drawn by the growing footfall.

Architects and planners have been inspired by the pulling power of department stores when designing successive generations of shopping centres – from Milton Keynes Shopping Centre, in which John Lewis was the linchpin, to the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Bull Ring in Birmingham, both of which have Selfridge’s as their “anchor store”. Such monumental buildings were designed to impress, of course. But they were also needed to accommodate an ever-expanding range of goods.

As early as the 1870s, the unlikely-sounding Civil Service Supply Association in London boasted that it sold “anything from a blotting-pad to a bicycle or a billiard table – from ginger beer to carte Blanche champagne”. The range and scale of this operation made such stores the Amazon of their day – and unsurprisingly, they drew howls of protest from small retailers, who complained about unfair competition from leviathans.

As with Amazon, department stores introduced innovative new technology, such as elevators, escalators and air purification systems, as well as new systems of stock control that allowed them to track which stock lines were selling well and which were slow moving. Many also operated both in-store and mail-order businesses, sending out price lists and receiving orders by the thousands.

Putting on a show

By the 1890s, some large stores were doing as much as one third of their business by post, and developed separate departments to deal with demand. Yet the physical shop remained the cornerstone of the department store’s business. And it was the experience of coming into the shop that marked department stores as different from most other shops. There was a growing emphasis on the display of goods, both in the shop window and inside the shop.

Plenty of other shops had their wares out on display, but department stores offered their customers a different scale of choice and variety in the things that could be seen and handled.

American visitors were wont to complain about “shop-walkers”, who escorted well-heeled customers between departments and discouraged the “wrong type” of person from entering the shop. But these were most evident in larger London stores: browsing was encouraged by many shops and advertisements reassured customers that there was no obligation to buy.

Self-service was pioneered in some stores, such as Lewis’s, but counter service remained the norm through to the interwar years and beyond, and persists today in lines such as perfume and make-up.

What really marked out department stores was the array of services that they offered in addition to the goods on sale. They provided toilets, restrooms and tearooms, which kept women in particular in the store for longer, increasing the opportunity for sales. There were also fashion shows, string quartets, Santa at Christmas, exhibitions and art galleries, roof-top golf courses, balloon launches and even novelty acts such as a girl, hired by Bentall’s in Kingston, who would dive 20 metres into a tank of water. The Conversation

This is what made the department store more than a shop: it was a place to go, a place where memories were made. Today, online retailers can offer a much greater array of goods, often at much keener prices than is possible in-store. What department stores have lost, perhaps, is the excitement that they once held as an experience. If they can find ways to reclaim that magic, then perhaps their prospects won’t be so bleak, after all.

Jon Stobart, Professor of History, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.