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.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.