Mourning the loss of the London department store

Harrods china sale in January 1985

Harrods china sale in January 1985 (Image: GETTY)

Take your mind back to Christmases past. Boxing Day has been and gone. The novelty of those shiny new gifts has worn off. All the turkey leftovers have been mocked and the only lasting remnant of the seasonal festivities is a bad hangover and a bunch of dishes in the sink. However, there was always one last hurray to look forward to; a prospect guaranteed to brighten up those gloomy and dreary first days of the new year: the January sales.

Around this time each year, images would flood the news of shoppers camping outside department stores, queuing all night in the freezing cold, desperate to be the first through the doors at opening time.

When it finally arrived, they stormed in like a herd of zombies, sending security guards flying and elbowing housewives and children aside as they threw themselves headfirst into the shelves, arms outstretched in a killing intent. or glory for buying that Cabbage Patch Doll or your Betamax VCR for half price.

Once the crown jewel of every high street in the country, many department stores have disappeared from our urban landscape and, along with them, January sales, replaced by American imports like Black Friday and Cyber ​​Monday. .

Even the stores of some chains that grimly resisted online competition, like Army & Navy and House of Fraser, are sadly going the way of old favorites like Arding & Hobbs, Owen Owen and Kendals. Over the past five years, 83 per cent of Britain’s remaining department stores have closed their doors for good, causing large-scale loss of livelihoods.

When Britain’s oldest chain, Debenhams, went into administration during the covid pandemic, more than 12,000 jobs were lost across its 124 stores.

Queuing for the sale of Debenhams at their Oxford Street branch in 1977

Queuing for the sale of Debenhams at their Oxford Street branch in 1977 (Image: GETTY)

Author and journalist Tessa Boase looks back at these forgotten “consumer cathedrals” in her new book, celebrating the days when places like Allders and DH Evans, rather than Amazon and eBay, were the gods of the retail world.

It also reveals how it is mainly women who have paid the highest price on the high street, not only in terms of loss of choice, but also in terms of job loss.

Tessa, who now lives in East Sussex, remembers her mother working in what was, and still is, possibly the most famous department store in the world.

“My mother worked at Harrods in the pet department. She would bring animals home for the weekend, and I used to wonder, ‘What is this extraordinary, wonderful place that would allow you to bring a Basset Hound puppy home for the weekend?’” says Tessa, whose book, Illustrated with many nostalgic photographs, it takes an in-depth look at 50 of London’s lost emporia.

“It was all the rage in the 1960s for nice young women to get a little job at a department store for a while. Joanna Lumley worked at one, Debenham & Freebody, for £8 a week.

Harrods department store sells a baby elephant

Harrods department store sells a baby elephant (Image: GETTY)

Situated on Wigmore Street, Debenham & Freebody was the forerunner and later flagship branch of the ill-fated Debenhams chain, which collapsed in 2020 under a £720m mountain of debt. In the mid-1960s, more than a million women worked in shops, almost a fifth of Britain’s female workforce.

As Tessa explains: “Department stores were the first institutions to open the door to women in middle and senior management, creating perhaps the first career structure with real prospects for promotion.”

In fact, Britain’s first female cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield, who in 1929 became Labor Minister, began her career as a shop assistant, working in drapery shops in Brighton and Hove.

“It meant a lot to the people who worked in this world; there was a great dignity in it and it is sad that we have lost it ”, laments Tessa. “Millennials scoff and say, ‘Oh, department stores, that’s so last century,’ but how would it feel to lose that job that gave you dignity, that you were proud of?”

Debenham & Freebody was the precursor to the ill-fated Debenhams chain which collapsed in 2020

Debenham & Freebody was the precursor to the ill-fated Debenhams chain which collapsed in 2020 (Image: GETTY)

Although men also worked in department stores, almost exclusively until the 1860s, it later became a predominantly female environment. This was due, in part, to the fact that “shop girls” were paid far less than their male counterparts despite working just as hard, if not more in many cases.

Department stores didn’t just give the women who worked there dignity and some form of financial independence. It also gave the women who shopped there a previously unknown variety of options and elevated the shopping experience to something spectacular; even theatrical.

Still reigning supreme on Oxford Street, Selfridges has always strived to put on a show for its customers, especially women. When the doors of her grand Beaux-Arts building opened for the first time on March 15, 1909, the Daily Express reported: “Since time immemorial, women have gone shopping, but only today have we understood what really means the word.”

Founder Harry Gordon Selfridge displayed Louis Blériot’s biplane, which recently made its pioneering flight across the English Channel, inside his new store, where 150,000 people came to see it over the four days it was on display.

Bargain hunters attack a china display at Selfridges

Bargain hunters attack a china display at Selfridges (Image: GETTY)

Tessa continues: “The department stores were closely related to the museums in some way. People were going to see things, whether it was this new invention called a vacuum cleaner or some extraordinary trick or show. Some stores even had circuses complete with lions, elephants, and ponies. It was a proper day. And because there were so many stores, they were all in intense competition with each other all the time.

“When Simpsons opened in 1936 on Piccadilly (now a Waterstones), they had not one, but three planes inside. Each one had to do better.”

The Express, back in 1909, reported this battle for hearts, minds and pockets in a breathless voice: “All the West End businesses vied with each other to dazzle and entertain their customers. Never before has it been possible for the woman of the 20th century to enjoy such a shopping spree.”

Tessa fondly remembers her mother taking her as a child to admire the lights of London every Christmas. “We always loved the Selfridges windows, they were pure theatrics. Fortnum and Mason were also very good, but Selfridges was the big draw.”

Fortnum’s, as it is known to its regular customers, who include the Royal Family, is Britain’s oldest remaining department store, having been founded in 1707. (Strangely, its elegant premises in London’s Mayfair are also where the humble Scotch Egg).

So how have you managed to keep going when so many others have failed? Fortnum and Mason archivist Dr. Andrea Tanner told the Express: “Fortnum survives and thrives because it has remained true to its founding values ​​by offering unique products of impeccable provenance and serving everyone courteously in a beautiful setting. Our goal is to please our customers, from the variety of products to the ingenuity of our window displays and the delight of our packaging design.”

Overall, though, the outlook for department stores, in these days of more and more retailers eschewing bricks-and-mortar in favor of a web-first approach, is somewhat more nuanced. People like the idea of ​​department stores: Liberty London, the high-end homewares and fashion emporium just off Carnaby Street, has had over 30 billion views on Tik-Tok, but fewer customers like to spend their money on them.

Professor Jonathan Reynolds is Associate Professor of Retail Marketing at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Academic Director of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management. He is one of the world’s most respected academic experts on how we shop.

Speaking to the Express, he said: “To survive, department stores need to offer things that cannot be copied online and that shoppers still want: at the high end, an amazing in-store experience; outstanding levels of customer service and advice; an attractive hospitality offer; exclusive product ranges that cannot be found online. Department store brands like Selfridges can still do this; too many other department store brands became a shadow of their former selves as they lost their differentiation.

“It has become much more difficult for conventional department stores to survive thanks to a combination of online competition and current economic conditions.

“Fenwick in London (which has just announced the imminent closure of its flagship store on Bond Street) is the latest victim. Amazon has become the country’s department store in all but name. It is able to offer a wider range of products than the typical department store.

“But department stores may still be relevant to shoppers looking for new ideas and experiences – blockbuster retailers like Next are even opening their own department stores. For example, its Manchester Home & Beauty Store includes a florist, a prosecco bar, a restaurant, a children’s activity centre, a cafeteria, a card and stationery shop, a barbershop and a car showroom. .

Whatever the future holds for Britain’s ‘saloons of temptation’, it is imperative that we use them or lose them if we are to save these last remaining examples of our retail heritage. Britain is, after all, as Napoleon once said, “a nation of merchants.”

Printed in the back of Tessa’s book is a guided walking tour of the West End’s lost department store. The route includes some glorious architectural examples from former retail giants.

Interspersed with the fallen are a few surviving shops that, for the moment at least, still cater to those who value human contact and professional service over algorithms and soulless scrolling and clicking.

So this January, why not close up your tablet or smartphone, hit the high street, and snag some real-life bargains before they and the stores that sell them are gone forever?

  • London’s Lost Department Stores: Tessa Boase’s A Vanished World of Dazzle and Dreams (Safe Haven, £16.99) is out now. For free UK P&P visit express library.com or call 020 3176 3832.

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