Cornering the market

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Every town had one - a glamorous emporium offering a vast range of goods and services all under the one roof. Robin Buss explores these temples to consumerism

No activity is more central to a consumer society than shopping. Nowadays, we do our shopping in supermarkets rather than corner stores, and dress in ready-made clothes rather than "bespoke" suits made by a tailor. Many of us drive to vast shopping centres instead of heading towards commercial districts in the heart of town. And many of us prefer to purchase goods by mail order or, increasingly, through the internet, which was expected to account for 40 per cent of presents bought this Christmas.

One victim of such change is the department store. Gradually, these temples to consumerism are being abandoned in favour of newer places, and forms, of worship. Dickins and Jones, House of Fraser's Regent Street store, closed down on January 14. The Co-op has a programme for phasing out its department stores around the country: 10 in February, and the remaining 26 in a year's time. But these are by no means the first.

The heyday of the department store came around the turn of the last century and several of the original establishments succumbed to a wave of mergers in the 1920s and '30s. More recently, Derry and Toms (London) closed in 1972; Blackler's (Liverpool) in 1988, Vokins (Brighton) in 1997, Woodwards (Leamington Spa) in 2004, Barkers (Kensington High Street) and David Evans (Swansea) in 2005.

There were many more. The list shows one characteristic of the department store - unlike the chain stores that one can be sure to find nowadays in every high street, they were often local enterprises, with a local character. Every major town had its big store, and the names echo in the memory of those who grew up when these emporia still flourished: Chiesman's of Lewisham, Arding and Hobbs in Clapham, the Bon Marche in Brixton, Jenners of Edinburgh, John Yeo of Plymouth. They had lifts with attendants in livery calling out the floors, hydraulic systems for conveying money to a central till, coffee shops and restaurants, hairdressers, information bureaux and lavatories, even post offices and libraries or "quiet rooms", as well as departments selling all kinds of goods: clothes, furniture, household goods, toys, stationery, sports equipment, books and much more.

The telegraphic address of Harrods at the start of the 20th century was, simply: "Everything, London."

There was a special glamour attached to the leading stores around the world: the Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine, in Paris; Macy's in New York; Metz in Amsterdam; Ahlens in Stockholm; Tiring in Cairo. The Russian writer Anton Chekhov had puppies named Muir and Merrilees, after the Moscow store founded by two Scottish entrepreneurs at the end of the 19th century.

After the revolution, the shop was renamed TsUM (Tsentralniy Universalniy Magazin, or Central Universal Shop); but the name Muir and Merrilees lived on in the hearts of many Muscovites, along with memories of past luxury and pre-revolutionary elegance.

If department stores provoke nostalgia, it is perhaps because so many people associate them with childhood and going shopping with their mothers; and the department store was partly responsible for the fact that, after the 1850s, shopping became one of the main leisure activities of middle-class women. The stores reflected change and, to a significant extent, brought it about. For one thing, they offered a safe space for women, as well as facilities, such as lavatories, that were not available elsewhere at that time. By the early 20th century, the great stores might occupy whole city blocks where women could not only shop, but meet, eat, talk, have their hair done and be entertained without having to venture into the street. "Why not spend the day at Selfridges?" was the slogan of one famous Oxford Street store.

The Frenchman Aristide Boucicault was born in 1810 and started life as a pedlar, before becoming an assistant in one of the new shops selling fancy goods, where he married a shop assistant and rose to be head of a department at the drapers' Le Petit-Saint-Thomas. In 1852, he bought a share in the Bon Marche, a store with four departments; 11 years later, he become sole owner. From his first days at the Bon Marche, Boucicault laid down a number of operating principles - all goods were to have marked prices, customers could wander around the shop with no obligation to buy, there would be regular sales of stock, and unwanted goods could be exchanged or the price refunded.

These are now taken for granted by shoppers, so it's not easy to imagine how novel they were in France and elsewhere at the time. In fact, the Bon Marche's claim to be the first department store has been challenged, because a number of British stores were already applying some of Boucicault's methods - though not free entry (see "American Brash" (left)).

It has been claimed that the Bazaar in Manchester (later Kendal Milne) and Bainbridge's in Newcastle were effectively department stores years before the Bon Marche. But in England, as in France, shops had previously operated on a very different basis.

Most working people in the first half of the 19th century bought the clothes they couldn't make themselves from hawkers and pedlars at fairs and markets. The better-off went to specialised shops: milliners and hatmakers, dressmakers, drapers and tailors, hosiers, shoemakers and bootmakers. They wouldn't browse, inside or out - window displays were minimal - but would usually arrive knowing what they wanted to buy. The tradesman, who had a personal relationship with most customers, would agree a price according to the item. The art of selling was to talk up the price as high as possible.

Department stores were based on a different principle of small profit margins, rapid turnover and bulk buying for economies of scale. They aspired to create and supply a mass market, rather than cater to the elite.

Marked prices on all goods reassured shoppers, showed the affordability of the goods and allowed reductions for seasonal sales. Everything was done to tempt the customer into spending, and now-familiar techniques were developed: advertising, window dressing, bargain basements, and careful arrangement of departments to encourage impulse buying.

Department stores began in an era of great exhibitions (London in 1851, Paris in 1855), and when Boucicault commissioned his new building for the Bon Marche in 1869, this was the kind of space he wanted: a vast area in which the visitor would admire the goods on display. He was even glad when his customers got lost as they wandered round: they were more likely to make unintended purchases. So he commissioned his new Bon Marche from the engineers and architects Gustave Eiffel and Louis-Auguste Boileau, who specialised in light, airy, iron and glass structures. Au Printemps and the Moscow "universal store" on Red Square followed shortly afterwards in a similar style. By the turn of the century, the Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine in Paris were adopting up-to-the-minute Art Nouveau and Art Deco features in their architecture, design and advertising. These were buildings in the forefront of fashion, to be admired for their aesthetic beauty and modernity.

In the US and Britain, the emphasis was slightly different. British customers were not invited to browse; and stores here, as in the US, wanted to stress reliability and respectability. So, like banks, they went for the neo-classical look: Macy's in New York, Marshall Field's in Chicago and Harrods in London were immovable institutions behind monumental facades.

You had to go inside Marshall Field's to see the jollier Tiffany glass mosaic ceiling.

The department stores were part of a social revolution. Their rise coincided with increasing prosperity in Europe and an expansion of the middle class. They also created a new section of the working class. The old family-run drapers' stores might have taken one or two employees from outside the family, who often lived in the shop (and were bound by the sort of arcane regulations that HG Wells describes in his novel Kipps). The new department stores needed hundreds of workers. Recruited from the labouring classes, they would have to be neatly dressed, to avoid offending middle-class customers and, since they mixed daily with people "above their station", they would have to learn polite manners.

In themselves, the stores were a social microcosm, with managers, buyers and "floor walkers" in every department to keep the assistants in line. By the 1930s, the John Lewis Partnership employed 2,313 staff (around five out of seven of whom were women). They were on 43 different salary scales ranging from more than pound;24 a week for senior management, down to nine shillings (45p) a week for girl trainees aged 14 or 15. In the early days, most stores had living-in assistants, usually housed away from the store.

They could be subject to quite a harsh regime, with a system of fines to punish offences such as lateness or sitting down while at work. Reports in the British press during the 1880s singled out Whiteley's, where there were said to be 176 offences punishable by fines and instant dismissal for more serious breaches of the rules. Questions were also raised about the effects on health of long periods spent standing, and a government select committee on shop hours, reporting in 1886, responded to the concerns of the Early Closing Movement. It found that staff at most London stores, like Marshall and Snelgrove's or Debenham's, worked about 60 hours a week, with slightly shorter hours in winter, and a half-day on Saturday.

The press compared these conditions to the paternalistic regime at the Bon Marche in Paris. There, though the staff worked a slightly longer day, they had excellent restaurant and leisure facilities, including classes in English and fencing after work, a profit-sharing scheme and, later, a pension plan. The Boucicaults themselves had risen from humble beginnings and may have been influenced by the ideas of Utopian Socialism. In fact, some theorists in the early 19th century believed that a future society could be organised around workplaces; the little world of the department store might be seen as a model of such a social unit.

The co-operative movement tried to realise some of these ideas in the retail trade; but, in the main, the great department stores heralded the arrival of a quite different society, in which the market would become the measure of all things. The customer no longer came to the shop asking to be served with the goods she wanted; she came to see what was on offer and to be seduced into buying. Not surprisingly, a few of those who could not afford the goods they were being invited to possess, turned to stealing them. A new class of petty thief appeared: the middle-class woman shoplifter. Her actions were sometimes attributed to "hysteria", mid-life crises or frustrations. As Emile Zola was the first to realise (see 'The Ladies' Delight' (right)), the department store offered far more than a wider selection of goods at lower prices, it sold aspirations, social status and dreams, often through a transfer of erotic desire on to objects such as clothes and materials.

The Ladies' Delight

French novelist Emile Zola's novel Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) is set in a department store and is based on his research into major Parisian stores in his time. The central character, entrepreneur Octave Mouret, devotes his charm to persuading women to spend money in his store by carefully arranging the goods:

"At the back of the hall, around one of the little iron pillars that supported the glass roof, there was a sort of cascade of material... First of all, a spring of light satins and soft silks: royal satins, renaissance satins, with pearly shades of spring water and featherweight silks, crystal clear, Nile green, sky blue, blush pink, Danube blue. Then came the heavier fabrics, the duchess silks, the wonderful satins with warm colours, tumbling in swollen waves. And down below, the heaviest stuffs reposed (I) in the midst of a deep velvet bed - every sort of velvet, black, white and coloured, embossed on silk or satin, its shimmering patches forming a motionless lake (I). Women, pale with longing, leaned over as though to see their own reflections in it. All, confronted by this bursting cataract, stopped in their tracks, seized by a vague fear that they might be swept up in the torrent of such luxury..."

Further reading

Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight) by Emile Zola, translated by Robin Buss (Penguin), pound;8.99

Shops and Shopping, 1800-1914 by Alison Aldburgham (Allen Unwin)

The Department Store: A Social History by Bill Lancaster (Leicester University Press)

American brash

In 1879, Gordon Selfridge joined Marshall Field's Chicago department store. He rose rapidly to become a junior partner in the firm, experimenting with methods of display and advertising. In 1904, he went to London where, in partnership with Sam Waring (of Waring and Gillow's), he planned to build a new store on Oxford Street, run along American lines.

At the time, British department stores, unlike those in France and the US, did not encourage customers to circulate freely. New arrivals were directed to the various departments, where they were shown what was on offer and urged to buy. This was partly because English women were thought to be more timid and less likely to initiate conversation with strange men by asking for information. At worst, though, it meant that visitors who had no intention to buy would be shown the door.

When Selfridges opened in March 1909, it caused a sensation. It was the largest purpose-built shop in Britain and its windows, instead of being heaped with goods, showed only a few items in a settings arranged by a "window artist".

Customers could stroll into the store where they would find stands selling goods that were traditionally kept behind the counter. They would also find an enquiry bureau, cloakroom, library, first aid station, banking and postal facilities, theatre and travel booking offices, a restaurant and tea room. The US method soon caught on and improved display and advertising standards.

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