A few weeks ago I read that British department store DEBENHAMS had gone into administration and I started to think of other department stores no longer around. In the UK there was ARMY & NAVY, founded in Canada in 1871, but still with one store trading as of 2019, albeit under the name HOUSE OF FRASER. Then there was BRITISH HOME STORES, usually known as BHS – an American import dating from 1928 – and which, as it happened, had been bought by the owners of DEBENHAMS in 2000 and closed by them in 2016. I used to go to the one in Dubai’s Mirdif City Centre mall when I lived on campus and, the other in Dubai Mall when I lived off. Both were convenient places to pick up things I wanted without having to traipse around a mall to get them. The appeal of the department store was always the illusion of convenience coupled with the illusion of them having everything.
DEBENHAMS ceased trading after 242 years which means the first store opened in 1778 under the reign of King George III. It probably wasn’t a department store as we know them because there wouldn’t have been the goods to fill them or enough people with disposable income to sustain them. Housekeepers and butlers would have kept track of other provisions, dealt with merchants and arranged deliveries accordingly. Besides, the upper classes still had cooks and maids to buy at markets and deal with sellers, while dressmakers and tailors would visit with samples and for fittings. It’s easy to imagine department stores evolving from the small general stores that remained for longer into the 20th century in areas less urban.
The one I remember was run by childhood friends of my father, outside of Adelaide – Reynella? 1962? It looked a bit like the general store in this next image but with more ladders, ropes and hardware. There was no café but it did have ice cream. I was five or six at the time. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.
Harding, Howell & Co. opened in 1796 on London’s Pall Mall and had one large space divided into separate departments for furs and fans, cloths, hats and dresses, as well as a fourth space with jewelry and ornaments on one side and perfumes and cosmetics on the other. It closed in 1820 but, from that description of the items on sale, it’s clear that the lady of the house no longer needed to sit around waiting for their milliner or dressmaker. Shopping was now an enjoyable and social activity. At the very least it was something new to do. Harrods opened in 1834, John Lewis in 1864 and Liberty & Co. in 1875 and with its own in-house fashion from 1884.
Other countries were quick to follow. New York’s Arnold Constable opened 1825, expanded into new premises 1914 and closed due to bankruptcy 1975. Marble Palace opened on Broadway in 1846. Large plate glass windows fronted the sidewalks so pedestrians could view the European goods on offer. Chicago’s Marshall Field & Company opened in 1852 and outdid the competition with its bridal registry, escalators, Christmas window displays, and personal shopping. It was a department store but also a public landmark and city attraction, and the first department store designed by an architect (Daniel Burnham, 1893).
Other architects were quick to follow. Louis Sullivan designed the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store that opened 1899. It’s said to be one of his better but Sullivan’s low-level ornament competes for attention with the goods on display. Inside however, the rules for retail architecture were evolving.
Richardson’s Marshall Field store had an atrium with an ornate skylight, but the Schlesinger & Mayer store was retail space all the way up. It remained a department store until it closed in 2007. Macy’s began in 1858 and Bloomingdales 1861, both in New York.
Kaufmann’s began in Pittsburgh in 1871 and their flagship store was designed by architect Charles Bickel, opening in 1887. A 1916 renovation and expansion by architects Janssen & Abbot included a large clock on the corner, and in the late 1920s, architects Benno Janssen and William Cocken redesigned the main floor.
The store made Edgar J. rich enough to commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design a summer weekend house (1934) and Richard Neutra a Palm Springs winter house (1946).
In 1946 Kaufmann’s was acquired by May Department Stores Company which became a part of Federated Department Stores in 2005, and a Macy’s store from 2006 until 2015. As of December 2, 2020, two floors of the historic building are on track to being occupied by discount retailer Target.
The post WWII US saw department stores move into the new suburban shopping centers that were the precursors to shopping malls. These large stores that function to attract customers are known as anchor tenants. Seattle’s Northgate Mall (1950) was one of the first and had department store The Bon Marche as anchor.
Southdale Centre was the first fully-enclosed and air conditioned mall, opening in 1956 with Dayton’s and Donaldson’s as anchor department stores at opposite ends of an indoor street of shops. This remains the classic arrangement.
Selfridges opened on London’s Oxford Street in 1909 and is credited with inventing the notion of shopping for pleasure and not necessity. It had restaurants, various recreation rooms and exhibition space for cultural activities and demonstrations such as John Logie Baird’s first public demonstration of television in 1925. [Correction: However, Marvin tells me, “‘Selfridge had worked for Marshall Field’s in Chicago before opening his own store in London. His “restaurants, various recreation rooms and exhibition space for cultural activities and demonstrations” came directly from his familiarity with these types of spaces at Field’s, which Marshall Field’s created so women of the “carriage trade” could come and spend the better part of a day at the store, by having all their needs met so they would have no reason to go anywhere else downtown.’ Thanks Marvin!] The natural synergy between department store as retail and cultural centre and the shopping mall as social and entertainment centre spread around the world. In Australia main anchor tenants used to be the surviving department stores such as David Jones and, less frequently, MYER but it’s now more common for the anchor to be a large supermarket such as COLES. The classic pattern is there at Dubai Mall with three storeys of Bloomingdales in red on the bottom right corner of the grand axis and three storeys of Galeries Layfayette in green at bottom left.
The 1980s and 1990s weren’t kind to department stores as a business and, even before the rise of online shopping, there were many mergers, consolidations and closures.
Galeries Lafayette in Paris deserves a special mention not only for surviving but for surviving intact.
The business began in 1893 and expanded into the entire block in 1903. The first major renovations were completed in 1907 by architect Georges Chedanne, and the 43m high dome designed by his apprentice, Ferdinand Chanut. The store opened in 1912, essentially as we see it today.
On the whole, Japanese department stores survived with their original function intact. The first three followed the Harding, Howell & Co. strategy of creating a market by offering ladies’ apparel. SŌGŌ was founded in 1830 in Osaka as a retailer of used kimono (but was to cease trading in 2000 after various financial troubles). Mitsukoshi was founded in 1904 although the kimono store from which it grew dates from 1673. Matsuzakaya opened in 1910 but the kimono store from which it began goes back to 1611.
In 1936 Japan, Tōgō Murano’s SOGO Department Store was as modern as modern anywhere in the world could be. Department stores were a new building typology and this style represented modernity and a new way of buying things. In Japan in the 1930s, respectable ladies couldn’t be seen entering the now ubiquitous coffee shops and so department stores were quick to offer them tea rooms and restaurants where they could socialize in public.
In Japan, many private railway operators began to build department stores directly linked to their lines. The Tokyu railway company, for example, operates the Toyoko Line linking Tokyo and Yokohama and depositing passengers in their department stores at each end, creating an urban-scale mall. Seibu, Odakyu and Hankyu are three more department stores sited at the termini of their respective railway companies.
Between those termini, small shopping streets known as shotengai (商店街) configure the neighborhood as two or three linear shopping malls converging on the station. Most daily and weekly shopping can be done locally, often on the way home. It’s as easy to buy fresh food as it is to enter a convenience store or use a vending machine. This way of buying daily necessities has no need to change. It flourishes when people pass by on their way to work or home but it’s still within walking distance if they don’t.
The second last department store I remember architects being involved was Selfridges in Birmingham by the then Foreign Office Architects. The last was their John Lewis in Leicester. At the time, there was a bit of fuss about “The Surface of Form” or “Pattern as the New Shape”. Or something.
Lipstick on pigs is the technical term.
I’ve just moved to a city in China and was perplexed why I couldn’t find shops such as department stores and hardware stores and electrical stores that I thought were essential. The products may be but the stores are not. Taobao (淘宝) is an entire retail universe on your cellphone. The name can be loosely translated as ‘treasure hunt’ or ‘panning for gold’. It’ll find whatever you want and, if you don’t know the name of what you want, you can take or upload a photo of it. It gets to know you and offer an infinitely scrollable list of things you might like, interspersed with reminders of things you’ve forgotten you wanted. Payment is by cellphone and direct from your bank account without the intervention of a credit card company.
It has no centralized warehousing and distribution center like Amazon. You pay the retailer (to whom you can chat if you like), and then the link is between you and the delivery driver as you track your items realtime. It’s a triumph of logistics. I hope some long haul truck didn’t drive 910 km from Shenzen to Wenzhou just to bring me two light bulbs I paid two cents for. And incandescent to boot.
This local distribution centre looks chaotic but works as tens of delivery vehicles such as these arrive at my apartment complex each day.
Off the lobby of Building One in my apartment complex, QR codes are checked and items placed on shelves. Secure mailboxes accessed by QR code are available for valuable things but mostly people don’t feel the need.
Large items are placed in a corner of the lobby for collection. I’d been expecting this big box in the middle image below. I’ve not even begun to explore Taobao’s food and beverage corners.
Infinite scrolling is never benign and Taobao’s algorithm gets to know you and suggest new items. It’s diverting, but now we all shop alone and online, we’ve become more aware of why we buy the things we do. We’ve discovered how little department stores mattered to us anyway. Architecture had its part to play in the rise of the department store and sustaining consumer society but society is still consuming without the need for unnecessary overheads such as department stores, architects to design them, or even architects to disguise neoliberal subliminal command as social commentary through the notion of shopping as entertainment.
The demise of the department store is a good thing. Online retail – at least how Taobao does it – reduces real costs rather than inflating perceived value. It pares shopping back to its fundamental processes of selection, payment and delivery and is easier to see and appreciate as the essential service it is. It’s a dispersed system to spread wealth across the country rather than concentrate it.