Department stores have experienced a dramatic decline in fortunes in the last decade or so. One hundred years ago, they were the epitome of modern retailing and throughout the twentieth century they were the lynchpin of high streets and the anchor for shopping malls. But now they seem in terminal decline across the globe: La Samaritaine, the luxurious Parisian store, closed in 2005; Sears has recently filed for bankruptcy, House of Fraser was bought out of administration, yet many of its stores will close, and even relative new stores are closing in provincial Japan.

House of Fraser’s Kendal’s store in Manchester, slated for closure in early 2019 (photo courtesy of Tom McGrath)

If department stores now seem to be retail dinosaurs, critically endangered by the meteor of online-retailing, it is worth remembering how and why they emerged as such powerful players in the first place and how a seemingly global phenomenon was, in fact, deeply rooted in its local setting. We can do this by contrasting developments in the UK and Japan.

The origins of British department stores were varied, but most grew organically. The classic model is that of the draper gradually expanding the range of goods on offer: adding ready-made clothes and shoes, furniture, glass and china, jewellery and perfumes, and so on, and organising these into separate departments. By contrast, while the first wave of Japanese department stores also emerged from drapers, they were created as department stores through a conscious and deliberate managerial decision and as part of a state-sponsored process of westernisation and modernisation. There were exceptions of course (think Selfridges), but many British department stores emerged by accident; those in Japan were there by design.

Given these differences in origin, it is no surprise that the number of stores was very different in the two countries. Britain had over 600 department stores by the 1930s, most of them independent, despite the emergence of chains like Bobbies, Binns, and Plummer Roddis. Large cities might have several department stores, often serving different market segments – in Manchester, Kendal’s was upmarket while Lewis’s targeted working-class customers – but many small market towns also boasted a family-run department store. The mix was further complicated by Co-operative Society central stores, which were de facto department stores by the early decades of the twentieth century. Despite this, department stores accounted for barely 5 per cent of retail sales in 1935; chain stores captured four times that. At the level of the high street, though, they were major players.

In contrast, Japan had just twelve department stores all of them in metropolitan centres, especially Tokyo and Osaka. Yet they were invariably huge stores, both in terms of their physical size and turnover. Mitsukoshi’s 1914 store, in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi, was reputedly the largest store east of the Suez Canal and was a symbol of modernity, having the first escalators seen in the country. Matsuzakaya had sales of over £2.1 million in 1919 (bigger than Harrods, with £1.85 million) and pioneered western practices, including allowing customers to keep their shoes on when entering the store. Japanese department stores comprised the top end of a hierarchy of retailers, yet still commanded over 25 per cent of retail sales in Tokyo in 1932.

Mitsukoshi, Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 1914. Courtesy Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd.

These differences were born of local political, economic and social circumstances, and of the different retail traditions in the two countries. Yet Mitsukoshi, Harrods, Kendal’s and even small-town stores like Broadbent’s in Southport, Lancashire, had much in common. They all sold a wide variety of (western) goods which were increasingly displayed in glazed cabinets, on mannequins and in shop windows, and encouraged customers to wander through the store, browsing the goods on offer. Such practices were familiar to British shoppers by the early twentieth century. They were a revolution for Japanese shoppers who needed instruction and encouragement to use the store in the ways intended.

In both countries, many stores looked to the US for the latest ideas in retail management, but at the same time retained a clear sense of difference. Japanese stores sent teams to the UK and Mitsukoshi was closely modelled on Harrods. Unsurprisingly, then, there was a common emphasis on service; assistants helped and advised customers in a way that was quite different from the “modern” self-service shopping that characterised many American stores. Mitsukoshi’s staff manual, for instance, instructed sales assistants to always pay attention to customers, anticipate what they wanted, and welcome everyone with equal courtesy – very similar behaviour to that promoted at Brown’s of Chester on other upmarket English stores.

Also similar was the range of facilities and attractions laid on by department stores in both Britain and Japan. They provided toilets, restrooms and tea rooms, which kept women in particular in the store for longer, increasing the opportunity for sales. There were also fashion shows, string quartets, exhibitions and art galleries, and balloon launches. Again, some Japanese customers needed careful introduction to such novel western experiences, which were central to the socio-political agenda of department stores; but none went as far as Bentall’s in Kingston, who hired a girl to dive 20 metres into a tank of water.

Department stores were thus a global phenomenon, but rooted in their local context. This helped to shape the particular ways in which the department store as a retail form and a shopping experience was manifest in different countries. It also influenced the ways in which department stores had an impact on the retail sector and people’s lives, having a more profound influence in Japan than in the UK.

In an age when online retailers can offer more choice and keener prices, this local connection has the potential to make a difference for department stores. When announcements were made of House of Fraser closures, it is the loss of Kendal’s (Manchester), Jenners (Edinburgh) and Jolly’s (Bath) that is lamented; in Japan, the closure of stores like Sogo in Kashiwa was mourned as a loss of a local institution. While department stores across the globe seek to develop omnichannel retailing, remembering and tapping into their local historical connections could be key to their survival.

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Rika Fujioka is professor of macromarketing at Kansai University in Japan. She publishes widely on globalisation and the history of retailers, including Global Luxury: Organizational Change and Emerging Markets since the 1970s (with Pierre-Yves Donzé, 2018). Her recent research concerns the changing competitiveness of Japanese retailers and the fashion industry under globalisation.

 

Jon Stobart is professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research covers a wide range of topics across the histories of retailing and consumption, including the Routledge Companion to the History of Retailing (edited with Vicki Howard, 2018). A full list of publications can be found here.