I have a deep love for the fourth floor of John Lewis’s Oxford Street flagship. The homespun wizardry of the haberdashery department bewitches me like a grownup’s Diagon Alley. And when my children were little, I found the no-nonsense advice and cheery colours of the nursery department profoundly comforting. But even those of us who love department stores have to admit that it is, at this point, a sepia-tinted and nostalgic kind of affection.
The decline of the department store is in direct proportion to the rise of the brand. The allegiance of the modern shopper is to their favourite brand – with which they may have a “relationship” on Instagram or via pop-up shops – not to a permanent physical space.
Department stores were once proud of their independence in selling 40 brands of soap and 12 styles of notebook. But this stout even-handedness is in danger of making them appear less glamorous than branded boutiques.
It is not a coincidence that the department stores hardest hit are those that have little identity as a brand. (Can anyone define what House of Fraser stands for?) John Lewis, with its emotive Christmas adverts, has worked hard to buck the trend by amplifying its personality, while Selfridges has redefined itself as experience over retail.
Department store shopping is by its nature time-inefficient and requires human contact. When you think you have found the escalator it usually turns out to be the wrong one. You will need to ask directions, and make purchases on multiple floors.
This is all at odds with the modern consumer’s instinct for speed and individualism, enabled by technology. The same technological forces that did for the landline are lined up against the department store.
In order to tempt the modern consumer to get off their phone and into the store, the most forward-thinking department stores are turning retail into modern entertainment. Selfridges stages ambitious multisensory art exhibitions, John Lewis incorporates pop-up rooftop restaurants, while Liberty hosts a sewing school. And Harrods’ new toy department features light tunnels and fancy-dress fitting rooms, while Harvey Nichols runs cocktail masterclasses.