The Rise and Fall of Department Stores

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Podcast Transcript

For most of human history, if you wanted something, you had to make it yourself or know the person who made it. 

Eventually, merchants began to sell goods in a single store to make it convenient for consumers. 

These stores reached their zenith with enormous structures which sold almost everything. They were not just innovations themselves, but they were an engine for innovations that are still with us today.

Learn more about the rise and fall of department stores on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is hard to express just how difficult it used to be to get…..stuff. 

Hundreds of years ago, the average person didn’t own very much of anything. If you wanted something, be it an article of clothes, a piece of furniture, or a pot, you had to go to someone who made them, and they probably had to make it custom for you. 

Once you had it, you probably kept it forever, did everything you could to repair it, and maybe even passed it to your children after you died. 

Eventually, with the advent of the industrial revolution, stuff became mass produced, and you could just buy stuff that was already manufactured.  You could go to the place called a general store that sold everything from nails to pots and pans to candy.

It was just a matter of time before someone took the idea of a general store to its logical conclusion. 

The first store, which could be considered a department store, or at least a proto-department store, would be Harding, Howell & Co., which opened in 1796 in London. 

The store was divided into four different sections, which sold different things: furs and fans, which I have no idea why those things were put together, fabrics, jewelry and clocks, and ladies’ hats. 

The store was just four large rooms connected together, 150 feet long, so it was really just four stores in one. 

The thing which separated it from other stores was that it was tailored for women. It was a place where upper, and middle-class women could go shopping. 

Over in France, something similar was being developed with the magasin de nouveautés or novelty shop.  These began as proto-department stores as well. 

One of the first, largest, and oldest, because it still exists, is Le Bon Marché. It was opened in 1838 as a small 300 square meters store but was radically enlarged and changed in 1852. 

In the United States, the first department store was known as the Marble House, which was opened on Pine Street in New York in 1825.

These early department stores were not the full-fledged store that we know today.

The big change in department stores occurred in the second half of the 19th century. 

The World’s Fair of 1851 in London, the first world’s fair, was a huge hit with people in London. Millions of people went to the Crystal Palace and saw thousands of consumer products from around the world on display. 

Nothing was for sale, but all of these people were basically window shopping and developing a desire for all of these new consumer products. 

This spirit of modernity and abundance drove the creation of larger, more impressive retail establishments. 

Au Bon Marché in Paris expanded to 50,000 square meters. Marshall Field’s opened in Chicago in 1852. Macy’s in New York was founded in 1858. Wannamakers in Philadelphia opened in 1877. There were dozens of competing department stores in cities all over the United States and Europe.

What these stores had in common was that they were catering to their primary customers, which were women. 

A department store was an opportunity for women get out of the house and meet other women without having to be escorted in public by a man. Women could literally spend an entire day at a department store. 

These department stores also had something which couldn’t be found almost anywhere else at the time: public restrooms for women.  This is something we don’t think twice about today, but it was very rare in the 19th century. 

Aristide Boucicaut of Le Bon Marché, famously installed a reading room for men to wait while their wives were shopping. 

Department stores weren’t just catering to women as customers, but they also were one of the first places who hired large numbers of women.  In many department stores, young, single women comprised half or more of the workforce. It became one of the most high profile and desirable jobs for women at the time.

These department stores usually had large windows where they would often have elaborate displays showcasing not just the products, but also each season. 

Even if you werent’ a customer of a department store, everyone who walked by would be able to window shop and fantisize about stuff they would one day like to buy.

The person who is credited with revolutionizing department stores is the Wisconsin born Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Selfridge was hired at a stockboy at Marshall Field’s in Chicago and rose through the ranks to become a full partner in the company over a 25 year career. 

Selfridge was the originator for many of the things which have become standard for most department stores. 

The phrase “the customer is always right” is an aphromism which was created by Selfridge. 

If you have ever seen a store promoting “X number of shopping days until Christmas”, that was an innovation developed by Selfridge. 

Have you ever walked into a department store and noticed that the very first thing you always pass is the perfume counter? That was another Selfridge innovation.

Urban streets in the 19th century smelled horrible. Horse dung littered the streets and the smell would waft into the buildings. By placing the perfume counter at the front of the store, it would mask the smell from the street.

Under Selfridge, Marshall Fields was the first department store to offer revolvign credit and personal shoppers.  They were the first store to do book signings with authors. 

Selfridge opened the State Street store in Chicago, which was considered a palace of shopping, and was one of the first building to install escalators. 

Selfridge turned Marshall Field’s into more than just a store. He made it into a destination. 

In Philadelphia, Wannamaker’s department store introduced electrical lighting, telephones, and perhaps most importantly, fixed prices on every product.

In 1906, Selfridge visited London, where he was surprised to find that the department stores in London hadn’t adopted the same level of sophistication that American stores like Marshall Field’s had.  

Harrod’s, which had opened its new flagship store in 1905, was the biggest department store in London, but it lacked the pizzazz that American stores had. 

So, he resigned from Marshall Field’s and moved to London to open his own store in 1909, Selfridge’s

Selfridge’s in London was a destination above and beyond what Marshall Field’s ever was. The store had multiple restaurants, a rooftop garden, VIP reception rooms, and a first aid center. 

There were over 100 departments, and the floors were redesigned to make products more accessible to customers. The Selfridge’s staff was also trained to be more than just cashiers, but actual salespeople. They were trained on their product lines to actively sell products. 

As an aside, I highly recommend the PBS/ITV series called Mr. Selfridge and it covers the life of Harry Selfridge in London. There are four seasons to the show and the title role is played by Jeremy Piven. 

Department stores spread to most communities of even moderate size. Even if a town had a population of several thousand people, it would have been enough for a small department store. 

One of the world’s largest department stores was, ironically enough, built in a communist country.  The Glavnyy universalnyy magazin, also known by its acronomy GUM, was the largest store in the Soviet Union.  It was located directly across Red Square from Lenin’s tomb. 

It was formerly a market place with 1,200 stores, but after the Communist Revolution it was converted to a department store. Stalin shut it down, but it was reopened after Stalin’s death. 

The GUM department store was one of the only stores in the Soviet Union which didn’t suffer from chronic shortages, due to its high profile location. However, that was offset by the enormous lines that extended beyond Red Square.

Department stores were sort of the pinnacle of retail shopping for most of the 20th century. 

One of the problems is that department stores were not built for efficiency. They were designed to have a large selection and to be a place where people could go to find most anything they needed. 

Most department stores were stand alone, family run stores, or were part of a small regional chain. The largest department store chains were run by catalog operators such as Sears, JC Penny’s, or Mongomery Wards. 

This left them vulnerable to competition from two different directions. 

On one hand, large discount chains were able to buy in volume and imiplemented efficiencies that department stores couldn’t. Instead of having multistory buildings in expensive real estate in downtown areas, they were in big box stores on the edges of cities. 

They didn’t have restaurants or other amenities that department stores did, reducing their overhead. 

From the other end, department stores had competition from malls. While department stores were often the anchor stores of most malls, the malls were a bigger destinations than a department stores ever could have been. 

Malls offered greater specialization with smaller stores, plus malls had attractions such as movie theaters, and some even had amusement parks.

Over the last several decades, most smaller department stores have closed because of competitive pressure. The trend toward online retailers has only accelerated the trend. 

Department stores still exist, mostly as a few surviving anchor stores in malls or destination attractions in large cities. Stores like Macy’s in New York, Harrod’s in London, Le Bon Marché in Paris, and Mitsukoshi in Tokyo.

Department stores will probably always have a place in the retail landscape. Still, in a world where you can buy anything with a click of your mouse and have it delivered to your home, it is unlikely that department stores will ever be as important as they were in the 20th century.

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener kustomrydes on Apple Podcasts in the United States.

This is truly a great podcast. I found this podcast in July and listened daily ay work until the headphones would go dead giving me between 7-8 hours. Will be starting soon at the beginning again to catch things I missed.

Thank you for the podcast. It is really a favorite to listen to.

Thank you, kustomrydes! First, my recommendation is …..wired headphones. 

Second, I’m very impressed that you can listen to 7-8 hours in a single sitting. You are probably one of the few people who listen to me for that long.

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