Three well‐known London department stores — Whiteleys, Swan & Edgar, Bournes — have all closed down in the last few months. Does this indicate the beginning of the collapse of the department store as such or is it simply the result of special circumstances, occurring more or less concurrently? Location is clearly a factor that needs to be taken into account. Whiteleys has struggled on valiantly in the past few years in an environment that has become increasingly indifferent to it. Even white elephants can briefly survive, but not when the circus leaves town. When department stores were in their triumphant heyday, they offered opulence, glamour and excitement. Gordon Selfridge persuaded Bleriot to lend the store his biplane soon after that intrepid aviator had flown across the Channel in 1909; and in the 30s several department stores flashed the latest news in moving lights across their fascias as Hitler moved implacably across Europe and the British concentrated on whether or not they would win the ashes. Has the department store's traditional glamour become irretrievably lost beneath grey layers of dowdiness? And what of the competition? With everybody diversifying into non‐food, what after all is the essential difference between a Tesco or an Asda superstore and a traditional department store? Except perhaps that the Tesco or the Asda may be much more fun to shop in? Perhaps the answer lies in how the department store intelligently uses its space; the shops‐within‐shops solution, for example. But while Debenhams continues to perform well with this as an essential strand of its operational policy, some commentators say that this was one of the reasons for the collapse of Bournes. Is specialisation the answer? The John Lewis Partnership has built up a unique and enviable reputation for fabrics — surely this specialisation must be a major factor in the group's profitability. Neither can the department store be seen in isolation from the community; the Law Lords' astonishing failure to realise that no public transport system in the civilised world can run without a subsidy means that London's public transport fares have now reached the kind of lunatic level that prohibits people from moving out of their suburban retreats without a special kind of masochism. Does this mean that suburban department stores will now blossom again around deserts of dead down‐towns? These are some of the questions that Sue Sharpies looks into in this special RDM feature.
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