Business

Five reasons why we love department stores

Shoppers outside BHS Image copyright Getty Images

With BHS now in administration and teetering on the brink of total collapse unless a white knight appears, some critics question whether this sounds the death knell for the traditional department store.

But you just need to look across Britain's high streets to see how integral department stores are to the fabric of retail.

While they may now compete against shopping centres for consumer spend, it's worth noting that these are often anchored by retail giants such as House of Fraser, Debenhams and John Lewis.

While the glamour and seduction associated with the early days of Galeries Lafayette and Selfridges may have faded a century on, shoppers today still have a fierce affection for department stores, whether that's their local independent store, a nationwide partnership such as John Lewis or an iconic favourite like Liberty.

So what is it about them that make them so treasured by millions of shoppers?

Merchandise under one roof

Image caption John Lewis says it stocks 350,000 products in its 46 stores

Department stores are a treasure trove of merchandise spanning categories such as clothing, beauty and homeware. Products are not only own label but are from a variety of well-sourced and diverse bunch of brands.

John Lewis, for instance, stocks 350,000 products across its 46 department stores.

Or how about the independent department store Barkers in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, which stocks everything from bed linen to cooking equipment.

"People can spend a few hours at our store," says managing director Charles Barker. "It's very convenient to customers to have such a lot of things under one roof."

Also, shoppers love department stores for their selection of merchandise.

"Given the size of the store, department stores have the ability to flex their ranges and give space to the sectors and brands that offer the most growth opportunities," says Maureen Hinton, group research director at retail consultancy Conlumino.

"This means they can tap into consumer trends and react far quicker than own brand stores."

Social function

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Image caption Shopping and socialising: A chance to chat, recuperate and plan the next purchases, perhaps?

Department stores are a social hub, a destination where friends can meet for a browse before settling down for afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, or a cocktail at Harvey Nichols.

This was the case for two retired female nurses I meet heading for tea and cake at House of Fraser's tearoom on the fifth floor of the Oxford Street.

"We both live at opposite sides of London so we usually meet up and go to John Lewis, then come here for a bite to eat and a gossip," says one of the women who declined to be named. "It's a lovely day out."

Retail theatre

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Image caption Part of London department store Liberty's appeal is its 1920s era Tudor revival building

For many, the high-end department store is still associated with glitz and glamour - and an element of exclusivity.

With its iconic Tudor-style building - built from the timbers of two Royal Navy warships - Liberty in London continues to impress shoppers, while Harrods with its high-end brands is seen as one of the capital's most extravagant department stores.

Far from being purely shopping stores, department stores are destinations filled with experiences.

Selfridges is a pioneer in creating retail theatre, constantly testing new and innovative ways to engage its customers, whether that's through a pop-up cinema, installing a temporary fragrance lab, where customers could buy bespoke perfumes based on their personality and or by launching a silent shopping area with meditation sessions.

House of Fraser regularly holds events such as beauty master classes across its portfolio of stores. "It creates a great atmosphere and a good shopping experience for the customer," says House of Fraser chief executive Nigel Oddy.

Christmas extravaganza

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Image caption Paris's Galeries Lafayette, still combining retail theatre and Christmastide extravaganza

Nowhere - in terms of retail - screams Christmas as much as department stores. Shoppers flock to catch a glimpse of the imaginative and show-stopping windows from the likes of Harrods and Selfridges.

"As retailers work to outdo each other, department store Christmas windows have become a big-budget spectacle and a destination all on their own," says Petah Marian, senior editor of retail intelligence at trend forecaster WGSN.

"Holiday windows have become part of many consumers' Christmas tradition."

Aside from the creative displays, the highly-anticipated Christmas adverts pretty much come courtesy of the department stores.

John Lewis in particular continues to tug on Britain's heartstrings with its annual Christmas offering.

Indeed last year advert, The Man on the Moon, racked up an impressive 22 million views across the retailer's social media channels in the first week of launch alone.

Customer service - and convenience

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Image caption Retailing's first rule: Give customers what they want

Customer service can often clinch business, and it's here that department stores often win over their single brand rivals.

Browsing the cooking appliances section at John Lewis, Paddington resident Cecilia Tsoi tells me she enjoys the customer service at department stores, particularly John Lewis, which she visits nearly everyday.

"Unlike some high-end stores, there's nice people here, they're really friendly and helpful."

Over at Selfridges, Catherine Carlow, armed with her new purchase - a Michael Kors bag - tells me one of the reasons she likes shopping at the retailer is because of the high-level of customer service.

"Good service is important, no matter how much you're spending," she says.

This also translates online, with the bigger department stores investing heavily in creating a strong multichannel offer.

"Customers can order up to midnight online and pick up their order from midday the next day," says House of Fraser's Nigel Oddy.

What the customer wants

Yet while shoppers certainly still love a department store, the format faces intense competition from single stores and from online.

"In UK retail there are far too many players and so department stores must provide a relevant, inspirational and aspirational shopping experience," says independent retail analyst Richard Hyman.

In the words of the Harry Selfridge, founder of Selfridges: "Give the lady what she wants."

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