Department stores’ everyman appeal may be their downfall

Department stores’ everyman appeal may be their downfall

A recent retail announcement has shaken me to the very soles of my little Saltire-patterned socks. The venerable grande dame of Scottish shopping, Jenners department store on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, looks set to leave the iconic premises it has occupied for more than 180 years.

To many, this may be yet another tale of regional high street woe but to any ‘Burgher (denizen of Edinburgh, past or present, including your correspondent) this would very much be the end of an era. Jenners basement toy department was a joy to rival Hamleys or Harrods to those of us north of the border. Endless beauty halls and a warren-like layout took the shopper via neo-Gothic archways and hidden, oak-panelled spiral staircases to rooms of untold – and somewhat pricey – delights.

Dowagers and debutantes mingled with shopgirls from Boots and gaggles of teens as they hunted out a just-so hat or fondled frocks way out of their price range.

Perhaps my abiding memory is Granny’s Friday Ladies, a meeting of the blue-rinse brigade in the slightly chi-chi café atop the building, regular as clockwork. The only occasion she would don gloves and a hat for (not even God got that privilege on a Sunday). Grandpa would drive her to the local village where she’d catch the bus for the bumpy, hour-long ride into town and he’d be there to meet her again, five hours later. She and her ladies kept this up well into their nineties. There’s something in that Victoria Sponge, I’m telling you.

The building’s new owner, Anders Holch Povlsen, seems to be planning to turn it into a hotel and café complex, with additional luxury shops. So now ‘Burghers have launched into a period of peremptory mourning and wringing of hands at the prospective loss.

Let’s take a step back and evaluate, what exactly is it that we are mourning? Jenners as a department store has little to distinguish it, product-wise, from its near neighbours Harvey Nichols to one side, or Debenhams and John Lewis to the other. Are we mourning the loss of the cafe ritual? If so, it would seem that little will change here. Perhaps the ability to enjoy the wonderful building itself? Well, a large portion may be out of bounds as it becomes hotel rooms, but surely Jenners’ magnificent atrium and some of its fabulous archways and stairwells will still be accessible as visitors pop in for some shopping or a snack.

What we should be preparing to be sad about is Jenners as a department store without its iconic carapace. The company behind Jenners is, in fact, House of Fraser. Despite struggles within the group, there has been no announcement that the Jenners brand will disappear. Instead, it is expected to move to a new location. But it’s a transplant that I fear might kill the patient.

What the upset over the Jenners announcement reveals is that we still visit bricks and mortar stores for their sense of occasion, for the retail theatre they provide. This has, to a degree, been lost in the panic over the threat of online. Those that have been able to retain that drama hold a valuable resource. Can you imagine Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann without its atrium and spectacular art nouveau glass dome, or its stupendous Christmas tree that looks like it could rival Trafalgar Square’s? Harrods’ Egyptian staircase may be bonkers to many of us, but there’s no denying that it, and the miles of lights outside, are certainly a draw. But Jenners, Galeries Lafayette and Harrods on a new-build retail park on the outskirts of town? Parking may be convenient but so much more is lost.

For the Issue 4 of Catalyst magazine, I invited Georg Jensen’s head of ecommerce, Will Lockie, to share his retail expertise with our readers.  Georg Jensen is an on and offline jewellery and home decor retailer which, in a highly competitive landscape, differentiates its brand through premium ranges and retail theatre. In Nordic Know How, he writes about ‘the death of the middle’ and why department stores, in particular, seemed to be some of the heaviest casualties of high street decline.  

On the possible Jenners relocation, he says this is another indicator that department stores just don’t seem to cut it on the high street any more:

“The Jenners move is a sign of the times. Property owners realise it may be more profitable and drive higher footfall to turn expensive retail space into premium venues offering a more attractive experience to modern shoppers than the traditional multi-brand department store model.”

Jenners’ future is still up in the air as owners of both the building and the store brand finalise their plans. But customers will begin to weigh up just what it is about the store that they will miss. And while Jenners’ is, in the grand scheme of things, just one little regional department store, what we learn from its change in circumstances could be a shot in the arm for the ailing high street – or finish it off altogether.

To read more about how Georg Jensen is balancing online efficiency with retail drama, read Nordic Know How (p. 39) in issue 4 | 2019 of Catalyst magazine.

Morag discusses the high street malaise and department store dilemmas in episode four of the CIM Marketing Podcast: The truth about sex and shopping.

Morag Cuddeford-Jones Editor, Catalyst magazine CIM
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