Department stores have been around for 150 years but their standing has slipped of late. Yet, as the best of their kind still show us, it’s a versatile format that can deliver the goods.
The project: Department stores.
The brief: Revive the fortunes of under-one-roof luxury retail and secure its survival as shopping habits change.
Specifications: A clearly defined and distinct retail experience.
It’s no secret that department stores, those historic totems of glamorous consumerism, are struggling, especially in the US. But there’s life in them yet: in shopping capitals including Seoul, Tokyo and Paris, this is still a much-loved format. The challenge is how to propel the storied retail set-up – invented by Paris’s Le Bon Marché in 1852 – into the future, where it will continue to jostle with the rise of e-commerce and monobrand shops.
So how can this happen? Here are some of the things that monocle’s fantasy department store would do to keep shoppers coming back.
We’d like a heritage-listed property whose architecture recalls the grandeur of a former era. This creates a sense of occasion. Think of Liberty’s Tudor revival building in London or the ornate 19th-century palace that is Lisbon’s Embaixada.
Inside, we’re after high ceilings and mostly open spaces, not low-slung rooms chopped up into claustrophobic brand concessions run by overzealous staff. A skylight helps for its natural light, as in Le Bon Marché (we’d take the Parisian retailer’s scene-stealing escalator too). Filling a shop is a balancing act between sparse and overcrowded; we would tap Swiss fitters Schweitzer to help us tread the line between art gallery and jumble sale. And let’s forgo plastic for wood and metal for stone: natural materials age well and have a calming effect. A few textiles will stop the sound clanging around too much.
A concierge desk helps to conjure a sense of occasion. Mitsukoshi Nihombashi, Japan’s oldest surviving department store, features a standout example. Smart uniforms also contribute to the atmosphere. We’re after ensembles that combine formality with panache. We’d commission an independent uniform brand; perhaps the precise silhouettes and crisp sustainable fabrics from Older Paris – in navy. To see good uniforms in action, look to Galeries Lafayette (dressed by Older Paris) or Tokyo’s Isetan Shinjuku.
Sweden’s NK is a frontrunner when it comes to a striking logo and a thoughtful, consistent brand identity. Its black-and-white logo looks sharp and modern even though it was designed in 1902. The Scandinavian stalwart uses three fonts for its printed matter, whether it be staff badges, signs or business cards: Franklin Gothic, Garamond and News Gothic. There’s some variety but everything telegraphs classic style.
Forget a pattern; we want a bold block colour. Is there anything better than a canary-yellow Selfridges shopping bag? It’s confident, striking and, in its way, a marker of London. Salmon pink could also work – or perhaps grass green.
A clever brand mix must include plenty of up-and-coming independent labels as well as luxury staples. Department stores are important launchpads. In decades past, many designers got their start at Bergdorf Goodman or the now-shuttered Barneys. It’s a symbiotic relationship: young talents need department stores to spread their names – and department stores need young talents to keep shoppers keen. Forty Five Ten, the Dallas retailer, strikes a good fashion-forward balance.
Maintain an element of surprise with the layout and tenant mix. Tokyo’s recently opened Shibuya Parco offers food for thought here (as does Paris’s Galeries Lafayette Champs-Elysées): it has no men’s and women’s floors; a vinyl shop sits among the restaurants; there’s an arthouse cinema on one floor and contemporary art throughout. There’s a vintage clothes shop, a trainer revival centre where old kicks can be brought back to life and an eco-friendly clothing cleaners. The point is to ensure there’s a sense of the unexpected. Removing at least some of the conventional category distinctions from shop floors makes them feel more like a dynamic high street.
Feature furniture and art by regional talents, including in the all-important window displays. Make the décor feel unique to that city or neighbourhood, rather than just another big-box shop. The installations should also change regularly to keep shoppers guessing.
Keep the music low and don’t commission a scent. People don’t want to pretend they’re in a nightclub; keeping the place clean and lighting the occasional incense stick will do.
Play with different scales and types of outlets. Our department store will be a small chain, with a handful of different outlets enabling us to be agile. Look at Nordstrom: its pint-sized Nordstrom Local outposts don’t stock clothes but are places for collecting online orders and getting purchases altered by a tailor. Maybe another outpost only offers clothing rentals. These outlets are another way to meet the needs of modern consumers.
Offer a well-stocked food hall, such as Le Bon Marché’s La Grande Épicerie or that of Isetan Shinjuku. Plus: plenty of outdoor spaces with plants and a breeze. What about a leafy courtyard where customers can unwind and have a coffee after their spree?
Finally, how could we forget the importance of a mascot, such as Breuni Bear from Stuttgart’s Breuninger. A furry friend will give your store a sense of humour and is a good branding opportunity. Plus: it’ll provide entertainment for tired tots.