Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

17 December 2013

I am as big a fan as the next man or woman of the local shop. But sometimes only a big-ticket department store will do. It is a pleasingly old-school experience harking back to the days when my family would treat a visit like a day trip – a special event.

My mother loved the haberdashers’, my father made a beeline for the Jaegar sale and I got a new pair of shoes and a trip to the bookshop. Life was good. And the department store – with all its stiff shiny efficiency – sold objects we wanted to buy. Today, the era of a day trip is nearly gone. But I still felt a childish thrill recently when I went in search of what I shall call ‘a reasonably available thing’. The store I visited in London bills itself as offering tip-top quality and service. I headed to the right floor, where tired customer meets glazed-eyed shop assistant.

“Excuse me,” I ask. Silence from the assistant. “I’m trying to find your reasonably available thing.”

“Try online,” grunts the disinterested employee.

“But I’m in your shop,” I say.

“We don’t stock the reasonably available thing,” is the reply.

“Your website says you do,” I explain. “Do you have another, similar, reasonably available thing?”

“We don’t stock that either. Online only.”

So I went home and bought my reasonably available thing online. But from another retailer and of course with no clear idea of what I was buying.

I recently tried to scratch another department-store itch in Paris – that of the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville. I have always been a fan of BHV. I admire any store that stocks a smart grey women’s fedora, a bento box and a 15mm diamond -tipped drill bit under one roof. I was, again, on the hunt for a reasonably available thing. The outcome here was identical albeit more politely delivered. People come to the store, my charming shop assistant complained, they measure all the furniture and then go home and buy it cheaper online. So when the store was revamped last year it got rid of a big slice of its stock.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Luxury-retailer Lane Crawford is currently embracing the concept of connected commerce in its stores in Shangahi and Hong Kong. Connected commerce uses department stores as warehouses rather than showrooms. It sounds revolutionary but all it’s doing is retaining the pleasure of bricks and mortar as well as embracing online. Because if a store doesn’t stock its core products, how can we be expected to trust it?

So, a message to those after our hard-earned Christmas pennies. Window dressing is fine and limited-edition ukuleles are all well and good, but please sell things in your shops.

Emma Nelson is a presenter for Monocle 24.

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