The death of the department store
Whilst this long read from The Guardian focuses on the closure of the John Lewis’ sixty-year old department store in the city of Sheffield, England, in June 2021, the article frames this store closure more broadly to highlight what is happening to city centre department stores the world over. Given that John Lewis is not your typical short-termist capitalist retailer, it is a very successful employee-owned partnership with a reputation for looking after staff & customers and thinking long term, this piece brings home how difficult it will be for the other retailers to sustain bricks & mortar department stores in the years to come.
The John Lewis store in Sheffield was a part of Sheffield’s social landscape: “When I visited two months later, the building was shuttered and silent. Every ground-floor window was covered by pastel-coloured posters advertising John Lewis’s “virtual events” and click-and-collect services. No one needed any persuasion to talk about the closure. “It’s as bad as a death in the family,” one passerby told me. Then she checked herself. “Well, that’s a bit over the top maybe. But it really upsets me. It’s just always been there.” Other people mentioned the excellent customer service, fondly loved rituals like Christmas shopping and the January sales, and the modest pleasures of visiting an old-fashioned retailer, where “you could see what stuff was, and find out what was what”.”
Such store closures have become common now in the Western world: “The closure in Sheffield is part of a story playing out across the world: the extinction of the archetypal department store, and a wider crisis for town and city centres. British Home Stores closed all 167 of its UK branches in 2016; two years later, House of Fraser, founded in 1849, went into administration. After Covid triggered the temporary closure of most shops and a mass move to online shopping, one of the biggest casualties was Debenhams, the middle-market high-street staple, which announced that it would close its remaining 118 stores, including in Sheffield, in January 2021. John Lewis announced its first closures – eight in total, including department stores and a few smaller outlets – in July 2020, and another eight six months later, including Sheffield. In total, since 2016, according to a study published last summer, 83% of the UK’s big department stores have closed.”
Even before Covid, on our business trips to Europe we could see the hollowing out of town centres as the big stores wound up and customers either moved online for their retailing or drove to out-of-town malls. In most of these cases, the local government claims that they have plans to redevelop the city centres but rarely do these plans amount to anything substantial: “Because of their size, purpose-built department stores are hard to put to new uses. A few have been successfully reinvented – as arts centres, indoor trampoline parks and education settings. But the rapid spread of vacant stores raises a huge question: if urban centres are not going to be dominated by shopping, what do we want them to be?”
In fact, as the article explains, even though the local government in Sheffield allowed the John Lewis store to move from a fixed rent to a rent which was a % of revenues, it still did not make commercial sense for the retailer to stay in the city centre.
The article then turns to what can urban planners do to avoid this sort of hollowing out of the commercial centre of cities. Hint to India’s urban planners: think twice before you give planning permission to build out-of-town stores of the sort now popping up on the fringes of Indian cities: “In 1990, Sheffield’s commercial life was radically reshaped by the opening of a vast out-of-town shopping centre. Meadowhall, on the site of a former steelworks, is so big it has its own railway station. When it opened, Meadowhall offered 180 shops and 12,000 free parking spaces. Within five years, it was attracting many millions of visits per year.
Meadowhall inevitably had serious effects on Sheffield’s city centre. One recent architectural history of Sheffield said Meadowhall had “sucked the lifeblood” from the streets at the city’s heart. The city centre needed to lure people back….Ambitious plans for a city-centre retail development to rival Meadowhall were scuppered by the crash of 2008.”
No Western country is being able to prevent the hollowing of its cities and the replacement of the same with ecommerce and out-of-town malls. So every time an Ikea or a Decathalon pops up on the fringes of an Indian city and people flock enthusiastically to the new retail haven, we should dwell on the future of high streets and of city centre malls in India.