Department Stores

In the lecture that captivated my interests most, and perhaps discussed topics I would like to research and explore further in my essay, we learnt about the role shops undertake in advancing customer’s purchase habits and consumption.

Prior to the lecture, I watched a clip from Channel 4’s documentary ‘Mary Portas – Queen of the High Street’ in which it was revealed that over 100 shops across Britain are closing each week.

Portas suggests that these closures are not just taking away jobs but also breaking down communities (‘Roman Road, East London’, 2013). Factors we discussed that contribute to these closures included that independent shops are closing down due to people opting to purchase from the bigger brands; as well as people choosing to online shop instead for convenience. With the idea in mind that the success of the high street is for the success of the community, Portas is working alongside the government with a 28 point plan, ‘The Portas Review’ detailing how high streets can be revived.

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Mary Portas

A factor contributing to the drastic decline of high streets are shopping locations such as Oxford Street which is home to flagship stores of many of the billion dollar brands; with around half a million daily visitors.

In 1909, Selfridges was founded by Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American magnate who transformed Oxford Street from being just the run down road joining London and Fishguard to becoming Europe’s busiest shopping street.

Based on the advert for ‘Mr Selfridge’ which tells the origins story of Selfridges&Co, we analysed how branding, product value and social class were portrayed in this ITV1 drama. Harry Selfridge’s character motivates his staff with phrases such as “We are going to dazzle the world”, this twinned with the upper class aesthetic the department store holds, highlights Selfridge aiming to give a taste of the aristocrat life to customers who are not necessarily from that social class. Scenes from the advert conveyed crowds of seemingly less well off women trying to push their way into the shop as it opened, backing this idea, but also indicating that Selfridge’s had become a respectable place, somewhere suitable for women to be out on their own without gaining a promiscuous reputation.

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Mr. Selfridge – ITV

Selfridges was one of the first chains to glamourise shopping; trying to sell people what they want rather than what they need and achieving this through a grand performance.
Elaborate window displays act as a still or repeating performance trapped in a glass cage, enticing and offering aspiration and persuading customers to buy into a new life. Pioneers in this industry, such as Harry Selfridge, made shopping into a creative process, allowing consumers to express themselves through the products they buy; an idea we can still see today through the contemporary medium of shoppers taking selfies in changing rooms, wearing outfits they can’t afford to buy.

Department stores like Selfridges, Liberty and Harrods conform to the theories of sociologist Thorstein Veblen, 1899. His idea of consumption becoming ceremonial, is what was happening when these department stores first opened; shopping here became linked to status and honour and displayed wealth and a form of luxury. However the department stores were also democratising luxury; people would, and still do, browse all of Liberty’s patterns printed on expensive materials and gasp at the price tags, and before they left would purchase items such as a notebook with a Liberty pattern on to show that they’d been and were worthy enough to shop there. Critic Georg Simmel, 1957, theorises that the value of an object is dependent on the value given by the subject, which emphasises this idea of department stores being able to democratise and replicate luxury through cheaper means, because they know that their brand is strong enough for people to buy cheaper alternatives. The department stores act as a museum for the less wealthy, allowing them to spectate at what they can’t have and buy a souvenir of their visit.

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Liberty, London

Reference list
‘Roman Road, East London’ (2013) Queen of the High Street, Series 1, episode 1, Channel 4 Television, 7 May. Available at: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/mary-queen-of-the-high-street/videos/series-1/s1-ep1-queen-of-the-high-street (Accessed: 23 February 2016).

Simmel, G. (1957) ‘Fashion’. The American Journal of Sociology, Volume 63 [Preprint]. Available at: http://sites.middlebury.edu/individualandthesociety/files/2010/09/Simmel.fashion.pdf (Accessed: 28/02/16).

Veblen, T (1992) The Theory of the Leisure Class. New Brunswick, U.S.A: Transaction Publishers.

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