The whimsical worlds of department stores


Why are department stores, more than ever, a trending topic? Obviously, at the moment there are some very interesting shifts. Some come, some go and others have to find a way to stay. All these retail giants are redefining their aim, in order to cope with the changes in retail, online shopping and consumer loyalty. Still there is another reason why these particular stores are timelessly interesting.


Once a year, back in the eighties, a group of housewives from the North of Holland used to go on a trip ’doing a day at De Bijenkorf’. Yes, this is what they actually called it. They looked forward to it for weeks and indeed ‘did’ it; spending a whole day at the iconic Dutch department store.

Every hour they ‘did’ another floor. Starting with coffee and pastries on the ground floor, overlooking the busy streets of Amsterdam. In fact, this was all they would see of Amsterdam that day. The rest of it was spent indoors; on escalators, in ele­vators, in fitting rooms and at the cash registers. When having combed out every corner of the store and having paused in all the restaurants, they went back home. Packed full of bags and chit chatting about all the new, inspiring things they had seen that day. De Bijenkorf was their revelation. For one day, the Dutch countryside women imagined themselves in another world, far away from their ordinary lives. They would thrive on that inspi­ration and imagination for the rest of the year.  


What's the magic?

Department stores have a kind of attraction that goes far beyond selling the right products at the right time. It is about the umfeld and the location. About the surprise; not exactly knowing what to encounter, to find or to buy. About the experience of heading for something new and exciting. It is about the total event. Passing the shop windows where the ever- changing and impressive presentations of goods and display design draws you inside. Once in, the products are flickering in the corners of your eyes. There is a lot to see at once, but it is only a glimpse of what is more around the corner. Large floors with high ceilings are divided in smaller spaces to keep the desire to find out what’s next. Excitement is in our hearts.


A world of their own

The reason why department stores are still attractive lies in their presence. Literally, their impressive buildings, shop windows, interior decors, branding and look & feel, are important for the consumer’s experience. What about the enormous dome of Lafayette, the stunning escalators of Le Bon Marché or the famous food halls of Harrods. Who doesn’t want to be seen with the famous brown bags of Bloomingdales? Fortnum and Mason is king in creating sassy but classy brands, with classical champagne popsicles, a packaging range with comics and comic text balloons. F&M also has a more serious business in keeping honeybees on its rooftop and selling its own honeypots. Liberty’s mock-Tudor building, made out of timber of two ships, suits perfectly with its artistic atmosphere. They all tell their story and create a world of their own.



Most of the department stores started their business in the late 19th century. When overlooking their history, one can still see their legacy throughout all the changes they have been through. This is probably one of the most valuable strengths in dealing with changes. One can still notice their own signature in their retail spaces, proposition and marketing, despite the overlapping product lines and brands they sell. Liberty was the first in selling oriental goods and up till now is still flamboyant. The doormen at Harrods, dressed in Harrods-green suits, open the doors to everyone, as they’ve been doing since the day they opened. Hudson’s Bay still sells the famous point blankets (woolen blankets with stripes in four colors), they started their company with in the 1800’s. 

Time for change We all know that times have changed. There is less time for fun shopping, due to the fact that more women are working nowadays. Internet has caused a major shift in terms of shop­ping and inspiration. The consumer is very much aware of what’s for sale in the world, what’s hip & happening and is, due to social media, used to constant changing images. The consumer wants it all and wants it now. Department stores therefore have to cope with the ever-­changing wishes and needs of its customers, while the online stores are breathing down their spines. 

Every department store is redefining its aim; De Bijenkorf finds its way up in high-end goods, with shop-in-shops of the worlds’ most luxurious brands. Harrods does the same, aiming for the Middle Eastern and Russian shopper. Hudson’s Bay in Holland intends to bring in the ordinary shopper. Selfridges still understands the theatre of retail and up to now is still able to amaze the customer and delivers extraordinary customer ex­periences. All of the department stores are claiming their existence their own way.


The future

Maybe the future of shopping lies in its history. We may think that online stores are very disruptive, but Le Bon Marché already launched post ordering back in 1852 and tested commercial methods based on the understanding of customer behavior. Also our great grandmothers had a Bonneterie bus full of clothes driven by. Fitting the clothes at home and sending back the pieces that didn’t fit their waist or their taste. In the early years bosses took care of their employees as if they were family. The contrast with those days could not be bigger. Looking at how the huge online stores nowadays treat their employees. Recently we could read about the packers of Amazon, who feel like slaves, working in narrow spaces with tight schedules.

Bringing back the good, the service, the smile and the fun of retailing might be the answer to face the future. Although the online stores are breathing down the department stores’ spines, the virtual shops will never be able to cope with the see and be seen culture, the social factors and the experience of real life shopping. The feeling of entering a department store through the revolving doors, will always stay the same. Immersing yourself in another - whim­sical - world for a while, expecting the unexpected. 



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