Upon entering Toronto's massive Yorkdale Mall with my 7-year-old son recently, I used the phrase "department store."
"What is that?" he asked.
"It's a store with lots of stuff in one place."
"You mean a mall?"
"No, because it's under one roof – it's – uh...lots of brands – all together..."
"Like a mall."
My son's confusion cut straight to my nostalgia and also suggested a question: Do we need department stores any more? And what space will they leave if they do go? Certainly, the department store doesn't dominate our lives the way it used to, when fall meant a trip to Eaton's for school clothes and summer a trip to the Bay for sandals. Screaming at each other in Old Navy somehow doesn't qualify as a family tradition.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Harrods, the august grande dame of department stores, has joined the modern retail riffraff with the launch of an app. It includes a GPS to help customers find what they want in the London institution's one million square feet of space as well as links to the menus in its 29 restaurants and updates on store news through its Twitter feed.
Harrods' tweeting may be yet another example of department-store desperation, as two U.S. icons, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, work, respectively, to install store-wide Wi-Fi and test "radio-frequency technology" to help locate merchandise. (Canadian representatives from both Sears and the Bay told me that they're working on their own tech initiatives.) In Canada, says John Winter, president of retail consultancy John Winter Associates Ltd., we have gone from 15 department-store chains in the 1960s to four, all affiliated with or owned by American companies: the Bay, Sears, Wal-Mart and, soon, Target. Sears Canada reported a $49.5-million loss in the first quarter of this year and, in the U.S., the company has lost 10 per cent of market share over the past decade.
The first department stores appeared in North America in the mid-19th Century and rose in prominence alongside a new middle class. As citizens migrated to urban centres, they brought with them a range of needs that the department store rushed to meet. The dry-goods-only shop evolved into a one-stop shopping experience with food, hardware and clothing for a disparate population whose commonality was that it convened where mass transit and new roadways took it: downtown.
"The department store has to be all things to all people, which is its great advantage and its handicap," Winter says.
In her book Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, Jan Whitaker writes that department stores were really a kind of civic meeting place – town squares with escalators and perfume samples. In the early 19th Century, people gathered not just for shopping, but for concerts, fashions shows and art exhibits. Some stores even ran nurseries for kid-free shopping. (Note to retailers: We want this again. Now.) The local department store was a safe public space, where women could meet without chaperones or single ladies could gain a modicum of financial independence through respectable work. All of this social impact was, of course, merely shrewd business strategy, but the department store worked because it understood our need to be out and among.
I grew up in the mall-loving eighties, but I still remember the department store as an event: several hours on the old elevators in Vancouver's Eaton's, following my mother from the Children's to Women's to Appliances departments, culminating in Jell-O in the restaurant. There was quiet and anonymity in the experience – no abrasive Gap greeters or reverent Prada salespeople. And there was no expectation that we would buy. Department stores invented window shopping, wherein the appreciation of the goods was as paramount as the purchase. The French call this lèche vitrine – "window licking," an ode to how delectable a beautiful display can be.
Perhaps this is why the inevitable apping up of Harrods is like seeing the Queen give a royal address in a Kills T-shirt. It's not wrong, exactly – free country! – but it doesn't speak to the dignity expected from venerable institutions. The Harrods app is clearly an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em gesture, as technology has so dramatically changed how we shop that it threatens Harrods' very existence. The idea of a store that just sits there filled with stuff waiting to be bought seems either quaint or lunatic.Nowadays, we shop "long tail," buying more of less from our computers, nestled in our niches. In some ways, this tightly navigated consumption is liberating, but it's isolating, too – another dimming of shared experience.
Beyond the independent stores, the off-line alternatives to the department store are the high-end luxury retailer or, increasingly, the elbow-in-the-side agony of the discount retailer. If the middle class is dying, so is the real-world, middle-class shopping experience. And there's no app for that absence.