Dwelling on the demise of the department store

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
September 21, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

A year or two ago, I was visiting my parents’ house when I stumbled across the distinct green of a certain store’s plastic shopping bag.

I was frozen. I hadn’t laid eyes on that hue in nearly a decade. To a seasoned shopper, the sight was chilling.

The bag, needless to say, was from Daimaru. The Melbourne store closed in 2002. To say that I haven’t quite processed my grief is an understatement.

Daimaru’s demise came way back when it couldn’t be blamed on internet trading, but rather on a question that was pertinent in the early 2000s and probably even more so today: can Melbourne really support three department stores?

Flash forward a decade and in recent days David Jones’ dodgy loss statements have led to speculation of store closures in Melbourne and Sydney. Suddenly the question of whether we can support any department store is being hashed out.

The cosmetics and skincare and haircare industries would view me as quite the good consumer. To put it mildly. And yet, aside from the emergency can of hairspray procured from the supermarket, all my cosmetic/skincare/haircare purchases are now made online.

Once upon a time these were bought from Daimaru. Then from Myer or David Jones. And then I got the taste for not paying Australian retail prices and my relationship with the department store forever changed.

I am, without question, partly to blame for the demise of the department store.

And yet, the idea of a city without a couple of these stores fills me with thorough dread.

Sure, there’s the selfish part of me that likes the browsing: likes the showroom, likes to test the lipstick colour before buying it at half the price from Hong Kong.

Sure, there’s the selfish part of me that likes the existence of a back-up should I shatter a bottle of perfume on the bathroom tiles and urgently need a replacement.

First world concerns, sure – but concerns nonetheless.

But there are far bigger problems than these.

Just what happens to cities when the department stores leave?

The US provides a very good insight. Not New York and not Chicago – they’re rare and glorious exceptions – but visit many other decent-sized downtown areas and often you’ll be gifted one hell of a shock: the cities invariably appear abandoned. There’ll be cafes and 7-Elevens, sure – left there to cater to the CBD office staff – but gone are the department stores. Gone, in fact, is retail all together.

Nope, the shops haven’t gone out of business, but invariably they’ve moved out of the cities, out of the oh-so-hard-to-a-secure-a-carpark CBD, out of expensive leases, and have relocated to those architectural monstrosities that are shopping malls.

My relationship with malls is a complex one. I often daydream about going, fantasise about the big ones, get there and feel so overwhelmingly depressed. Rinse, repeat. My main problem is that I am very conscious that they drag life out of the city. The existence of mega malls means that cities are no longer places people have any reason to be in outside of the workday.

City department stores serve as magnets; other stores are drawn to setting up shop around them, cities become shopping destinations because of them.

As a resident of the Melbourne CBD I don’t want my home to become a place solely catering to hungry/boozing suits.

So what’s the answer? How can I defend stores that I treat – quite literally – as museums? What kind of businesses can afford to keep open massive buildings on Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfares just to allow people the luxury of browsing?

I’m not sure the death of the department store is necessarily imminent, but as long as parity with the greenback remains, their sustainability is certainly questionable.

While the future of the retail sector is a worthwhile discussion, equally so is the question of what we want our cities to look like in the future and whether they can remain in the form we know and love them without retail.

© Lauren Rosewarne