When Laura Peden was growing up in the 1970s, department stores were a special place. Decades later, she still vividly remembers how she and her grandmother would travel into Myer’s city store at Christmas to see the “insanely fascinating” windows. Things inside were just as exciting. There were lifts, giant displays, and a seemingly endless array of foods in the cafeteria. Laura’s 27-year-old daughter, Gen, similarly recalled her mother taking her to see the Christmas windows in t
n the city. But after seeing the display, Gen explained, “We’d go to the bakery or go to the art gallery or something as well.” The department store was no longer the star attraction. The different experiences Laura and Gen related are an integral part of Shop Talk, a project we have been working on for the past year that seeks to document the evolution of Australian department stores from the end of the Second World War through to the present. In addition to speaking to department store shoppers, we have been interviewing past and present department store staff and executives. To date, we have conducted almost a hundred interviews nationwide. Interviewees have discussed the major department stores as well as the enormous number of smaller department stores that have long since closed their doors. The stories and experiences our interviewees recounted offer unique perspectives and deeply personal insights that have not been documented in the department stores’ archives. These accounts are not exclusively about history. When reflecting on the past, interviewees inevitably refer to more recent experiences to illustrate changes. While each interview inevitably delivers new insights, they also display notable consistencies. To this end, their accounts of change concerning some of the department store’s defining characteristics provide a revealing commentary on the current state of the department store, as well its future. Bringing glamour to the everyday In August 2023, David Jones confirmed that it was cancelling its annual spring season launch. Such launches had once been the highlight of Australia’s fashion scene, imbuing the department stores with a sense of glamour, excitement and cosmopolitanism. Glamour had been an integral part of the department store’s DNA. While many department stores had started out in the 19th and early 20th centuries as humble drapers or tailors, those that sought to set themselves apart by cultivating a glamorous image experienced a business boom. Department stores that first catered to each city’s social elite – like David Jones in Sydney and Georges in Melbourne – were at the fore of creating this glamorous image. Although Georges closed in 1995, Elizabeth Pallett still remembers the glamour of shopping there. For her, it was like “walking back in time to a time of pure luxury…It just had an atmosphere of absolute luxury. The flooring, everything around you, was just that little bit higher quality than anywhere else.” Store location was no less important. Peden recalled that her local Myer branch in Geelong “was not exciting…It was small and it was darkish in my memory, and not glamorous.” But going to Myer in Melbourne was different – it “was glamorous”. Architecture and in-store design of flagships similarly identified them as special. Of her school holiday visit to Myer in the 1980s, Jessica Begley recalled, “They were grand locations – the lighting, the flowers, the uniforms.” Begley also highlighted another aspect of these retailers that left a deep impression – lifts and the people operating them. “That was a really big thrill as a child to be in the lift and to watch this elderly lady perched on a stall knowing where everything was in the store,” she explained. For earlier generations, the lift attendants were no less intriguing. Laura Fortey recalled that in the 1950s the role was often given to men “either missing an arm or a leg…veterans of the First World War”. Lift operators were aware of their presence and the image they were cultivating. Monique Bareham was one of John Martin’s department stores’ ‘lift ladies’ in the 1990s. Noting that there “was quite a lot of theatre to it”, Bareham explained how “we had to be very friendly and always smiling…Like an air hostess, you had to be smiling, looking everywhere”. A ban on wearing the lift uniform outside of the store similarly sought to safeguard the Adelaide store’s image. For hungry shoppers – both large and small – in-store cafes and cafeterias were an essential part of the department store magic. Up until the 1980s, eating out was less common and, therefore, a special treat. Franco Schifilliti, whose retail career started at Adelaide’s David Jones in the 1960s, described the Mayfair Room at Adelaide’s David Jones: “This was the meeting spot for well-dressed women, with gloves and bags to match, that would come and have morning or afternoon tea or a spot of lunch.” With staff in the café wearing black outfits with white aprons and red lipstick, it was, he noted, “an era of refinement”. Younger patrons would be taken to the store’s cafeteria. While the cafeteria was a little less sophisticated, children were equally dazzled by choice and the opportunity to eat something special. John Davenport can still remember the excitement of queueing up to order food at Anthony Hordern’s cafeteria in Sydney in the 1950s. After ordering a simple sandwich, he could then “choose a nice sort of ice-cream type dish. And it was just…really exciting to do that”. Three decades later, Laura Peden was equally excited by the prospect of a pie and chips. The task of creating and maintaining the store’s glamorous image was important work that all staff shared. As many had grown up shopping at department stores, they were excited to be a part of the glamour. Cynthia Brock had joined the Japanese-owned Daimaru in Melbourne in the 1990s as a casual sales assistant before becoming a junior buyer. “I thought it was all terribly glamorous,” she explained. “And I thought it was quite a powerful position to be in for a buyer, to be able to just be making choices about the products that would end up on the floor.” At the cutting edge of generating this glamorous image were the staff involved in event co-ordination, marketing, public relations and advertising – whose numbers had steadily increased since the stores’ earliest days. While the size and scale of season launches, fashion shows, media appearances, and countless other events increased in the 20th century, the aim, as Brock observed, remained relatively simple: to give “people the idea of ‘Wow, this glamorous place!” And up until recent times, it seemed to be working. The biggest range and the best brands While glamour helped seduce shoppers, it was the breadth and range of products available in each department store that made them stand out from competition. Offering multiple products and brands under the one roof, their proposition was simple: something for everyone. Prior to the advent of suburban shopping malls, department stores were the most convenient way of shopping for a broad range of products. Growing up in the 1960s, Elizabeth Pallett noted the importance of Myer’s size and range: “My parents bought the furniture from there, they bought electrical goods from there. My father took us every season to buy our new clothing from there.” Department stores in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1950s and 1960s operated a vast array of departments that have since disappeared. In an age when clothing was often made at home, the haberdashery department was important. Jan Martin explained how her mother “always preferred Myer for the haberdashery, so we would buy the materials in Buckley’s and then go next door to Myer to buy cottons and trimming”. Other long-lost departments included hats, gloves, sports, books, and hardware. The disappearance of departments owed as much to the changes across the retail sector (notably the rise of suburban shopping malls, which arrived in Australia in the late 1950s, and the emergence of category killers from the 1990s) as they did to changes in fashion. Fashion had been – and still remains – a cornerstone of the department store’s business. By offering the largest range of the most up-to-date fashions, they were able to attract a mass market. More than just fashion retailers, department stores emerged as the arbiters of taste for a nation. Remaining ahead of the competition demanded that department stores be proactive in identifying, sourcing and securing the latest fashions. Franco Schifilliti explained how Adelaide buyers in the 1970s travelled to Melbourne’s Flinders Lane “because that was full of fashion agents, and they would see not only brands that they had heard about, but ones they had never heard of, and they would take a punt on them”. Department stores also sent buyers abroad – something that smaller boutiques simply could not afford to do. Over time, brands began to exert an increasing influence over department store thinking in fashion and beyond. The real drive came from below. “Australians are really attached to their brands…They are quite engaged in and quite loyal to those brands,” explained Megan Foster, a senior executive at Myer in the 2010s. Of course, department stores had long been cultivating this love affair. From the 1990s, the impact of brands upon the department store operations and strategic thinking increased. Brands were opening their own stores and department stores needed to develop new approaches. As a senior executive at Myer in the 2000s, Judy Coomber was involved in the store’s revamp. The redesign of the firm’s flagship store in Melbourne would be complemented by a revitalisation of its brands. For Coomber, the aim was to develop “a really solid group of fashion brands, because people look to department stores for brands and for choice”. Coomber’s task was not simple. Brands had become more discerning about their retail partnerships. Travelling to European showrooms, Coomber had to work hard to persuade designers to sell to Myer, as “a lot of them did not think much of department stores in Australia or didn’t know a lot about them”. Enhancing shopper access to brands brought the establishment of in-store concessions for major labels. Branded spaces in department stores had appeared in the 1990s but independently administered concessions only took root in the 2000s. Concessions offered solutions to many of the challenges that department stores were facing, ensuring that key brands did not disappear into their own shops while alleviating labour costs for department stores; however, such solutions would also generate new problems. Back to the future? When staff and shoppers reflect on the biggest changes they have experienced at department stores, they inevitably point to the same issue – customer service, or the lack thereof. Service lay at the heart of the department store. It was integral to establishing the image of glamour and sophistication. It also underpinned the department store’s commitment to delivering the broadest range of products and the most popular brands. All the great city stores deployed slogans that emphasised customer service. Descriptions of customer service in the past leave no doubt that things have indeed changed. Describing Sydney’s department stores in the 1950s, Bill Beck recalled how staff stood at each counter and were “ready to serve you. … if you were going in to buy a shirt, you didn’t click through the shirt rack, they would bring the shirts to you”. Winsome Baker offered a similar account: “It was magic, lovely. You’d have great attention, people listened to what you wanted to buy, there were enough people there to serve you.” In contrast, shoppers visiting stores today complain about the difficulties of finding staff. Those that have been able to find someone to serve them often express frustration about their lack of knowledge. Concession staff without knowledge of any products beyond their brand are a particular bugbear. While the department stores have sought to address this problem, the simple fact is that customer service is no longer what it used to be. The result is underwhelming. As one middle-aged shopper observed: “I think department stores have become not as glamorous anymore. They’re not quite boring. But you just walk in…and buy things. It’s not the experience of the feeling that we had all those years ago.” So what can these memories and stories about department stores tell us about the future? While today’s department stores trade in a very different retail landscape and are in many ways a shadow of their former selves, they nevertheless remain major retailers. It seems that there is still a place for a 19th century retail model in the 21st century. The key then lies in the shoppers. Our interviews reveal that they still have an emotional connection with department stores, even if they go less frequently. By developing a deeper understanding of these emotional connections and reworking their operations to reinvigorate them, department stores may well be able to build a future by capitalising on the past. The Shop Talk project is still collecting stories from current and past staff and shoppers. If you’re interested or know someone who might be able to share further insights, please visit https://www.departmentstorehistory.org.au/. This story first appeared in the November 2023 issue of Inside Retail Australia magazine.