Back to the future: Department stores recreate the Golden Age to grow again

Board politics and egos prevented him from implementing his plan. The JCP shopping experience today is no better than it was five years ago.

There is much that has been written about the decline, and forecast continuing demise, of the department store sector worldwide.

It’s a serious challenge to turn these icons of retailing around too.

Ron Johnson, after a stellar 14 years building Apple into the single most successful retailer on the planet, was brought in to turn around JC Penney in the US back in 2011.

He set his heart, and the core of his strategy, on recreating the “Second Golden Age of Department Stores” – a time in the 1950s and 1960s when department stores like Saks, Nordstrom and JC Penney were true destinations for the weekend and late evening shopper in US.

CK Tangs in Singapore, Parks across Korea, Myer and David Jones in Australia, The Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, Galeries Lafayette in France and John Lewis in the UK achieved the same shopper loyalty.

It was all based upon curation, display, knowledge and service. Oh, and the concept that the stock in store was limited.

The ships really had sailed. If you didn’t buy the tin clockwork robot for you son or nephew, or the badger hair shaving brush for your beau right now, it may not be available again for several months. Plus just getting to the store was often a day’s journey and an adventure too.

You shopped, groomed, took tea or coffee and dined in a good department store: it was a day out.

Just for clarity, the first age of the department store birthed in the mid-1800s and saw the giants of retail like Selfridge & Co in London convincing shareholders to build single temples to retail that still exist today.

I worked there as a young man and the floors and tunnels beneath and between the two stores still seep taste, class and excitement.

And it still draws shoppers from around the world today. So does Nordstrom – physically with its store network and virtually with its excellent, seamless online offering.

Back to JC Penney. Ron Johnson left after less than two years. Board politics and egos prevented him from implementing his plan. The JCP shopping experience today is no better than it was five years ago.

So walking through a Robinsons department store in Singapore recently, I was truly delighted to feel some of the magic of a department store. Not luxurious or based on conspicuous consumption. Just a feeling that a group of buyers had thought about what was being offered to each individual shopper in the store.

That the display had been created thoughtfully. That the voice carrying over the public address system was telling me the story, the heritage, of the store and it was all good even though nothing was unique. Ray-Ban, G Star Raw and Levi’s aren’t exclusive to the store. The layout, service and feel, however, are.

It’s a simple, honest and entertaining retail space.

Maybe the success of Nordstrom isn’t actually in the retailer’s ability to extend its offering into the online world, but the fact that it has never lost its true department store values.

To buy the right products, display them cleverly and serve shoppers with affable, unobtrusive service.

The internet platform that delivers a seamless online shopping option, touching hundreds of millions of shoppers away from those stores, may just be a bonus, not the reason for their success in the omni-channel world.