My story returns yet again to the United States, where in the 1980s and early 1990s, the department stores took quite a knock caused by the impact of home shopping. It would be naïve to conclude, however, that home shopping must inevitably wipe out the stores. The pleasures of going shopping, experiencing the physical environment of the store itself, the element of social interaction, being able to touch merchandise are an important aspect of urban life that will not be eradicated by the convenience of shopping from home. I believe that department stores have a future, and that those which survive will be the ones that turn shopping into an entertaining, exciting or in some way distinctive experience, in other words, those that have the confidence to look different and separate themselves from the mainstream. In the United States, this was pioneered by Barney's, who, with Japanese finance, formulated a new concept. Rather than follow the fail-safe blanket-buying policies of other stores, Barney's dared to buy selectively from designer collections, which gave its merchandise a particular flavour enhanced by its own brand, or 'private label' collections. In the United Kingdom, first Harvey Nichols and then Selfridges reinvented themselves along similar lines. Harvey Nichols turned itself into a fashion lifestyle experience with a series of dedicated designer 'boutiques', both clothing and homewear, top-of-the-range specialist food retail in the stylishly designed food hall, ambitious private label clothing and food products and restaurants. The refurbishment of Selfridges transformed it from a 'safe' department store stocking the same kind or products in the same kind of visually uninspired or indistinctive environment as any other department store, into a fashion pantheon, where the most current collections are enticingly displayed in a showcase environment. A Saturday or Sunday afternoon visit to the store confirms that shopping is as much a fashionable social activity today as it was when the store was established by Gordon Selfridge.
Alongside the innovative department stores, the generation of new specialist retailers is playing its part in the reassertion of shopping. My personal list of visionaries in this field would include Joseph Ettelgui, whose stores in London,
Paris and New York carry his distinctive personal style and reflect his aim to turn shopping into a social experience, and Terence Conran, whose stores in London and Paris emphasize furniture, homewear and food as fashionable products. These retailers, as do Selma Weisser of the, sadly defunct, Chiaravari in New York, Joyce Ma of Hong Kong, Colette in Paris and Jeffrey in New York, address the concept of what I would term 'lifestyle retailing'. They have a strong point of view, their selections of merchandise have an editorial quality, which extends from clothes to food to furniture and is asserted through the interior of the store itself. The secret of their success appears to be in their refusal to attempt to be all things to all people. Maureen Doherty and Asha Sarabhai's London store, Egg, for example carries a distinctive mix of clothes and objects which reflect the proprietors' taste for high quality artisanal products which stand outside the usual dictates of fashion. The store is situated in a quiet Knightsbridge mews and is characterized by a low-tech simplicity harmonious with the product. Shopping there is a leisurely social event, with frequent special events and private views for the well-defined intellectually and artistically inclined clientele.
Egg is clearly very different from Marks & Spencer but there is no doubt in my mind that volume retailers will have to take their cue from the small-scale specialists and department stores who have restored the pleasure of the act of shopping, and have re-established it as a defining social activity. The increasing 'visual literacy' which fuelled the mass demand for well-designed or fashionable products in the first instance will, or has extended to the retail environment itself. High-street retailers must pay as much attention to the design of their stores and their visual merchandising as to the design of their products, and it is no coincidence that so many have, over the last few years, opened in-store coffee bars, crèches, delivery services and home shoppers.
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