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Retail heaven is a place on earth: The surprising survival of the department store

Forget concept boutiques and e-tail: the 19th-century institution of the department store is still the defining force on the modern retail landscape

Much of Britain has been gripped by the machinations of The Paradise, the latest BBC hit set in a 19th-century department store.

Crammed with bristling moustaches, heaving bosoms and hustling bustles, it’s got all the ingredients of great costume drama – a worthy competitor to ITV’s frilled and furbelowed behemoth Downton Abbey.

What many people don’t clock, at least not immediately, is that it’s an import and an update. The Paradise is actually based on Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames – translated as The Ladies’ Paradise (fine in 1883 when the novel was published, but slightly less  politically correct today). Zola’s tome chronicles the rise of the department store in 19th-century Paris, which sounds heavyweight for  Sunday-night viewing.

The most striking thing? That, despite 150 years of evolution, our contemporary department stores aren’t so different from the Paradise Zola sketched out 140 years ago. They’re pitching for a new 21st-century customer base, granted, but today’s behemoths have their roots in a retail tradition of spectacle, fantasy and luxury that the Paradise’s owner John Moray (or Zola’s original, Octave Mouret) would readily recognise.

Zola’s Paradise was based on Le Bon Marche, but today it’s Britain’s department stores that are leading the way. That’s the reason Marigay McKee, the former chief merchant of Harrods, was lured away to become the new president of New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue this autumn. American department stores, by and large, are homogenised. The same designers, the same clothes. Exclusivity is a highly sought-after commodity – the way to differentiate your offering from the next. In London, however, department stores themselves are the main attraction. Just as women flocked to the fictional Ladies’ Paradise to browse rather than buy, today Harrods and Selfridges – the department-store duo that straddles London’s West End – are destinations in their own right.

“Retail theatre” is the choice terminology. It sounds like an irritating post-modernism – of the ilk of “blue-sky thinking” and “brand DNA” – but it in actual fact its roots go back 150 years ago, to the formative years of the department store. You can’t help but flash back to what Zola termed the “prodigious spectacles” of The Ladies’ Paradise when confronted with Louis Vuitton’s great glass elevator, revolving  211 degrees while boring through three floors of Selfridges. It’s the hub of the brand’s “Townhouse”, a new Vuitton-centric space at the heart of the department store. “Theatre is important to trigger curiosity in the viewer,” Gwenaël Nicolas, architect of said Vuitton centrepiece, says. “To capture their attention.”

“I think the whole of what we do is retail theatre,” Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods, says. “The product is as much the theatre as anything else. I walk around a corner and we sell a submarine.” But unlike the ladies of the 19th century – who, in Zola’s Paradise, are consistently flabergasted to vapours by elaborate and extravagant displays of haberdashery – it takes a lot to grab the attention of savvy fashion consumers today. Such as the aforementioned submarine: a four-ton, 22ft-long, two-person Spymaster Orcasub, on sale for £1.2m. That still has the wow factor.

“Simply put, customer experience is as important to us as our product offer,” Judd Crane, the director of womenswear at Selfridges, says. “In the past year alone we’ve built a library in our basement, turned our roof into a golf course, dedicated an entire space to meditation... none of these endeavours are about purchasing, they’re about making Selfridges a wonderful place to spend time.” Harrods has very much the same aim. “It’s actually a day out,” Ward says. “We have 28 restaurants in the store.” That’s possible because Harrods covers a five-acre site with more than a million square feet of retail space. Selfridges is half the size, but still manages to fit that Vuitton Townhouse in – practically a mini department store in itself.

That’s indicative of a significant development in the modern department store: the shop-in-shop. Today, Hermes opens its first stand-alone fine watch and jewellery boutique in the UK: it elected to do so inside Harrods. Ward, however, addresses the shop-in-shop notion with trepidation. “Balance of the brand versus the store is hugely important,” he says. “If you walk around our White Hall [the ground-floor cosmetics hall], there are no big shop fits from the major perfumery brands... that’s important. It allows the customer to get the brand situation, but it doesn’t overwhelm. We don’t want to become a mall. That’s certainly not our requirement.”

That raises a valid question: where is the “department” in all of that? That was the original concept after all, the idea of bringing the disparate parts of the shopping experience under a single roof.

In Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, the department store was emblematic of streamlined modernity, but also crushed local retailers underfoot. Today, the department store is a persuasive alternative to luxury boutiques.

“We’re most probably one of the few remaining full-line department stores in London,” Ward says.

“The key for us is to give the absolute authority in each of the categories that we tread.”

Harrods offers a mind-boggling 330 departments, everything from pets to fine art (an  in-store gallery sells genuine work by Matisse and Warhol, among others). The link between them all is the unapologetic luxury.

Selfridges, too, has re-embraced the department: its Shoe Galleries, launched in 2010, is the largest shoe department in the world. This summer, it launched a Denim Studio, with brands to create bespoke pieces.

“For us it’s about the notion of the ‘destination’,” Crane says. “The Shoe Galleries was designed to be the first space people associate with women’s shoes, likewise, the Denim Studio when shopping for jeans.

“Our brand concepts are no different – when those based in, or visiting, London think Louis Vuitton, hopefully they’ll now think ‘Louis Vuitton Townhouse’.”

For all the mod-cons and modernity – both Selfridges and Harrods offer a huge selection of products online. Selfridges even offers a click-and-collect drive-through service – the 21st-century department store is very much a 19th-century beast. It’s still the paradise that Zola eulogised – with Octave Mouret’s PT Barnum-esque taste for theatrics. Rather than fighting that, the strongest performers are embracing it. “We did some market research recently in the Far East,” Ward says. “And one of their true aspirations in life is to visit Harrods. Which is hugely powerful.”

Paradise, indeed, regained.