Fringe Box



Opinion: The Death of Department Stores

Published on: 17 Oct, 2023
Updated on: 20 Oct, 2023

Joseph Bickle is a young adult born and raised in Guildford, currently studying media and communications at Cardiff University.

This summer he began writing occasional stories for The Guildford Dragon NEWS. Here, in an opinion piece, he looks at the death of department stores.

The department store. A once thriving and well-integrated part of many towns and communities, such was the case for Guildford certainly in the 20th century.

The town once had a number of popular department stores where people could shop for a vast array of products or enjoy a bite to eat in their cafés. 

In 2023 these department stores are shells of their past selves.

Plummers was the original name for the department store next to the river in Guildford, later renamed Debenhams. This picture postcard view dates from about the late 1960s. David Rose collection.

With the Debenhams megastore shutting for good in 2021 and House of Fraser closing its doors on September 30, 2023, this marks the figurative end for department stores in Guildford and their consistent popularity among many generations. But this being crucially, besides today’s youth.

Department stores were once an important aspect of Guildford’s shopping experience.

The Guildford Co-operative Society’s store in North Street on the corner with Leapale Road. David Rose collection.

The Guildford Co-operative Society had a large presence in North Street and on down Haydon Place. It also had smaller branches in places such as Stoughton, Woodbridge Hill, Guildford Park and Bellfields, and also in nearby villages and towns.

Gammons store in North Street on the corner with Market Street. David Rose collection.

Other flagship department stores included Gammons in North Street and Harvey’s of Guildford.

Originally William Harvey opened his House of Harvey ladies fashion store in the new Tunsgate Arcade in 1919, with it moving to the High Street in the late 1940s to become a department store.

Taken over by the House of Fraser group in 1974, it was branded as an Army & Navy store, later being named House of Fraser.

In a postwar Guildford, Harvey’s represented a move into modernity.

Harvey’s of Guildford even had an arcade within its department store. David Rose collection.

In many ways it was a store made up of many department stores, with sections for men and women’s fashion, china and cutlery, haberdashery, furniture and so on.

Picture postcard view of Harvey’s rooftop café and fish ponds, dating to the early 1960s. David Rose collection.

On top of this, the store was famous for its roof-top café which was very popular among children and adults alike for its views, food, and the pools which contained exotic fish.

For me, it is hard to picture these stores that have have fallen into obsolescence. Like many things that were popular and enjoyable for older generations, they have fallen from grace due to the internet

According to a BBC study in 2021, 83% of big department stores in the UK have closed their doors since 2016.

It is obvious the Covid pandemic had drastic effects on department stores, but their decline was a foretold conclusion as shopping online became the more attractive option for the wider society.

Essentially, the internet has made department stores obsolete because they beat them at their main attraction – the sheer amount of selection.

Online shopping provides consumers with nearly infinite amounts of selection, all from the comfort of your home, and potentially cheaper too.

The department store café, which was once seen as the ‘posh’ place in town to have tea, is now, as I observe, seen as essentially a pensioner daycare.

The last day of House of Fraser in Guildford. Photo: David Rose.

The days of department stores are over because, if customers want a broad selection, they will shop online.

But if they do want to see the products in person, they will still visit shopping centres and high street stores as they do offer a range of brands all within a small area.

While people may complain the days of department stores are over, my observation is that these complaints come from a rose-tinted nostalgia for a time which was good for reasons other than the multi-story shopping warehouses with cafés.

Many thanks to my grandma Sheila Atkinson whose memoirs helped me understand why department stores were so important and loved in Guildford in days gone by.

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Responses to Opinion: The Death of Department Stores

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    October 17, 2023 at 8:54 am

    Totally accurate. As I get older I am simply using the Internet to aquire everything. From engineering drills to computer parts. The delivery charge is still cheaper than petrol, parking and the occasion ANPR generated error for car traps. Or even no right turns preventing access like that proposed at York Road!

    It’s a self degeneration. Less footfall, less income – to the point insufficient money coming through the shops front door!

    A sad demise oft predicted, often ignored.

  2. Sheila Atkinson Reply

    October 17, 2023 at 10:04 am

    It was my pleasure to help Joe, thinking about it brought back some lovely memories.

  3. Paul Robinson Reply

    October 17, 2023 at 5:23 pm

    Don’t forget Woolworth’s.

  4. M Durant Reply

    October 17, 2023 at 8:43 pm

    I make a point not to shop online and I do miss shopping in department stores, I support local shops not Amazon.

    Sadly our country is suffering from a mental health epidemic this is also due to spending too much time online, not seeing enough people and lack of exercise.

    Also when returning clothing, items online you have to pay extra, the clothes never fit and there is not a return shop near me, which means more driving.

  5. Lisa Wright Reply

    October 17, 2023 at 9:03 pm

    A great summary from Joe.

    It does frustrate me how everyone seems to mourn the death of the high streets as we remember them but time passes and life evolves so we must look to the future. What do we want our high streets to do, who will the serve and how? We must debate whether a high street is something we need.

    As Amazon and other retailers become the new department stores of our time and we can shop for everything online, even items like shoes and fabrics that we like to feel and try can be easily returned, it’s time to think what we actually need to go out for.

    In my opinion, that answer is leisure, we like to sit in cafes, see and hear new things and new people. So, what we’re looking for is a cross between Covent Garden with its activities, restaurants and bars, a craft market with changing products and offers and events that draw a crowd.

    The question is, which council members will take a bold step and embrace the changes we need? The amount of retail space available in our high street far outweighs what is necessary and much of it is shabby and in need of renovation and should be converted to homes, hotels, cafes, apartments etc.

    What do we look for on our holidays? New, bespoke or individual products to buy, inspiring and tasty food, something for the kids to do like a VR [virtual reality], build a bear, make a present shop, a tourist/local booking shop which sells the surrounding businesses events, think Denbies, paintball or cycling clubs.

    We need somewhere safe where we have a chance to meet or make new friends outside our homes.

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