• Kirk Gaw

Looking Back At Downtown Retail

Through much of the 20th century our clothes, our accessories, and the goods that furnish our houses came from stores that occupied major downtown intersections. Today, countless wares are supplied by ‘big box’ chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, whose specialties – banal necessities – are the same from coast to coast. And who can avoid them completely? Where else can you buy a picnic cooler or back-to-school supplies?

Photo of 1950's downtown Walkerton from WAHS collection.

These are notes about where we have been with merchandising from a new book by Vicky Howard, "From Main Street To The Mall." We have seen changes in the marketplace through the decades, showing how the traditional downtown retail store failed to meet competition and even collaborated in its own decline, aiding the rise of chain store mass merchandisers. Chain stores’ low prices became the norm, making department stores uncompetitive.

By the mid-1970s, traditional retail stores were already in serious trouble. Burdened by high overheads, they had substantially lost out to discount department stores which were rapidly capturing sales that had once belonged to them. As the 1980's began, conventional retail accounted for only 40% of sales overall.

Throughout the 20th century the big retailers had done nothing to control their own rising costs stemming from heavy advertising, elaborate buildings, and large staffs. Far from cutting back during the Depression, many stores added ‘ballyhoo’ in the form of magic shows, parades, and festivals. Despite self-service competition from dime store chains in the 1920s and discounters after the Second World War, they continued to cling to the personal service model which required large staffs to show merchandise to customers and to complete sales transactions.

Overall, this depicts traditional department stores, the great retailers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as conservative in both their business methods and politics, and largely blind to what was happening around them. When they took positions on government policies or adapted their operations, it was usually in the direction of opposing regulation and favoring big business methods, all of which abetted the growth of chain discounters.

The position that retail decline was not a natural process of obsolescence and replacement but the result of a series of decisions that could have been otherwise. Concentration in the industry and the subsequent loss of local nameplates were enabled by particular political, social, and economic contexts that changed over time. Historical events influenced by historical actors, including consumers, store executives and their trade associations, and federal, state and local policies’ are factors.

Although some of the consequences of historical trends, such as suburbanization, clearly could not have been fully foreseen, there were actions that traditional retail could have taken that would have at least slowed the decline. During the Second World War when the federal government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA) tried to halt inflation with price and wage ceilings the industry ‘could have gone a different way – toward acceptance of greater government controls over price competition, wages, and the supply of goods’.

It seems reasonable to raise the question of how likely it was that things could have worked out differently. It may be true if there was a delay of concentration in the retail industry, but in the United States the tendency to concentration was already present in the development of 19th-century department stores, not all of which were family owned. Plus, who was going to stop concentration in a culture that admired bigness? Despite its sentimental attachment to country stores and family-owned operations, the United States is not a nation of small shopkeepers whose loyal customers will endure inconvenience to keep them in business.

Some stores got off to a shaky start, not to analyze what merchandise the various merchants carried. But in fact bargain stores of the 19th century bear further comparison with discount department stores of recent times in that neither were fashion centers. Both types of stores began by selling job lots.

The 19th-century bargain stores relied heavily upon the sale of merchandise for the home, much of it dry goods but not exclusively so. This points up the problem of citing the luxurious A. T. Stewart in New York City as the prototypical department store forerunner. The stores of the late 1870s through the 1890s were nothing like Stewart’s store with its imported paisleys and cashmere shawls.

By contrast with bargain stores, the upscaled traditional downtown stores of the 1920s emphasized fashion as style merchandise departments and sub-departments spread throughout the store. When branch stores proliferated after the Second World War, they were predominantly stocked with clothing and accessories. Big box mass retailers, on the other hand, carried mostly non-fashion staples. Their interiors were, and are, filled primarily with shelves, not racks.

Many of the bargain stores of the 1880s and 1890s did not survive in the 20th century. They were not nationwide chain stores with streamlined practices that compare with Wal-Mart’s or Target’s, for instance. But their ambitions to make a profit through volume rather than mark-up and their claims to be stores for ‘the people’ match up well. As The Maze explained in an advertisement in 1891, ‘We are with the people first, last and all the time ... the more we can sell the larger we can buy, and the larger we can buy the cheaper we can sell, and the cheaper we can sell the more you can save ...’

Given how rocky the life of traditional department store was, even in a good decade such as the 1920s, when ‘cracks appeared in the foundations, it is fairly surprising they lasted as long as they did. Why, one might wonder, did the bargain stores of the 1880s and 1890s not persist in full force, following a straight line of development up to the present-day big box stores?

Why did department stores, aiming at the middle of the market, scale up to become magnificent objects of admiration and, now, nostalgia? Was it an aberration, or evidence of a deluded notion that there would be no end to the rise of the people’s material ambitions and social ascension?

The downtown Walkerton retail center of today photographed by Anthony & Katelyn McGriff.

It could be argued that the traditional retail of the mid-20th century was reconstructed in the creation of the present shopping landscape. On the one hand are the mass merchandisers. They are the biggest, but they have not by themselves fully replaced the classic department stores that people mourn. To recreate the range of merchandise sold by the old stores specialty chains come into the picture.

Shoppers may go to Wal-Mart for certain items, say picnic coolers, but when they are looking for dress-up clothing, suits for the office, or the latest teen fashions and accessories they head for H&M, Brooks Brothers, or Eddie Bauer. This is particularly true of the fraction of the middle class with good incomes. Big box discounters did not in fact replace the traditional department stores, nor does their success fully account for the failure of traditional department stores.

The post-Second World War department store branches in shopping centers and malls were also defeated by specialty chains that chipped away at their business in much the same way that department stores had once done to independent specialty stores.

*Vicky Howard book available at Barnes & Noble Bookseller

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