Notes on the end of the department store (as we know it)

January 31st, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Shop til you drop...from boredom

Shop till you drop…from boredom

The announcement that the Seibu department store in the Mullion twin building complex in Ginza will close at the end of the year has occasioned a lot of nostalgic ruminations in the media, even though the complex itself didn’t open until 1984. Seibu is, relatively speaking, a youngster in the annals of the Japanese department store. The older, established stores, like Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakawa and Takashimaya, are still around (though struggling), which is really quite surprising since the whole department store paradigm became passé after the bubble era. If the younger stores like Seibu, Hankyu (which just announced it would soon close its iconic Kyoto store) and Tokyu are biting the dust before their elders it’s mainly because their initial function had less to do with retail sales than with beefing up their respective owners’ main businesses, namely railroads.

The older stores had their roots in the mercantile culture of old Edo or Nagoya or Osaka. The newer stores were built by railway companies that needed something that  would make people use the trains on the weekends. Before the 1970s there were only small grocery stores and company-owned electronics dealers in the suburbs. For the full shopping experience, you had to get on the train and go to an urban center.

So railway companies bought land at main terminuses and built department stores there. Seibu’s was Ikebukuro Station. These department stores thrived because once people started having disposable income in the the 1960s they wanted to spend it. So the companies built other department stores, and not necessarily at their own terminuses.

By around 1990, department stores no longer had a lock on the full shopping experience. Retail complexes like Parco, which basically rented space to individual retailers, started catering to the kinds of specific tastes that came with greater consumer discretion. Brands opened their own stores. Discount retailers flourished. Shopping was no longer a social activity, which is what department stores offered. Eventually, people knew exactly what they wanted and where they could get it; it was no longer necessary to go to a department store and browse. Though today we tend to think of department stores as places that sell clothes and cosmetics, before 1980 they sold everything. Now, you’d have to be crazy to pay full suggested retail price for some electronic gadget at a department store.

Moreover, the whole railway function no longer applies. Everyone who lives in the suburbs has a car, and there are shopping malls that give them a reason to drive them.

So all this media consternation over the protracted death of the department store is misleading, since by rights the department store should have died out a long time ago. One commentator I saw on a news show last week came close to an explanation for why it hasn’t when he mentioned that the Ginza Seibu no longer has an underground food floor, colloquially referred to as depachika. Almost every department store has one, and some are quite famous.

The depachika is the classic department store experience in miniature: a contained space for browsing, only in this case all the merchandise is prepared food. Apparently, some department store food basements still make money, though I imagine not enough to support a whole building. The problem with having the most profitable floor in the basement is that no one feels the urge to go any higher.

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