The more disorganised Christmas shoppers among us are truly grateful that we can nip into a store and grab some last-minute presents in the final hours before Santa comes.
We same people tend to break into an uncomfortable sweat each time online retail sales figures are released.
With year-on-year growth of between 10 and 20% for internet shopping, bricks and mortar stores are facing ever stiffer competition for customers.
Easy and convenient it may be – particularly if you know what you want and have the time to wait for delivery – but could online retail ever really replace the high street?
In defence of bricks and mortar
Defenders of physical stores will say it’s not just about being able to buy and have something when you want it, there and then. Or being able to browse, to hold a product in your hands to feel, judge and try it before making a decision.
Shopping is also about community and companionship. Commerce, trade and exchange have underpinned human interaction since prehistory.
The high street now (just like the Agora in ancient Athens and Forum in Rome) is where we play out our daily lives, bump into friends, and establish face-to-face relationships with local businesses – sometimes getting the kind of special personal treatment that simply isn’t possible across a computer screen.
At Christmas, it’s where we pick up that festive buzz, visit Santa’s grotto, see the Christmas lights, and hear live carol singers if we are lucky – or just that Slade song again if we’re not.
In short, shopping in the real world is also about the experience; in the virtual world it’s just about the transaction.
Entrepreneurs who understand that consumers want the best experiences as much as the best prices have historically done well.
Revolution in retail
King of them all was Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American retail visionary credited with coining the catchphrases ‘The customer is always right’ and ‘Only x shopping days until Christmas!’
He realised that shopping should be enjoyable, not a chore. By extension, he saw that the store itself should be a destination in its own right.
The 1909 opening of Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street created a revolution in retail that continues to influence how shops are designed.
Department stores had existed in Britain before Selfridges. In fact, Harding, Howell & Co’s Grand Fashionable Magazine in Pall Mall (regarded as the world’s first) opened in 1796, more than a hundred years earlier.
There were many others in the 19th-century besides, still successful today such as John Lewis and Harrods, that originated dealing in clothes and textiles, and found good business catering to the tastes of a new and growing cohort of moneyed and increasingly independent middle-class women.
Selfridge saw that Britain’s department stores lacked the glitz and glamour of the American counterparts he had worked in since leaving school at 14.
His department store was designed in magnificent style with grand columns and classical facades reminiscent of the world’s great museums.
Inside, it was so much more than stock on shelves. There was space, comfort and elegance. Customers could revivify themselves in its restaurants and cafes, library, reading rooms or silence room, sit in plush chairs and be protected from the noise and commotion outside with gentle lighting and double glazing.
They could walk around the roof terrace gardens, play a round of mini-golf up there or even join the all-girls gun club. There was even a first aid room. Once in Selfridges, no one had a reason to leave.
Windows of opportunity
Selfridge was also a brilliant marketeer, using his 27 store windows to entice and beguile would-be customers with fantastic presentations.
Rivalry between stores was never more intense than at Christmas, when they would try to outclass each other’s festive window displays – as they still do.
Large expanses of plate glass at ground level had been central feature of department store architecture from at least the 1880s, and window displays also became crucial for showing off products.
Crowds of people would tour the great stores to admire the displays, which would remain illuminated long after closing time.
This may sound quaint, but the window displays of our best department stores still generate widespread interest.
They are meticulously planned and prepared by design teams up to 18 months in advance, and involve as many as 500 people to produced and arrange – a testament not only to the importance of window displays but the enduring appeal of our department stores.
Bricks and mortar stores need people with the skills and knowledge to build, maintain, equip and decorate them.
There are hundreds of exciting construction jobs and careers in construction to choose from. Find out more with our Career Explorer or take our personality quiz to get a better idea of what might work for you.