Retail Reflections: Stores we have loved; online shopping is a gas

Alan Monahan writes: I took a trip down memory lane when I heard that Bennetts, which claims to be the oldest department store in the world, had gone into administration.

It first opened as an ironmonger in Derby city centre in 1734 and now faces the prospect of permanent closure, with the finger being pointed – not for the first time by a retailer – at online shopping, rising costs and a lack of consumer confidence.

Although I’ve never been to Bennetts, I do have fond memories of Clements in Watford, which I used to visit as a young boy with my mum. In later life my wife and I shopped at the department store and remember buying a Spode dinner service there. It’s the sort of thing you did when you got married in 1964.

Clements in The Parade enjoyed its heyday in the Fifties and Sixties and after shrinking and changes of ownership eventually disappeared last October when the carpet business under its name closed: high street improvement works were blamed.

The Watford Observer shared the happy memories of those that had visited the store down the years. One, Libby Purves, revealed that she still had the dog on wheels bought for her there as a Christmas present 48 years ago when she was just two years old.

Others readers thought that Clements had been the inspiration for the hit TV comedy Are You Being Served? I can well believe that. I clearly recall one of its dapper floorwalkers – dressed in morning suit complete with buttonhole – greeting customers in the foyer as they entered the store. Surely he must have been the model for Mr Peacock, a character from the show.

But Clements is no more. And although it managed to outlive its nationally better-known counterpart, Gamages – which was a feature of the landscape in London’s High Holborn – it has, like other local department stores, been confined to the retail scrapheap. .

Oldies like me miss the little things that meant a lot to shoppers in those days. Pick ‘n’ mix at Woolworths and – no, it’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it – that so distinctive smell of the store, perfectly summed up by singer Nanci Griffith as ‘chewing gum and popcorn rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe’.

But the World Wide Web is now our department store and ‘everything under one roof’ has a different meaning.

Diane Wehrle, the marketing and insights director at retail intelligence firm Springboard, believes that the worst department stores haven’t changed in 10, maybe 20 years, or invested enough in upgrading their shop floors, product ranges or online offerings.

That’s probably true. And she’s right when she says that if we are to go shopping we need to have a ‘good experience’. But my good experience might differ from hers: it would simply involve a knowledgeable salesperson prepared to devote enough time and attention to my needs.

As for the ‘excitement and entertainment’ she speaks of, forget it. Unless it means transporting me back 65 years to Clements so that I can go up and down in the lifts and play with all the toys. Try doing that online! No, I’ll get my kicks watching Jeff Stelling and the boys on Gillette Soccer Saturday.

But in case we forget, there are local department stores that are still thriving.

It is 50 years since I enjoyed a holiday on the Norfolk Broads. My abiding memory – apart from a tarpaulin full of water falling on me – was being gobsmacked by the number of Roys retail stores we discovered when we ventured onto dry land. Our merry crew thought that Roy must be a very rich man indeed. He seemed to own everything!

Yes, I know, the lack of an apostrophe should have given it away. But it wasn’t until recently, when I investigated the retailer’s history, that I discovered that Roys was, in fact, founded in 1895 by the brothers Alfred and Arnold Roy.

Today, apart from having department stores in Norfolk and Suffolk, Roys continues to flourish and diversify, buying the Broadland Motor Company petrol filling station in Wroxham, opening a new store in Beccles, acquiring Highway Garden & Leisure in Framlington Pigot, and upgrading to a transactional website.

It remains a family-owned independent business, with Edward and Paul Roy representing the third generation on the board of directors. I am delighted to be able to bring you this ‘good news’ story. And it pleases me that at least one retailer from my youth has more than managed to make a go of things.

Not such good retail reading is a report by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. It says that the dramatic increase in online shopping has contributed toward transport being the sector with the highest UK greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 27% of them in 2017. Apparently, there has been an improvement in the fuel efficiency of cars, but this has been partly offset by a rise in emissions from small vans.

And according to the Department for Transport, online shopping has led to a 24% increase in light commercial vehicle traffic since 2013.

We know that Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a gas. But so too, it seems, is online shopping. Do it and save money, or don’t do it and save the planet: is that a question we need to ask?