LOOKING BACK September,2005 Inside Retailing Magazine
Australia boasted more than 50 department store groups in the 1950s, but today has just four…
Source: a G Foster Cavalcade of Empire decoration on the side of the Anthony Hordern Building, Sydney 1938. National library of Australia nla.pic-vn3071318"
David Jones has the distinction of being Australia 's oldest department store, starting with a shop in Sydney 's George St in 1838.
The company also claims to being the oldest department store in the world still trading under its original name.
David Jones has been the most acquisitive department store group of recent years, buying up Adelaide and Perth icons John Martin's and Aherns, as well as Buckley & Nunn and Georges in Melbourne . Georges was closed and the other three all rebadged as David Jones.
Apart from David Jones, the only other department store groups trading in Australia today are Myer, Harris Scarfe and Dimmeys-Forges. The only new entrant in the past three decades was the Japanese Daimaru group in the 1990s, although Country Road founder Stephen Bennett did launch a contemporary format, New Georges, in Melbourne in the same decade without success.
Some of the department stores that have closed their doors since the 1950s include Grace Bros, Foy & Gibson, McDonnell & East, Farmers, McWhirters, Boans, Anthony Horden & Sons, Paynes Bon Marche, Waltons, McDowells, Marcus Clark, Ways, Marshalls, Hicks Atkinson & Sons, GP FitzGerald, Mark Foys, Overells, David Wang, Lamberts, Parry's, Finney Isles, Allan & Stark, TC Beirnes, Miller Anderson, Cox Bros, Allens and Stirlings.
So what happened to those retail powerhouses of the 1950s? The biggest blow for most was the emergence of suburban shopping centres in the 1960s and 1970s.
The department store groups that have survived are those that expanded with the shopping centres, opening suburban stores that capitalised on the shift in market share and retail spending away from central business districts to the new one-stop enclosed shopping malls.
The one exception was Harris Scarfe in Adelaide , which expanded much later having survived because of the relative strength of the Adelaide CBD.
Suburban shopping centres spawned hundreds of new specialty retailers, many of them started by former department store executives, and they began to erode department store sales with better ranges and more effective in-store merchandising. Most department stores failed to invest in capital improvements. Some resembled drafty museums compared to the dynamic, exciting speciality shops that opened in the suburban malls.
The Waltons department store chain started life as a menswear shop but grew after establishing an alliance with the US retailer Sears & Roebuck in 1955, and a ﬁnance business with another US company, Citibank, in the 1960s.
By 1972, Waltons Bond had 96 stores and in 1981 was acquired by Alan Bond, who added the Norman Ross stores in 1982 and renamed the company Waltons Bond. By 1987, in serious ﬁnancial trouble, the chain was sold to the Cookes family who converted most remaining stores to Venture outlets.
Waltons Bond came under pressure from regulatory authorities in the 1970s and 1980s for its selling practices and ﬁnancial contracts.
Buckley & Nunn
Buckley & Nunn was one of the oldest department store groups in Australia , launching during the Victorian gold rush of 1851. The group joined Myer in two of the early suburban shopping centre developments at Northland and Chadstone in Melbourne , but did not expand further.
One of the retailers that helped establish Bourke Street as the hub of Melbourne retailing, the traditional Buckley & Nunn department store was acquired by David Jones in 1982. For a time, David Jones entertained plans of expanding the chain under its own brand, but then decided to rebadge and launch David Jones in Melbourne . The suburban stores were closed.
A Melbourne institution, Georges was Australia 's most exclusive department store. The Collins St store attracted well-heeled shoppers from around Australia and New Zealand , and also had more than its fair share of international visitors.
The store was profitable until David Jones acquired it in 1981 and, at one stage, had plans to develop Georges department stores in key markets, particularly in Sydney . Georges unsuccessfully ventured into the suburbs at The Jam Factory, and the exclusive and restricted distribution brands it stocked became ready to open their own boutique stores.
The cultural divide between David Jones under UK import Chris Tideman as CEO and Georges led to trading performance suffering. The store closed.
Country Road founder Stephen Bennett commissioned the UK retail designer who created the Habitat chain to develop a contemporary department store offer as the New Georges, but the venture failed within a year.
Aherns was the last familyowned department store group with a CBD presence in Australia when it was snapped up by David Jones in 1999 as a vehicle for a return of the Sydney retailer to the Perth market after closing its own city store in the 1970s.
Aherns started in 1922 and when David Jones took over had a city store and four suburban outlets. Parochial Perth had ensured Aherns was profitable, but family members had different priorities and were quick to accept the $29 million offered by the eastern states group.
John Martin's was an icon in Adelaide matching the big guns Myer Grace Bros and David Jones on its home turf with a quality full-range department store. Established in 1866, John Martin's expanded with shopping centres into Adelaide 's suburbs while keeping a presence in Rundle Mall.
Rundle Mall was the last of the big department store battlegrounds where Myer, David Jones, Harris Scarfe and John Martin's competed up until 1985, when David Jones acquired the chain. The John Martin's stores were rebadged David Jones and the Rundle Mall stores of each company were combined into one outlet in an upmarket city arcade development.
The GP FitzGerald department store chain had its beginnings in the 1880s as a bulk store for Manchester goods, ready-made clothing, millinery goods, tents and tarpaulins. The chain expanded to seven stores in Tasmania and was acquired by Charles Davis, a former hardware firm run by the Trescowthick family.
In the 1990s, the family merged GP FitzGerald with its other major retail business, Harris Scarfe, as part of an aggressive expansion strategy that included the acquisition of egional department stores in WA, NSW and Victoria.
A listed company, Harris Scarfe collapsed in 2001 amid allegations of fudged accounting and false reports on trading performances. Harris Scarfe has risen from those dark days and is expanding again, having just acquired the Allens department stores in NSW.
Japanese department store group Daimaru opened its first Australian store in Melbourne in 1991 and a second store was opened on the Gold Coast, but neither traded remotely close to profitability. The chain closed its doors in Australia just 11 years later. Its Japanese parent company was struggling in the 1990s and actually closed other overseas stores ahead of its Australian outlets.
Farmers was one of Sydney 's leading department store groups, with 12 outlets at its peak. The chain expanded into suburban shopping centres and became a prime target for Myer when the Victorian company examined its options to launch in NSW.
Myer negotiated a merger with Farmers in 1960 and took control the next year, but retained the local brand until 1976. Myer sold most of the Farmers stores to Grace Bros in February 1983, but five months later acquired Grace Bros.
Grace Bros was one of Sydney 's strongest department store groups. It started in 1886 and occupied various buildings in the Sydney CBD before opening the iconic Broadway store with an auditorium that was a social mecca.
Grace Bros expanded into the suburbs and NSW, establishing itself as a powerhouse on the eastern seaboard. It was acquired by Myer in 1983 but the brand survived until this year when Myer decided it was time to adopt a single national identity.
McDonnell & East
The McDonnell & East brand disappeared in 1989 when delisted by the private investment company that controlled it. It had been a prominent Queensland department store chain that started out in the 1920s in the Fortitude Valley retail mecca that also spawned McWhirters (bought by Myer in 1955), TC Biernes (bought by David Jones in 1961), and Overells (bought by Waltons in 1956).
McDonnell & East was the last major Queensland store brand, surviving until the 1980s.
By Bruce Atkinson