When it comes to shopping, Johannesburg is hopping. The past decade has seen an explosion of international brands setting up shop in the City of Gold, Africa’s de facto shopping capital. Some brands have entered the lucrative market through stand-alone stores, while others are brought in by increasingly savvy boutique retailers like Life, Croft & Co., Apsley House, Swoon and The Wish Collection.
Other exclusive clothing and cosmetics brands are brought in – and increasingly so – by any one of the “Big Three” remaining department stores in South Africa: Stuttafords (Banana Republic, FCUK, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap), Edgars (Bobbi Brown) and Woolworths (Ren, Country Road). And there’s more to come.
The Big Three are feverishly reinventing the way they do business – and rightfully so. They only need glance over their collective shoulder to see the skeletons littering the retail route. Remember Greatermans, Greenacres, and John Orrs? Ansteys, Payne Brothers, Belfast, and Garlicks? And countless others whose names gather dust in the archives?
South Africa has a proud tradition of department store retailing, not dissimilar in time lines or sophistication levels to its counterparts in the US or UK. Edgars was established in Johannesburg’s Joubert Street in 1929, and for many years was controlled by Johannesburg’s powerful Press family, led by Sydney Press, who first joined the company as a Christmas casual in 1935 before retiring in 1982. Since its unbundling, it has evolved into “the leading retailer of clothing, footwear, and accessories in southern Africa”, with some 152 stores.
Woolworths was established by Max Sonnenberg in Cape Town in 1931, completely unrelated to Woolworths in the US, Europe or Australia. Rather, it was the UK’s Marks & Spencer (M&S) with which Woolworths formed a strategic link after World War II. According to a Woolworths’ publicist, “Sonnenberg and Sir Simon Marks, son of the M&S founder, became good friends, which led to M&S buying all the unissued share capital of Woolworths in 1947. Later, David Susman, Woolworths’ managing director, married Anne Laski, Lord Marks’ niece. Although M&S ultimately sold its shares in Woolworths, the two companies maintained close personal ties as well as a formal technology agreement”. Personnel between the two chains regularly visit each others’ operations.
South Africa’s oldest remaining department store, Stuttafords, was established in Cape Town in 1857 – a half-century before the UK’s Selfridges. “People feel close to Stuttafords,” says its CEO, Marco Cicoria. “It’s a heritage brand, more than 150 years old, and we’re planning a new-generation take on our heritage. I mean, we were just in London and you should see the banners for Selfridges’ 100th birthday – we’re a half-century older. In fact, Stuttafords is older than Marks & Spencer and many other iconic brands.”
In its day, the centre of Johannesburg was the centre of the universe. Dr Ivan May, who worked at Greatermans in the Jo’burg city centre, sets the scene: “Besides Greatermans, there was Thrupps on Pritchard Street, Ansteys on the corner of Jeppe and Joubert, Stuttafords on the corner of Rissik and Pritchard, Belfast on Market Street and – much later – Garlicks in the Carlton Centre, on the corner of Commissioner and Kruis. Belfast was ‘old money’, for the blue-haired brigade. John Orrs was still run by the Orr family, with the Orrco theatre in the store – think Welsh rarebit, pillbox hat and gloves – but it quickly demised as the family moved on. Ansteys closed; it just petered out. Greatermans was one of the longest surviving as it embraced innovation in its time. We had Le Grand Café, a whole seasonal Parisian theme by Estée Lauder in our cosmetics/beauty section on the ground floor, main entrance. We stocked Aramis ‘tortoise shell’, Devin, very ‘English country-estate gentlemen’, rivalling Yardleys. I remember there was a huge meeting with the store’s general manager, Martin Fonn, who was so angry when Edgars was first allowed to stock Estée Lauder. In its day, Greatermans was like a mini Hyde Park shopping centre. A department store is theatre. Merchandising and presentation are absolutely critical.”
Remaining relevant is crucial. US historian Jan Whitaker, author of Service & Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, says, “The department store worldwide has shown great versatility in surviving thus far and may surprise us in the future. At the same time, I find it hard to imagine how it will make an appeal to the younger generations. The best model is probably not in the US, but in Japan, where it has become a family community centre complete with art museums, elaborate exhibit halls and movie theatres.”