Post Covid-19: The Department Store

There is no denying that the Australian way of life is seeing the biggest upset in our nations’ short history. Yes, even bigger than the cricket cheating scandal of 2018. Arguably, the impact that coronavirus is having on our national culture will affect us far more than either of the world wars did- which no doubt played a major role in shaping much of our national narrative. 

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Post Covid, life will be different. Somethings may be gone for good, while other aspects of our lives will change for the better. So where do department stores fall in this binary? This writer thinks that they are well on their way out, a trend which actually began before the ‘Rona, but has been accelerated due to our forced self-iso and the digitalisation of our social lives.

Department stores as we know them today first became dominant in the 1980’s, in the peak of consumerism. For those of us who weren’t even a thought at that point, let me paint the scene set by the television and movies of the day. An unwaveringly reliable resource. The 80’s were all about being loud. The hair was bigger, the clothes were brighter. The nuclear family was the inspiration and you could improve your standing in life just by working hard. It was glitz and glamour and people were genuinely happy.

Never mind the fact that there were more serial killers operating in the 80’s than any other decade. Or the fact that the stock market dramatically crashed in 1987, after five years of the Dow Jones more than tripling. The Australian share market lost roughly 41% of its value in a single month. Racism and sexism was rife, and progress towards indigenous rights was only really beginning to emerge.

Quintessential Australian culture in the 80’s. Photo Credit:

In actuality, the 80’s meant different things for different people. But, it was certainly a time of great change; and in this time the Department store became supreme. A one stop shop where you could pretty much find whatever you need. From winter clothing to exercise equipment. David Jones and Myer are the top tier establishments, while Kmart and Big W are solid middle tier; a dream for a poor uni student like myself. Target is bottom tier.

But with the emergence of online shopping, where I can buy an assortment of goods from the comfort of my bed, these one stop shops are no longer the most convenient way to shop. In fact, even before we were all forced into our homes for fear of catching our deaths, top tier department stores were never really on my radar. I find them confusing, messy and over-priced. I can never quite figure out who works in which department so finding someone to help is always a hassle.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way. In 2019, pre-Coronavirus, David Jones revealed that their profits had almost halved in that financial year, from 64million to 37million. Following this reveal, Woolworths Holding (David Jones’ parent company) made plans to downsize 20% of their stores. Myer showed similar signs of trouble earlier this year,  cutting over 100 jobs.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see brands like Kmart of Big W going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, both stores have been so busy that their shelves are often pretty bare these days, but rather it is the ideology of department stores which is beginning to shift away from mainstream culture. Vicky Howard, Historian and the author of From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the Department Store said it best when she said

“These brands are so powerful that they are likely to live on in the wake of COVID-19, But the department store, as a business model, appears to be at the end of its life.”

Kmart and Big W are affordable and the quality and aesthetic of their products have improved a lot in past few years. Kmart in particular has cultivated an following online, with memes often dedicated to shopping there.

Posted by Kmart Memes on Wednesday, 26 October 2016

It is a popular shopping destination, especially for millennials decorating their bedrooms or house. As a millennial whose always looking to improve my share house, I don’t see that changing.

Coronavirus has been a life lesson for all of us. Scott Morrison is trying to help Australians weather the storm through a series of stimulus packages, but despite his best efforts, not everything will make it through this crisis. Department stores fall into this category, for better or worse.

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