A couple of weeks back I was wandering round Game City mall and I noticed that the Stuttafords store was in the final throes of a closing-down sale.
At the time I assumed that IT had not been a strategic or economic success and that perhaps they were concentrating on the newer Airport Junction outlet. How wrong I was because last week came the shock news that the upmarket South African chain was going into liquidation.
It’s hard to emphasise what a loss this is. For South Africa, it is the end of a piece of retail history. The first shop was opened in Cape Town in 1858 by Samson Rickard Stuttaford with the vision of creating a Harrods-like department store in what was then the British Cape Colony.
Its main Cape Town store, opened in 1938, was designed by in-house Harrods architect Louis David Blanc and echoed the British store’s famous frontage in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district. I can remember browsing the store as a teenager newly-arrived in Cape Town in the early ‘70s and later, living here in the ‘80s and ‘90s I was a regular customer at the store’s flagship Jo’burg branch in Sandton City , picking up items from some of my favourite designers such as Sissy Boy, as well as spending far too much money in their kitchen and homeware departments.
Sadly it has now been revealed that the Stuttaford Group was hit hard by the recession in 2009, compounded by the financial mire that South Africa now finds itself in and the move to online shopping and despite management’s best efforts, it was forced into liquidation. Chief Executive Robert Amoils is quoted on the Fin24 website as saying; “I believe the path we set was correct. We ran out of time. The market downturn was so swift, so severe.”
The only bright spot on the horizon is that there is a possibility that Stuttaford’s Sandton and Eastgate outlets might be rescued. John Evans, a lawyer overseeing its closure, said he had received a last-minute approach that could salvage the two stores which would save the jobs of 300 of the group’s 950 staff.
Much the same happened to the Garlicks retail Group which began life around the same time as Stuttafords and in the same place, as a small drapery business named after its founder, John Garlick and advertised as selling “General Drapery, Hosiery, Haberdashery, Millinery, Boots, etc, etc” [Cape Mercantile Advertiser April 24, 1875].
The original premises were on the corner of Strand and Bree Streets, Cape Town. Later John Garlick expanded with branches in Kimberley, Johannesburg and Pretoria in the 1880s, before moving the Cape Town branch into the splendid Victorian store in Adderley Street in 1893, a building which became one of the iconic Cape Town landmarks and yes, I have fond teenage memories of that place too, especially the record department! Alas, the last Garlicks branch closed in 1996.
The story is a familiar one in the UK too which has seen the closure of two high street giants in the last two decades, that of Woolworths and more recently, British Home Stores, the loss of which had seemed unthinkable to the buying public until it actually happened. They really were household names, with Woolworths having branches in just about every town in the country and they are still fondly remembered and talked about today.
I myself mourn the loss of all these beloved stores but they have all fallen victim less to the recession – they have all weathered many such ups and downs over the many decades of trading and somehow managed to survive – but more to the preference today for online shopping and its biggest benefit – price comparison.
I’m a big fan myself of buying online but of course our local retail scene, whilst massively bigger than it was twenty years ago, is still very restricted; so e-purchasing gives me a chance to source and buy the things that can’t be found for love nor money locally.
Only this week a darning mushroom ordered on eBay arrived in my post box, I having failed to find such an item in our local drapery outlets and of course I order books and DVDs from Amazon on a regular basis. And there’s no argument that it’s a very convenient way to shop, in the privacy of your own home, picking and choosing and selecting, all with the click of a mouse. You can even do it on the hoof, with the aid of our smartphones.
But, and it’s a big but, there are also drawbacks. First and foremost is the obvious one that when you purchase clothes in-store, you can try them for size and fit and these days, with no uniformity of sizing amongst manufacturers, that’s quite important. Secondly, you often can’t assess the quality of your purchase in a tiny, online image so it’s a case of ‘wait and see’ which can often lead to disappointment. Yes, you can often return the item for refund but you will not be able to recoup the postage costs, nor time wasted.
And I would hate to think that if the trend continues, the thrill of mooching round iconic shopping precincts such as London’s Oxford Street will be lost forever, including the indulgence of window-shopping their enticing and artfully-created tableaux displays and the masochistic pleasure and pain of ‘shop till you drop’ !
I hope this alarming tide of store closures can be stemmed but alas, just as Canute couldn’t order the waves to recede, no more can we halt progress, if indeed that’s the right word.