Shopping in the Victorian time



The nature of shopping changed dramatically in the Victorian period. As incomes and living standards rose across the nation in all classes and the population became more urban, a new generation of business men, led by figures such as William Whitely, the department store entrepreneur, geared up the retailing industry to meet an ever increasing demand. In the early 19th century most people met their day-to-day needs in local shops such as grocers and haberdashers. Those who were less affluent relied upon the services of itinerant salesmen and travelling fairs for such simple goods as needles and cotton. Shopping was then a local affair. By the end of the century the situation has changed.

Late 19th century middle class at Harrods

Large department store, such as Harrods and Selfridges in London, could be found in most large cities and the number of national chain stores sold their wares across the whole of the country. They encouraged sales through sophisticating advertising campaigns, fixed pricing, pre-packaged goods and product branding.

Harrod’s and Selfridge’s advertising posters and pages

Lipton’s, the grocers, was the first major chain store in Britain. It was formed in 1871 and by 1899 it run over 500 shops. Concentrating on a small number of lines of goods sold at fixed prices, it led the way for a number of well known companies to follow its path, including Hepworth’s, the made-to-measure tailor and Boot’s the chemist. Stores such as these brought about marked changes in the nature of retailing. Until the 1870’s advertisments and posters were usually placed by manufacturers, but than chain stores took over the function.

An old Boots sign

The nature of shopping changed as well, with a new emphasis on efficient service. Stores owned by firms such as Boot’s tended to be long and narrow, with a continuous working area bordered by shelves around a central aisle. These shops were made attractive through high quality fittings and decorations such as Minton tiles illustrating appropriate themes. Chairs were placed around the shopfloor should the customer feel tired and wish to rest.

Reconstruction of the meat shop decorating with tiles

The rise of Marks and Spencer is worthy of comment. In 1884 Michael Marks ran a penny stall in Leeds bazaar under a sign which read “Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny”. He sold many different kinds of small manufactures, such as cotton, needles, buttons and so on. Influenced by the experience of companies such as Woolworth’s in the United States, the firm quickly expanded and by the early 1900s it owned 60 penny bazaars. These shops placed little store by lavish interior design or expensive fittings but traded under the banner of value for money.

Marks and Spenser penny bazaar

Victorian retailing received a great boost from men such as Jessie Boot, the proprietor of the chemists Boot’s. A classic Victorian entrepreneur fixated with the idea of expansion, he aimed to make his company the “biggest and the best”. He inherited his first shop from his father in Notthingham which sold folk medicines and herbal treatments to working people. He introduced household goods to the shop’s stock and employed an aggressive selling strategy undercutting his rivals. His tactics proved so successful that he was able to open a new shop in 1868, marking the beginning of a great period of expansion. Within 30 years he owned 180 shops. He believed in courting his customers, and decked out these establishments on upmarket sites with mahogany and glass fittings and electric lightning. Some shops in middle-class areas were even treated to fittings with mediaevalist touches.

The bottle lid with Boots logo

He was no less progressive in his advertising techniques. He quickly moved on from newspaper advertisments to hard-hitting show-business-style promotions imported from the States. In the 1890s he developed the firm’s corporate image used on all packaging and promotional material. It is still in use today.

Department stores were another significant feature of Victorian retailing. Their development in Britain can be traced back to Madam Boucicaut’s Bon Marché founded in Paris in 1852, and Macey’s of New York founded in 1860. It was only in 1880s that Britain saw a comparable development of large shops selling a great variety of goods in departments. Against the background of an extending transport network allowing easy access for those living in suburbs to the centre of cities, firms like Harrods in London grew from a small grocers to large retailing concerns.

Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin

Whiteley’s of Bayswater was founded in 1863 by William Whiteley. He had been greatly impressed by the Great Exhibition of 1851, and thought that the kind of experience evoked there could be brought to shopping. He wished to give it the character of a fashionable leisure activity. He sought to attract middle-class custom through a genteel approach to salesmanship: customers were never to be pestered by sales staff but informed and encourage in their purchases. His empire expanded through the 1870s and 1880s: his staff grew from 15 to over 600, and he invested in four warehouses.

Tea room at Derry and Toms department store

Innumerable items were offered for sale, including drapery, jewellery, fashionable Japanese-style objets d’art. He offered a number of services to the public alongside the goods on display. After spending a pleasant half an hour in the refreshment room then having her hair styled, a Victorian lady could seek the advice of Whiteley’s housing agency.

Unfortunately, Whiteley and his store were dogged by bad luck. In the 1880s the building was badly damaged by a series of mysterious fires and in 1907 Whiteley himself was murdered in the store by a man claiming to be his son. In his testament he left the sum of £1,ooo,ooo  and that money was used for building Whiteley village in Surrey, which architecture is mostly in “Arts and Crafts” style.

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