5 of the Oldest Department Stores in the World | History Hit

5 of the Oldest Department Stores in the World

Lily Johnson

20 Apr 2023
Harrods, London, UK.
Image Credit: Chauhan.shweta14 / Wikimedia Commons 4.0

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, a brand new shopping experience was born that would revolutionise the retail industry: the department store.

From Paris to Tokyo, we take a journey through history to explore the oldest department stores still in operation around the world. These 5 iconic stores have withstood the challenges of time, adapting and evolving to remain relevant in an ever-changing retail landscape.

1. Mitsukoshi, Tokyo, Japan (1673)

Technically the oldest store on our list, Mitsukoshi is a Japanese department store chain that was originally founded in 1673 under the name Echigoya, and sold kimono in Edo (now Tokyo). A decade later in 1683, Echigoya adopted a new approach to marketing. Rather than selling door-to-door, they set up a store where buyers could purchase goods on the spot with cash.

The store gradually expanded its offerings over the years and was officially recognised as a department store in 1904. Today, Mitsukoshi is one of the largest and most prestigious department store chains in Japan, known for its high-quality products and exceptional customer service.

In this ukiyo-e print designed by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Echigoya is featured as a landmark. The Mitsukoshi headquarters are located on the left side of the street.

Image Credit: Public domain

2. Kendals, Manchester, UK (1796)

Located in the city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Kendals (formerly Kendal Milne & Faulkner) in Manchester lays claim to being one of the first department stores, and is still known to many of its customers as Kendals, despite its 2005 name change to House of Fraser.

The Manchester institution dates back to 1836 but had been trading as Watts Bazaar since 1796. At its zenith the store had buildings on both sides of Deansgate linked by a subterranean passage known as “Kendals Arcade”, and an art nouveau tiled food hall.

The store was especially known for its emphasis on quality and style over low prices, giving it the nickname “the Harrods of the North”, although this was due in part to Harrods acquiring the store in 1919. It was even renamed Harrods for a period in the 1920s, but the name swiftly reverted to Kendal Milne following protests from customers and staff.

3. Le Bon Marché, Paris, France (1838)

Located on Rive Gauche in Paris, Le Bon Marché was opened in 1838 as a small novelty shop. In 1852, entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut and his wife Marguerite became investors, transforming it into a sprawling department store.

Boucicaut came up with an innovative marketing plan, instituting fixed prices and guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds, advertising and a wider variety of merchandise. The use of fixed prices replaced the system of haggling, then commonly used in dry goods stores.

Expanding at a rapid rate, Le Bon Marché pioneered a way of shopping in Europe: a one-stop multi-story shop, allowing customers to purchase everything they needed under one roof instead of travelling across Paris for various goods. Today it remains an essential destination for anyone looking to experience the best of Parisian style and culture.

Drawing of the department store Le Bon Marché in Paris, 19th century.

Image Credit: Public domain

4. David Jones, Sydney, Australia (1838)

David Jones was founded in Sydney in 1838 by (you guessed it) David Jones, a Welsh immigrant who had previously worked as a tailor. Initially, the store was a small drapery shop, but it quickly grew in size and popularity, becoming one of the premier retailers in Sydney by the end of the 19th century.

Over the years, David Jones has expanded its offerings to include a wide range of luxury goods, including designer clothing, accessories, beauty products, and home goods. The store has also become known for its strong focus on providing a personalised shopping experience for its customers. It is also the oldest continuously-operating department store in the world still trading under its original name.

5. Harrods, London, UK (1849)

Harrods is one of the oldest and most iconic department stores in the world, having been founded in 1849 in London by Charles Henry Harrod. From its humble beginnings as a small grocery store (the origins of which go back to 1832), the store has grown into a sprawling retail empire, offering a wide range of luxury products and services.

On 16 November 1898, Harrods debuted England’s first “moving staircase” (escalator) in their Brompton Road stores. Nervous customers were offered brandy at the top to revive them after their ‘ordeal’!

Today, Harrods is known for its opulent interior design and exceptional customer service, which has helped to cement its reputation as a global premier shopping destinations. The store continues to thrive, attracting millions of visitors each year and remaining a symbol of luxury and sophistication for shoppers around the world.

Harrods department store in London, circa 1905.

Image Credit: Public domain

Lily Johnson