Scotland's retail transformation

THE IMMINENT sale of the Edinburgh shopping institution Jenners to retail giant House of Fraser will mark the end of an era for the oldest independent department store in the world. It is, however, just the latest in a series of takeovers that have seen a host of famous names succumb to the pressures of the modern retail economy.

It is ironic that the House of Fraser - which has roots in Scotland but is no longer a Scottish company - has been central in the acquisition of some of the best-known and -loved Scottish brand names.One of the earliest casualties was the Binns department store at the west end of Edinburgh's Princes Street. Formerly a rival to Jenners, it became an Edinburgh landmark after the seven-floor shop opened in 1894. Fraser's took over the Binns group in 1953, although the name of the flagship store, was not changed until 1976 - and many older people in the city still refer to its old moniker.

Arnotts, which started life in Glasgow in 1850, used to boast two stores in Edinburgh. Both of these shops were originally home to successful, independent retailers Patrick Thomsons and J & R Allan.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The House of Fraser brand originated in Glasgow in 1849 with the opening of the Arthur and Fraser store on Buchanan Street. The chain, which once owned the infamous Harrods department store, has since acquired more than a dozen brand names across the UK, including Rackhams, Dickins & Jones and Army & Navy. John Dawson, professor of marketing at the University of Edinburgh Management School, says while there are strong, medium-sized firms operating in Scotland, the sale of Jenners underlines a seismic change in recent years for more traditional retailers.

"The changes in retailing over the last decade have been profound and there have been big developments in retail managerial methods," he says. "This has proved to be difficult to respond to for some firms that have continued to operate with more traditional approaches.

"The UK retail market at the moment is going though a very price-orientated phase with discounting being a very strong trend," Dawson notes. "There are many reasons for this, not least being the opening of China as a source of non-food products for retailers and East Asia generally for clothing products."There are signs that pressure is building on the famous Scottish names that are still trading. Aitken and Niven, the gentleman's tailor founded in 1905, which came to be a mainstay for middle- and upper-class parents purchasing uniforms for offspring attending Edinburgh's raft of independent schools, closed its George Street premises in February to focus on its neighbourhood stores. The decision was made to leave the city centre because of rising rents and the cost of upgrading its ageing premises - and doubtless the march of the parking attendants, who have been dubbed the Enforcers.

"Retailing efficiencies, and so competitiveness, are greater in buildings that are less complex than Jenners," Dawson says. "The development of edge-of-town stores on a single level have considerable cost benefits."

When even long-established retailers are struggling to survive in Scotland’s city centres, it seems that the sale of Jenners is not merely the end of an era for its family owned business, but for the tradition of independent retailing in Scotland.

House of Fraser now maintain that the Jenners brand will survive. If so, it will retain a part of Scotland's retail heritage when so many other famous names have disappeared from its high streets.

Where have all the department stores gone?

A glance at some of the former retail powers of Scotland

J & R Allan – Established in 1897 as J & R Allan, Silk Mercers and Drapers, it was the Harvey Nichols of its day. The shop stood seven stories from the Cowgate to above the capital’s South Bridge Street. After being put in voluntary liquidation in 1953, the department store was soon closed. It later was bought by the House of Fraser and became Arnotts until 1976. The building was destroyed by fire in 2002.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Arnotts – First known as Cochran's, a millinery business owned by Robert Cochran, this department store survived 157 years in Paisley before shutting its doors for good in 2004. It was taken over by the House of Fraser in 1964.

Binns – The Princes Street department store was formerly owned by Robert Maule & Sons, who opened for business in 1894. H Binns & Son Co Ltd of Sunderland acquired the store in 1934. House of Fraser took over Binns in 1953, although the name was not changed until 1976.

RW Forsyth – Another Princes Street fixture, the building was constructed in 1906 by Robert Forsyth who founded the business in 1873. After his death in 1977, the company's directors decided five years later to sell the Edinburgh business to the Burton Group. The building now houses Burtons, Top Man and Top Shop. Forsyth also had a shop in Glasgow.

Goldbergs – Little is known about this department store, located in the Tollcross area of Edinburgh. A competitor of Jenners, the landmark retailer closed in 1990.

Patrick Thomsons - Originally a drapery shop, it once rivalled Jenners in terms of popularity. It was taken over by the House of Fraser and renamed Arnotts until it was closed in 1976. The site now houses the Carlton Hotel.