Back in my school days in Philadelphia, The Wanamaker’s, founded by prominent merchant and politician John Wanamaker in 1902, was among my favorite places to hang out in the downtown area. Every Christmas, the department store delighted children and adults alike with an in-store light show while holiday tunes played beautifully on the world’s largest operational pipe organ housed inside a majestic, seven-story high courtyard. Unfortunately for Philadelphians, as the department store industry waned, the iconic retailer eventually succumbed to changing times and in 1997, the century-old Wanamaker’s name was taken down from one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.
Once a social institution, department stores around the world are facing extinction. The rise of the “big-box store” that specializes in a single category of merchandise, such as office supplies, toys, footwear and sporting goods, has forever altered our shopping habits and made it impossible for department stores to compete in either price or selection. Trying to be all things to all people, these retail dinosaurs end up pleasing nobody. Here in Hong Kong, one department store after another went out of business at the turn of the new millennium, each time leaving an ocular void in the neighborhood like the carcass of a sunken ocean-liner.
Corporate Darwinism aside, the Japanese department store culture has long been an integral part of Hong Kong’s history. Back when the British colony was still coming of age, Daimaru (大丸) opened a store on Great George Street in Causeway Bay in 1960...