All but a few high-profile department stores seem to be in trouble, so has the market changed to the point where the sector is just an irrelevance?

Are department stores just about flagships?

There are a handful of big luxury department stores that seem to find their way onto most people’s lists: Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods and Selfridges in London, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s and maybe Saks in New York and, more tendentiously, Moscow’s GUM.

Selfridges was, as has been widely reported, recently voted the world’s best department store for the fourth time, at a gathering of department store chiefs in London, but what does this say about everywhere else?

Ask almost anybody involved in the sector, either as a professional or a shopper, and all will be able to reel off a list of reasons why Selfridges is a great store.

And it is. But does this mean that it’s a matter of one-off destination stores (albeit they may be the figureheads for a number of other outposts in a chain) or are there department store groups that can hold their corporate heads up high and say they too represent all that’s good about the sector?

Upmarket future?

It is at this point that the UK modus operandi is to mention John Lewis, and there are certainly many who would opine that it’s hard to find a branch of this retailer that isn’t a destination worthy of comment.

The point, however, is that it does appear to be something of an exception, with Debenhams trailing it (with the exception perhaps of its Stevenage store) and HoF a distant third wondering about its diminished future.

“Are we headed for a future of many fewer department stores, internationally as well as in the UK, and where those that are around will serve the fortunate few or the ambitiously aspirational?”

There was a time when there were department stores that covered more or less all parts of the socio-economic spectrum, but it does increasingly seem to be the case that luxury is where it’s at, and after this things look considerably trickier.

So are we headed for a future of many fewer department stores, internationally as well as in the UK, and where those that are around will serve the fortunate few or the ambitiously aspirational?

Things may not actually get that bad in the very near future, but it does look as if this is an increasingly probable outcome.

The department store sector has a time-honoured heritage, but the increase in the number of specialist brands and retailers means the moment when every town had its own department store has passed. Just ask the folk in Skipton or Middlesbrough.