Is David Jones Losing Its Soul?

David Jones is acknowledged as the oldest continually operating department store in the world. It began operations in Sydney 50 years after Europeans first settled in Australia. David Jones – the man – was a true merchant who set about creating an emporium that blended – in his own words – “stock that embraces the everyday wants of mankind at large” with “the best and most exclusive goods.” From its foundation the business was anchored in Sydney and its magnetic allure emanated from aspirational merchandise in a strong merchant culture that knew its customer intimately.

When David Jones retired for the first time and left the running of the business to investors, the business failed and he had to return from retirement to buy them out and resurrect the business by returning it to the merchant culture and aspirational focus that had given it life.

The contemporary David Jones business bears little resemblance to its origins as a family owned and controlled emporium. However as Vittorio Radice – the man credited with resurrecting Selfridges from a near death experience – said to me, “what originally makes you famous is what will sustain you.”

David Jones is now moving to Melbourne. Head office will be in the shared, purpose built compound of a Group. Ring any alarm bells? It is today owned and operated by a South African retail investment conglomerate. It is moving increasingly to verticality and cross-selling of Group brands blended with “strategically relevant international brands”. In the process of its relocation it will distance itself from its origins in many ways. Not the least of which is the loss of culture and intellectual property that resides in the many key executives who have refused to relocate and will subsequently leave the business.

In their formation years, David Jones was to Sydney what Myer was to Melbourne. Brilliant but very different merchant cultures infused with the nuances of their home bases. Now they will share a home city. They will arguably share an investment ethos rather than a merchant ethos. And while many question the contemporary role of a department store, I am not one of them. The problem is that most people do not understand what a department store really is and most disconcertingly that includes the very people who invest in them.

Making a business turn a profit is one thing. Sustainable profit growth over time is quite another. Applying intellectual rigour is very different from applying the skill and experience of true merchants. Soul matters. It informs the 1,000 small decisions that a merchant takes every day which drives the success of the business. Your origin point matters, as does what put you on the map for your customers. If you are looking to grow your business think carefully about what you may lose in the process of what you think you may gain. Every action has unforeseen consequences and impacts. And something has been lost, is very often impossible to find again.

David Jones may or may not end up satisfying the current owners ambitions. But for every proprietor in the country there are lessons that can be learned from what they are doing and the way they are doing it. And the most important is never risk losing your soul unless that soul is utterly and irreparably corrupted. And I don’t believe that is the case with DJs.