Nominated by: Caroline Rushmer
Where: Market Street, Manchester
Lewis’s was established as a drapers in Liverpool in 1856, gradually adding more lines and expanding its premises to become a department store. This was typical of way in which many early department stores grew, but Lewis’s was innovative in that it opened branches: in Manchester (1877) and later Birmingham and Sheffield.
From the outset, Lewis’s had a reputation for innovative retailing, including self-service and one of the world’s first Christmas grottoes. There were poster campaigns, processions, public events and pamphlets, as well as commemorative goods, and special promotions. The latter included an offer made in 1885 to ‘pay the railway fare of visitors from a distance whose purchases amount to £2 and upwards’. Window displays were also important in drawing in customers and they gradually developed from the stuffed window seen in the 1910s and 1920s to more refined and elegant tableaux by the 1930s.
Lewis’s prided itself on giving its customers value for money and styled itself ‘Friends of the People’. Price was important here, as advertisements frequently emphasised, but so too was quality. In 1882, it promised that, ‘If a dress should wear badly … Lewis’s will give a new dress for nothing at all’. Just as important to its reputation were the range of ancillary services provided to its customers, from its mail order service, to its two-shilling teas, to the tea dances organised in the ballroom on the fifth floor of its Market Street premises.
Lewis’s did well in the inter-war years, opening branches in other several towns and buying Selfridges in 1951. In the 1960s, it launched Miss Selfridge to appeal to younger customers, but its fortunes declined through the 1970s and 1980s. Going into administration in 1991, it was bought by rival Owen Owen. Although it continued to trade for another decade and remained popular, the Manchester store finally closed in 2002. It is now Primark.
“Lewis’s was a traditional haunt for us. My great-aunt started work in the accounts dept at 14 years old in 1916 and retired aged 63 as head of cashiers dept, managing all the cash and tilling for the whole store.
We always went up to get her staff discount pass in the 1970s & 80s. Lots of expensive purchases came courtesy of her pass – carpet for our first house, my cot and pram in 1988. I’d love to see their famous ballroom – my aunt saw it in its hey-day.”