A short history of clearance

Coping with crowds past and present

In 1961 the Founder writing in The Gazette had exactly the same opinion and was, in fact against any Clearance at all. In a reply to a Gazette letter asking why we had a Clearance (and not a sale) he said “Like my father before me, I have always catered for a public who would be positively attracted by our reputation for never having sales. I always used to say that I hated to see big figures in July or January”.

By implication that would have meant that stock lines weren’t selling at full price and the Buyers weren’t producing the maximum profit he expected. However, sales – or Clearances – were a regular feature of every department store from the mid 19th century onwards, with shop owners using this as a period for clearing old stock and making room for the next season’s lines.

Women bargain hunters in particular seem to have received a bad press as their earlier attempts to provide the household with Christmas presents were forgotten; they were portrayed as weak, feeble-minded creatures tempted into the stores by ingenious entrepreneurs.

One of these entrepreneurs was Mr John Lewis, whose assortment of silks made his shop on Oxford Street a target for ladies keen to purchase reduced fabrics to make up into the next season’s fashions.

In 1920 he wrote in his diary about how the shop managed at sale time. Following a strike partly brought about by his old-fashioned management style, he found himself with many of the staff absent at sale time. He had to revert to Plan B:

“At Oxford Street we confined all the business for the day to the silk shop, closing its iron doors and lifts for the withdrawal of all hands to the front floor in the silk shop. The crowd was great by 8am, we had six policemen in all and at 9am we opened the doors and were densely crowded all day and by 4pm had sold all the silks. The scene caused a great sensation”.

The next day’s entry continued, “the silk shop was crammed with people all day but we found it difficult in serving them with ordinary silk because the inexperienced knew not where to find the articles required. About 12:30pm I stood near the front door and pushed people back and would not let them pass as the numbers had become dangerous as to shoplifting, otherwise I did not hesitate to push back in the presence of the [police] but I couldn’t have given such power to anyone else. I went home at 3pm”.

Other retailers experienced similar crowd trouble. The worst example took place in 1906 and became known as ‘The Battle of Louisville’. In a store in Kentucky USA a shopper was crushed to death when the police moved in to try to prevent more people entering the shop. When someone shouted ‘Stop thief’ three women fainted, panic ensued and when the shop was finally cleared it was discovered that one lady had broken her arm, another had a broken collar bone and a third had lost a portion of her scalp.

The shopper who died sustained internal injuries and a journalist later commented ‘Whence comes the woman’s passion for a bargain? During those weeks at the turn of the year I have been shoved off the pavement by rabid ladies in the High Street Kensington: I have seen the bargain sales in Chicago. The women of the world are struggling to get a remnant at cost-price’.

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