DJs: Why David Jones has real history behind it
PAUL Zahra recalls as a young man feeling intimidated before he made his first purchase at Australia’s decadent department store, David Jones.
“I remember specifically going in to buy my very first pair of leather gloves, because I wanted something as a treat for myself. The thing for me was actually being able to say I bought it at David Jones.
“That, to me, sums up the emotion and love for the brand and the company,” says Zahra, who now occupies the chief executive’s chair of the oldest department store in Australia.
Back then, almost three decades ago, everything was behind glass. “The store was designed around marble and brass and it was intimidating in the sense that you had to ask to be served.”
The 46-year-old started his retail career behind the counter at Target before working his way up through the ranks at David Jones.
When he was appointed David Jones’ boss in 2010 it dawned on him that a milestone was approaching. Before there was the Opera House, before the Harbour Bridge, David Jones was born.
On May 24, 1838, a Welsh migrant named David Jones opened a department store on the corner of Barrack and George streets. His aim was to offer luxury goods in a commodious space and today, says Zahra, those things have not changed.
Only one other store in the world has traded longer under its original name, Hudson’s Bay in Canada, which opened one month before.
It is testament to the strength and resilience of the brand and the unique place it occupies, not only in retail history but in the nation’s culture, that David Jones has survived. It has outlasted world wars, the Great Depression, the GFC and traded on as others like Mark Foy’s, the Grace Bros brand and Waltons have disappeared.
For 175 years, countless shoppers, browsers, diners and viewers of fashion, flowers and Christmas window designs have swept through its heavy brass doors. Rites of passage like weddings, christenings, 21sts and engagements are inextricably linked with treasures in the store.
In Sydney it has occupied three sites, the current Elizabeth St store since the 1920s, and now has 36 outlets across the nation (except Tasmania and the Northern Territory).
“It’s an absolute milestone, not just for the industry and the company but for the whole of Australia,” says Zahra.
Parasols, bolts of silk and velvet, waistcoats, millinery, travelling trunks of leather, carpets, even automotive parts at one stage were stocked within its elegant floors. In the early years there was a French evening room with the most decadent gowns, fur and embroidered shawls.
On the seventh floor was a glamorous restaurant, in a palatial ballroom with 6m round-arched windows overlooking Hyde Park and St Mary’s Cathedral. The Queen once dined in this room, but a 1970s renovation stole its glory when a mezzanine level was installed in the top half of the room. In 2011 most of the ballroom was restored and reopened (although executive offices retain some mezzanine space) with the first event to be hosted there, the glamorous annual David Jones fashion shows.
Generations of families have shopped at David Jones; one customer requested his mother be buried with her most prized possession, her David Jones store card.
“There’s a relentless loyalty to the brand,” says Zahra. “There’s something about saying ‘I work at David Jones’ or ‘I shop at David Jones’.”
Lois Medcalf, 84, has worked for David Jones for 64 years and still takes the 45-minute bus journey from the northern beaches to work 25 hours a week in the manchester department in the Market St store.
In the new book David Jones’ 175 Years, Helen O’Neill writes that all manner of people worked there. “Including former prime minister Paul Keating, who as an apparently surly 22-year-old became a part of store history when as a salesman at the Bankstown outlet in 1967 he was dismissed after being deemed ‘unsatisfactory’.”
Dawn Fraser was an assistant buyer who kept a motor scooter at the Elizabeth St dock so she could zip off to training at Drummoyne Pool.
Former Queensland premier Anna Bligh grew up on the Gold Coast and recalls special trips to Brisbane a couple of times a year.
“DJs holds a special place in our hearts, even for those who don’t like shopping much, because it’s often where we buy a wedding gift for our best friend, a christening gift for a new baby, new shoes for an engagement party or _ as I did recently _ our son’s first suit,” Bligh says. “A trip to DJs is often interwoven with many of the intimate and happy moments of our lives.”
The late Chrissy Amphlett wore a David Jones-branded school tunic on stage with the Divinyls.
“Everyone has a story about David Jones,” says Zahra. “People love the tradition.”
Sir Charles Lloyd Jones, of the David Jones dynasty, once described the clothing as of “extreme economy, excellence of cut and superiority of style and finish”.
The store made an art form of servicing country customers. A mail order catalogue service, with free postage filled 500,000 orders in 1938.
In 1914 the family bought the site of the existing Elizabeth St store for £80,000 but after World War I broke out, couldn’t build there until the 1920s.
Competition was soon fierce from the equally elegant Mark Foy’s a few blocks away, Grace Bros and Anthony Hordern & Sons.
“The difference between David Jones and those stores is that we are very good at reinventing ourselves,” Zahra says.
Sir Charles wrote in notes to his sons about the company legacy: “David Jones is more than a material money-making concern, it is a great institution rendering a service to countless millions in the year, in fair dealing with the desire to serve all who enter its doors honestly, setting a new standard in commercial practice.”
His son Charles in the 1960s came up with the famous black-and-white houndstooth design that is still the brand today when he saw a Christian Dior perfume in his mother’s dressing room; the words “Miss Dior” were printed over a houndstooth design.
Descendant David Lloyd Jones was held in such esteem that mourners crowded the streets on the day of his funeral in 1961 and prime minister Robert Menzies gave the eulogy.
After 142 years, the family dynasty lost control of the company in 1980 when diving profits made a perfect storm for corporate raider Adelaide Steamship Company to swoop. Under boss John Spalvins, Adsteam took control of the board after snapping up 20 per cent of the company. Spalvins’ changes were swift and substantial, selling flagship properties and undertaking extravagant refurbishments of their city stores.
“It was a run-down mediocre company with no profitability, with no faith in themselves, with no direction,” Spalvins says.
But Adsteam took on one deal too many and went bust, leading to David Jones Limited floating on the stock exchange in 1995.
The company had made a $25 million loss when Mark McInnes became CEO in 2003. It took years of work on labels like Armani to transform into the “House of brands” with rights to sell designers from Australia and the world.
It moved away from the David Jones label and anointed models Megan Gale and then Miranda Kerr as brand ambassadors.
The flagship properties were bought back. But other decisions were not so popular, like McInnes’ attempt to get rid of the Elizabeth St ground floor piano player. It triggered a campaign that unearthed stories like the one from pianist Michael Hope, who says Dame Joan Sutherland was in the store one day.
“Knowing she had sung The Flower Duet from Lakme, I started to play it and she sang along,” Michael Hope says.
Public sentiment won the day and today three piano players share a roster tickling the ivories.
When young staff member Kristy Fraser-Kirk accused McInnes of sexual harassment and a nasty legal battle resulted in a confidential settlement reported to be $850,000, Zahra stepped into the role.
Not only did Zahra have a job repairing damage done to the company’s reputation, it was a market luddite in online shopping and the world was emerging from a financial crisis.
Zahra wants to preserve all that is valuable of the heritage brand, while transforming the company to accept the reality that shoppers no longer have to take an empty suitcase to Paris to get latest on-trend international products for less. He also wants to shake down the image that David Jones is for prestige and luxury, and is increasingly opening up the merchandise to reflect more “everyday needs”.
“My memory of David Jones was actually one of intimidation, to be honest. Because David Jones positioned itself as ‘The most beautiful store in the world’ which was in many ways was not attainable or accessible to the everyday shopper.
“I think everybody aspires for beautiful things and I think whilst we have a core customer, I do believe we should be accessible to all customers, particularly during gift-giving times. The beauty about our brand is that we sell a $19.95 lipstick and a $2000 jar of cream, and often it can be the same customer.”
The company has profiled its customers and come up with four main categories, for whom they’ve given names. Susan is the discerning delegator who wants shopping that reinforces her sense of prestige and status; Jeff is the strategic player who wants to avoid buyer remorse; Steph is the social shopper who wants to keep up with trends, and Mel the targeted tasker who has a budget and wants to minimise time shopping.
The two-decades old cash registers have recently been replaced with a much quieter digital system that is linked to stock inventory. Free in-store style advisers armed with iPads to provide advice on the latest trends have been introduced.
“If the experience is outstanding, the customer will open their purse,” Zahra says.
The website had been revamped and suppliers are being put under “a lot of pressure” to reduces prices to match those found overseas.
“We do believe our customers should not pay any more by shopping at David Jones,” he says.
Suzanne Pritchard, 70, is one of the best-known customers of David Jones’ city stores. For 50 years she has shopped there, and visits twice a week at least.
Her mother attended Dior’s first show outside Paris at David Jones. Pritchard buys everything from meat, cheese and vegetables to couture at the store.
“When I am looking at the collections I don’t bring the cheese and bacon with me,” she says.
At lunch with pink champagne at the Oyster Bar, lower ground in the Market St store last week, Pritchard was in finery from the store: Hugo Boss import collection coat dress, Jimmy Choo stilettos, Lady Dior bag. Fine jewellery is the only thing she doesn’t buy here.
“It’s about style. Everything’s stylish,” Pritchard says. “My loyalty has never wavered. There has been no need to because I have always been satisfied.”
She says the staff manner is pleasant but insists customers too have a responsibility to show respect and manners. At the annual fashion shows, “there would always be somebody who would be quite unpleasant about their seat. I would think how lucky we are to have been invited.”
She knows what she will wear to the cocktail party for loyal customers later this month to celebrate 175 years of David Jones: Carl Kapp made-to-measure and a Dior beige and grey Arctic fox fur coat, from David Jones, of course.