Great Britain has been described as a 'Nation of Shopkeepers' by Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and economist, in 'The Wealth of Nations' 1776. This was referring to the fact that England's prosperity came principally from its commercial greatness generated by merchants at that time, though later it would develop more into an industrial power.
A shop was the next development after the market stall and in Medieval Britain, they would line market squares where the town's shopping activity would be focussed. For centuries, retail activity was commodity-based and only became experienced-based once the facilities were available to present goods attractively without them being damaged. Shopping arcades and department stores were developed in towns during the 20th century, and shopping would become a pastime for a significant proportion of the population, particularly after the austere post Second World War period, rather than a necessity.
James Smith and Sons
The history of retailers in Britain is littered with the major retail names that for a variety of reasons have been unable to both fulfil customers' needs and stay solvent at the same time. This may be down to reasons such as over expansion, competition and customer needs evolving away from the retailer's core product lines. There are nevertheless, some great success stories of British retailers that have stood the test of time over more than a century, an achievement that may be due to their understanding of customer trends, the innate heritage or quality appeal of their products and the experience they offer to the shopper in their premises, whether a multi-floored emporium or a single unit shop.
Of great commercial significance is the granting of Royal Warrants of Appointment to retailers that supply the Royal Households. Her Majesty the Queen, Charles, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh and HRH the Prince of Wales each appoint Royal Warrant holders. The holding of such a Warrant signifies a standard of quality and service given consistently over a period of years. The display of the Warrant is a powerful credential for what it tells the customer about the holder. We have featured a number of them here.
Some of the retailers we have featured are retail outlets for exclusive quality products of Great British provenance, such as Johnson's of Elgin cashmere from the Scottish Highland mills, and James Purdey the gunmaker. In addition to apparel and accessories, there are also retailers of British foods and toiletries. A visit to some of these shops is an exclusive lifestyle experience of its own where bespoke tailoring, shoe fitting and even umbrella selection is assisted by expert knowledge and generations of experience.
Attribution: Browzz.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0
London is renowned for being one of the great shopping capitals of the world. As well as the high profile shopping areas of the West End, such as Oxford Street and Regent Street for the flagship stores Selfridges, Liberty and Hamleys and Bond Street or Knightsbridge for luxury brands and international designers (not to mention the grand dame of the department stores, Harrods), there are many other shopping enclaves to seek out. Old market areas, originally used for selling fresh produce, have become gentrified while still retaining their original heritage and character. The Old Spitalfields Market neat the City of London, established firstly as a hospital in Medieval times before much later becoming a fruit and vegetables market before being redeveloped as a shopping destination is one such example. In addition to a market stall space offering a different theme every day from vintage clothing to antiques, collectables and art it also accommodates numerous permanent retail spaces particularly known for both classic and contemporary British labels from Fred Perry and Cheaney shoes to Dr Martens and Alexander McQueen as well as hosting numerous independent restaurants and cafes. The shopping vibe in this burgeoning shopping and lifestyle scene in East London is determindley hipster. If however it is historic authenticity you are looking for, then confine yourself to what has to be the most densely packed historic shopping district in London, that is St James.
After Charles II gave permission to build around the royal palace of St James's in the 17th century the area became one of London's grandest, a magnet for fashion and high society. A surprising number of shops remain unchanged since those days. Around this crosshatch of ancient streets in SW1 is a concentration of some of the most authentic retailers in Great Britain. These shops are some of the great success stories of British retail that have stood the test of time, many over more than a century since they were first established, and some still operating on the same premises where they first set up. The heritage and quality appeal of their products combines with a unique experience visiting their premises, whether a multi-floored emporium or a single unit shop. A Royal Warrant of Appointment is almost to be expected amongst the shopkeepers of St James Street, Jermyn Street and the Princes and Piccadilly Arcades. The proximity to St James Palace and Clarence House lend this atmospheric area a further Royal boost.
Many exclusive quality products of Great British provenance can be found there, from purveyors of traditional apparel and accessories to foods and toiletries. You can easily take in the most charming and renowned shops on a walking tour. All in a row at the bottom of St James Street are Berry Brothers & Rudd, Britain's oldest wine and spirit merchant, Lock & Co the renowned hat shop and the bespoke shoemaker John Lobb. Further up, take in the historic D.R. Harris apothecary before heading along Jermyn Street for Floris, the oldest English retailer of fragrance and toiletries and Paxton & Whitield, the oldest cheesemaker in England. Nip over to Cordings on Picadilly for countryside clothing and back via Charbonnel et Walker to pick up some luxury hand made chocolates before a browse in Hatchards, London's oldest bookshop and a meander around the beautifully dressed department store, Fortnum & Mason.
The Oldest Sweet Shop
Attribution: Browzz.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0
These days there are numerous channels to market available to retailers. As well as the traditional high street shop outlet, there are the out of town shopping malls, warehouse outlets for end of lines, and of course on-line shopping. We have selected our retailers for their in-shop ambience and experience as well as the heritage of their products and service. This means we have been able to feature the small independent shop as well as the internationally represented retail brands, and the retailers of small ticket product items like the Oldest Sweetshop in England to the purveyors of luxury goods such as Harrods. What they have in common is a root in British history and a loyalty that has been created over generations of satisfied customers.
Please browse our gallery of selected great British Retailers above for inspiration and enjoyment, and click to find useful information and links to help you locate and visit them.