From Saleshops to Department Stores

Richard Burbidge, n.d.

Richard Burbidge, n.d.

A career retailer, Richard Burbidge was an important figure both in the history of retailing as well as its development at Hudson's Bay Company. Born in 1847 he began his career at the age of 14 when he was apprenticed to a London grocer. Thirty years later, after stints with both the Army & Navy Stores and William Whitely, then London's largest department store, he joined Harrods as General Manager in 1891.

Burbidge was an amazing innovator. He soon became Managing Director of Harrods and for the rest of his life concentrated on developing it into the most successful department store in the world. Harrods cable address - "Everything-London" - was registered in 1894 and remains in use today. In 1898 Harrods introduced the first escalators to an astonished public. Looking more like an inclined conveyor belt than the stairs we are used to today, Burbidge's introduction was the talk of the town. Newspapers of the day referred to shoppers being "whisked away" to upper floors, as if by "magic carpet". Always solicitous of patrons needs, Burbidge arranged for attendants to meet passengers at the end of their journey - with smelling salts or a tot of brandy to revive them if necessary!

Hbc Calgary store, 1884 - HBCA 1987/363-C-211/2

HBC Calgary store, 1884
HBCA 1987/363-C-211/2

Burbidge was a workaholic by the standards of any age. It was not unusual for him to work long into the night. Long days were also routine for staff. Store hours were 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with stores staying open until 10:00 p.m. on Friday and 11:00 p.m. on Saturday. A pioneer in the improvement of working conditions for staff, Burbidge instituted a standard 12-hour workday as well as an early closing day, Thursday, when the store shut at 1:00 p.m. This was well in advance of such changes being mandated by law. Under Burbidge's capable management Harrods profits grew from about £12,500 to £210,000 from 1890-1910, an increase of 1680% over 20 years.

In 1907 Leonard Cunliffe, a prominent London businessman with connections to Harrods, was elected to the HBC Board. In 1909 he travelled to Canada to see the overseas operations for himself. At his suggestion his friend Richard Burbidge came with him to investigate the retail operations of the Company. Burbidge's subsequent report to the Board changed HBC's retail history forever. As forthright as it was comprehensive, Burbidge found much room for improvement and made many important suggestions.

Hbc Calgary downtown store, 1917 - HBCA 1987/363-C-213/11

HBC Calgary downtown store, 1917
HBCA 1987/363-C-213/11

HBC "saleshops" were typically small, poorly stocked, and in the hands of complacent managers with little enthusiasm or retail expertise. Profits were modest, displays were unappealing and fittings and fixtures inadequate. Burbidge recognized that despite the steady influx of immigrants to the west, HBC was being outclassed by competitors like Eaton's. He proceeded to deliver a prescription for change that would reverse this trend.

Burbidge clearly saw that to be successful, HBC's retail operations needed to be managed separately from the Company's other key business lines, namely the fur trade and land sales. Consequently he recommended a restructuring of the Company into three distinct divisions, each with its own Commissioner with specific expertise. He proposed increased salaries for managers as well as incentive commissions on net sales - to attract and retain top talent. He recommended an aggressive policy of expansion / rebuilding stores, sometimes, as in the case of Victoria and Winnipeg, proposing a complete relocation. He proposed expanding inventories at varying price points to service the growing middle class and recommended a single visual identity for all Company vehicles.

By 1910 Burbidge's recommendations had been warmly received by the new Board. He was elected to the Board in the same year, a position he held until his death in 1917. The first Commissioner of Stores in the reorganized Company was Burbidge's own son, Herbert. Amendments to the Charter adopted in 1912 made possible the capital investment needed to fund the ongoing building program. By 1913 the first new store in Yorkton was open for business and land for a new store in Victoria, covering a whole city block, had been acquired.

Richard Burbidge's vision of the modern department store significantly influenced the development of HBC's retail division for future generations, ensuring its importance to the business of the Company as a whole.