Famous Belfast Department Stores

An introduction to the era of 'gracious' shopping

Large, family run department stores were a prominent feature in Belfast before the end of the twentieth century. Many catered for the wealthy, but others like the Co-op stocked everything for everybody.

Even up to the 1960s, shopping in the high-class department stores provided a very different retail experience from now. Primarily, there was no self-service.

Shop assistants produced wares from cabinets and displayed them on the counter for the customer to choose. Personal service was a central concern in those days, and personnel at Robinson and Cleaver informed their regular clients when new fashion came in. It was a slower pace of life, and a shopping culture that a former department store customer described as ‘gracious living.’

Shop assistants were not allowed to handle money. In Robb's, lattices at ceiling height were used to convey the cashboxes carrying money and bills of purchase from the various departments to the cashier’s office, and the receipts back to the customers.

The Troubles and changes in shopping patterns forced the family owned department stores, as well as hundreds of small back street shops, to close down. The period between 1969 and 1975 was the most dangerous period in the city centre, with many retailers destroyed by bomb attacks.

From 1972 till the end of the century, metal security barriers enclosed the centre, and no vehicles except buses, taxis, police, military, ambulance and vehicles used by disabled people, were allowed in. Uniformed security personnel searched all pedestrians.

Many people living outside Belfast never went into the centre. Suburban supermarkets and shopping centres picked up where the city centre left, making it even less necessary to come into Belfast to shop. Many warehouses and wholesalers moved to the outskirts because of difficulties in handling large container loads in congested streets and loading bays.

However, in the mid 1990s, high street shops and shopping centres began moving back into the city centre.

Further Reading
Buildings of Belfast, 1700-1914 (1985) by CEB Brett.