There's no doubt that in recent years independent department stores have faced the toughest of trading conditions. The battle with aggressive high street competition put the squeeze on margins and led to predictions that the sector would die a slow death.
But there is growing evidence that, after some consolidation, these stores have turned a corner. Once highly traditional, they now have one eye to the future. Several independent department store groups are looking to expand, while others are refurbishing with gusto, sweeping away faded decor and clunky operational systems to haul themselves into the 21st century.
Surrey-based Tudor Williams is one such business. Founded by Welshman Tudor Williams in 1913, the New Malden-based firm has grown to five shops and sales of £12 million - up 5% on last year.
It acquired family-owned firm Elphicks of Farnham, Surrey, in October 2004, and in December last year snapped up Knights of Reigate, also in Surrey.
Tudor Williams managing director John Morris says the decision to grow via acquisition is driven partly by the challenges of expanding from within.
Morris says: "Competition from the internet as well as general retail deflation against rising costs means it's very difficult now to grow organically; yet unless you grow, you die.
"You have to open new outlets and acquire new sites if you want to improve the shopping experience and offer staff the chance to work for a larger organisation with more opportunities."
Much is down to timing: the opportunity to buy Knights of Reigate came about when the fifth generation owners decided to sell up after their children opted for careers in other sectors. Elphicks of Farnham came about because Morris knew the owners well, and they approached him directly.
Morris argues that although consolidation and more intense competition from the multiples, along with what he believes is an increase in the red tape levied on retailers, encourages some indies to exit the sector, this in turn opens up opportunities for those wishing to acquire.
"The red tape is an extra burden and, as it falls upon the owner or manager, it encourages them to sell up or retire. For us, that means more potential purchases," he says.
But Morris admits it can be tricky to integrate these businesses into an existing framework. "We have been lucky in that we shared a common accounting system with Elphicks, so the finances were easy to integrate."
Expansion has meant changes on the buying front: Tudor Williams has now moved to a centralised buying organisation. Morris says: "We are still small enough for the buyers to be able to tweak the ranges for different stores. And we don't buy by committee, so are able to offer a more eclectic range than larger high street retailers."
The relatively small size of most independent department stores, and their long-lasting relationships with local communities, are major trump cards, adds Morris: "We're not a homogenised, one-size fits all organisation; there's a lot of history behind us, and customers realise they're not walking into any high street department store chain."
Ulster Stores is a family-owned independent department store group based in Coleraine in Northern Ireland. Its flagship store, Moores of Coleraine, covers 42,000sq ft and is one of Northern Ireland's biggest.
With origins stretching back to 1925, the company now has four department stores - Moores of Coleraine; The White House in Portrush, County Antrim; Clares of Llandudno in north Wales; and now de Gruchy in Jersey, which it snapped up in November 2006.
At the time, group managing director Neville Moore talked of the "sense of ownership and pride" surrounding classic department stores, a sentiment that general manager Julie Strang endorses.
Strang says: "We are optimistic that not everyone wants to shop in a Debenhams, or another high street name. There is still room for individuality, and the challenge for us is to create a boutique feel, with a slightly classier environment.
"We've been developing a point of difference in our branding and store environment in the past year, and are moving towards a more personalised environment. Our ability is to focus on the service and in-store events, which differentiate us from the multiples."
The capacity to stock an eclectic mix of brands is another plus point, says Strang. Ulster Stores stocks brands including White Stuff, Pepe Jeans and Hobbs. Last month Moores of Coleraine began selling Dutch brand Bandolera, which represented the brand's first concession foray into the UK.
Strang also highlights the ability of independent department stores to vary their stock according to geographical location. "We profile the brands to match the customer. Our customers in Llandudno want tea and cakes, not cappuccino."
Morleys Stores, which has five department stores in the south-east of England, has spent the past few years pouring money into its five-strong portfolio. Instead of acquisitions, about £6m has been pumped into Elys of Wimbledon and Brixton in south London in the past three years.
Group managing director David James says: "We are not averse tolooking at opportunities to expand and would look at buying individual shops or a small group ofmid-sized department stores.
"But rather than growing, we have put significant money into refurbishing our present stores, especially in our Wimbledon and Brixton branches."
James says the decision to revamp the store in Wimbledon was driven by an acknowledgement that it had become "tired and unexciting", and that its image had dated - a description that could easily be applied to plenty of other independent department stores.
"We were only appealing to a long-established, older customer base, and weren't attracting newer, younger people," he admits. The refurbishment complete, James says the store is now light and modern, with more personality and strong design features.
Ulster Stores' Strang recognises the importance of fashioning a distinctive voice on the high street. "What independent department stores need to do is find different reasons for people to stay loyal. We have to offer something extra. Most have long histories in the towns they are in, so there's already a local sense of loyalty."
This point of difference must be nurtured and protected, she says. "We should know what's going on locally. Why should customers go to us? It's got to be about the environment and the service."
Another factor that can work in favour of independent department stores compared with multiples, she adds, is that the people at the helm are owner-managers. "There is an intimacy among management and staff; they should know their staff really well."
Westgate, which has 30 stores and has doubled in size over the past two years, has been faced with the challenge of maintaining a point of difference and sense of familiarity amid rapid growth.
Its managing director Peter Golding stresses the importance of investing in infrastructure as the business grows: for the past seven years Westgate has had a regional distribution centre and buying office in Peterborough, acting as a focal point for logistics and buying.
"The next few years will be a time of consolidation. We bought a lot of the Co-operative stores seven years ago and have expanded rapidly. Customer expectations are high, and our business processes need to be as sharp as possible," says Golding.
But it is trust and familiarity that he says is key to the survival of independent department stores.
"Customer service is a given on the high street, but independent department stores can offer a wider range of product, as well as a great shopping experience."