Boots exhibition celebrates shoppers as iconic Nottingham brand celebrates 175 years

A general view inside the Boots Counter Culture exhibition at The University of Nottingham's Lakeside Arts Centre
-Credit: (Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)

It was 175 years ago that the UK's leading health and beauty retailer was making its humble market debut by marking the opening of its first store in Nottingham's Goose Gate. Since 1849, Boots has developed from a small herbalist shop to a an empire formed of 2,100 stores.

But the household name wouldn't have survived without the millions of people that have put their health and beauty needs in the their hands. And that's exactly how Boots has decided to celebrate its landmark anniversary - by showcasing how it moulded around the shoppers needs over the years through a captivating exhibition.

"It's unusual. When you're talking about a company's anniversary, you're expecting a company history. But we wanted to make this relevant to the people, without whom Boots wouldn't have survived 175 years, so we chose this theme which is more about them than the organisation," says Sophie Clapp, Boots Head of Archives.

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Boots company archivist Sophie Clapp pictured in the Boots archive at the company headquarters in Beeston, Nottingham.
Boots company archivist Sophie Clapp pictured in the Boots archive at the company headquarters in Beeston, Nottingham. -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

The exhibition, entitled Counter Culture, is a "local celebration" that has the development of shoppers' habits at its core, while also celebrating the work of the thousands of people who worked in the brand's factories and offices. Boot's aim in 1849 was to provide affordable healthcare for those who didn't have the money to see a doctor, prior to the NHS.

"Herbal medicine was all about using local natural ingredients and creating affordable remedies for working families. Boots later set itself apart when it started making its own brand products, enabling the company to charge shoppers whatever lower price they wanted.

"No one else was really doing that. Boots was filling in a gap where high end pharmacies were selling medicines and services at a premium, whereas Boots was relying on volume.

"If you've got lots of people coming through your door, you don't need to charge such a high price to make profit," explains Ms Clapp. In the 1870s, John's son Jesse took over the business, which saw the expansion of over-the-counter medicines, still sold at cheaper prices.

A wooden medicine cabinet containing glass bottles pictured at the exhibition
A medicine cabinet pictured at the exhibition -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

But this made Boots sound like a "cheap" alternative, with many shoppers embarrassed to be seen shopping there - a big contrast to today's society endlessly chasing the best deals. This prompted Jesse to elevate the shopping experience and make it more sophisticated and painting its shoppers as savvy, rather than poor.

Ms Clapp explains: "He tried to create that department store experience in the region and bringing a Harrods-style shopping to Nottingham, while still maintaining value and affordability, which was a fundamental value that Boots stood for." This was aided by Jesse's wife, Florence Boot, joining the business in 1886 and introducing new services and products, turning shopping into a leisure pursuit.

Suddenly, Boots became a landmark destination on the high street, where people spent time not only shopping, but exchanging or browsing library books and meeting friends for coffee, all in respectable urban spaces where people were not afraid to be seen. The beginning of the NHS was another pivotal point in Boots' history, with the number of prescriptions "suddenly quadrupling".

"Boots has kept responding to changes over time and we've always adapted to how society has changed. Our core business and values stayed the same, we've been doing health and beauty since day one.

Boots glass bottles of perfume
Boots' way of doing health and beauty has kept its values over the years -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

"But it's the way in which we do it that has changed," says Ms Clapp. This is due to people's spending powers going up, while time has become critical, and so convenience replaced service in numerous ways.

Ms Clapp adds: "We didn't design all these changes, the society's expectations did, we just adapted as shopping became more of a leisure pursuit. Lunchtime shopping, for example, became a very active time in the 21st century, and we adapted our stores to make sure people could get their meal deal as quickly as possible.

"So scanning out and leaving the store because time has become more critical and it's much more about getting what you need quickly. Online has also been a huge shift in more recent years as people shop from home."

The exhibition finishes in a room that allows people to reflect on what the next centuries could bring for shopping. Ms Clapp says: "We finished telling the narrative and this is much more about asking people to think about what shopping means to them and how they see it changing in the future."

Counter Culture is free to visit and is currently open at Lakeside Arts’ Djanogly Gallery until July 21.