The sight of chains on the Beijing Friendship Store's doors was the first sign for many staff and shoppers that things were changing at the 40-year-old institution. That was the summer of 2003, when the store said it was closing for a month for 'remodelling'. About 400 staff suddenly found themselves locked out, and rumours spread that the site was going to be levelled to make way for a luxury hotel and an office block. Beijing resident Traci Smith was at the store that day. 'I was waiting to meet up with my friend, and I heard the workers say that they had arrived for work and had been locked out,' she said. 'Several workers were wondering if their work contracts would be honoured or not and wondered what was going on.' While the store was closed only for a month for minor renovations, since then management has refused to discuss the site's future. An executive with the Beijing Xidan Friendship Group, the store's parent company, said the rumours were just rumours. 'It's all rumour. The store's head had plans at that time but nothing had been decided and speculation spread among people as if it were a certified fact. It is very rare that reporters bother to ask and confirm with us,' the executive said. The Jianguomen store was established in 1964 as Beijing's first retail outlet aimed at overseas tourists. In the days of the planned economy, it enjoyed a privileged market dominance. Today it is up against a sea of 'competition'. 'What we sell is now also available in many other stores. We really don't have any selling point,' a store staff member said. The store's popularity peaked in the early 90s when foreigners could buy fresh vegetables, baked goods, foreign newspapers and magazines and imported products with special currency known as foreign exchange certificates. Kath Naday, a British tour guide working in China for 10 years, said the shop 'was like a 'forbidden city' to other people'. Ms Naday says the store really did foster friendships because foreigners often helped mainland friends buy products there. Ms Smith says that in the early 1990s, the Friendship Store had the best quality cigarettes, and was great for getting high-quality tea and western spirits. 'At that time, the Friendship Store was a haven compared with other shopping areas, cleaner, air-conditioned and heated well, not crowded, and with its own coffee bar,' she said. Nowadays the business is less brisk. 'It's like a dinosaur, although it used to be a symbol of retailing,' Ms Naday said. 'We just use it as a parking lot along Chang'an Avenue, but in order to do so we have to walk through it pretending to look at goods. I've never encouraged people to buy anything there as the prices are too high.' Renmin University retail expert Huang Guoxiong said the store began losing its commercial edge in 1992 when the market was opened and its guarantee of profits diminished. 'The Beijing Friendship Store was the product of a planned economy, in which products were in short supply,' Professor Huang said ' So under this special condition, it did promote the development of services for foreign guests and improve foreign relations. But it has lost the power to compete. What's the difference between it and the Sci-tech Shopping Centre? Professor Huang said operational changes were needed, and the Shanghai Friendship Store presented a successful example of change in its decision to team up with the Bailian Group and specialise in antiques rather than everyday products. If the Beijing giant does go, many resident foreigners will see it as the end of an era. Ms Smith said: 'I have heard many, many long-term Beijing foreign residents speak of the Friendship Store as 'an institution'. It's something that every taxi driver knows, every foreigner knows. It's an important historical landmark in Beijing.'