I Do Windows

The History of Visual Merchandising – Department Stores

Posted in Fashion 49, History of Visual Merchandising by Arcadia on February 12, 2010

The reason Visual Merchandisers exists today has to do with the “invention” of the Department Store, and not the little general merchandise store.  We exist because one man had the foresight to take all the general merchandise and stick it under one roof.

Aristide Boucicaut came up with the idea of  creating a store that sold all sorts of merchandise, attracted crowds, and would allow people to wander freely about; “a town within a town”. In 1838 he opened Le Bon Marché, in Paris – but it became the world’s first department store because of his innovation with distribution of goods in 1852.

It wasn’t long before this idea caught on over seas and others followed suit:

  • Macy’s, New York in 1858
  • Marshall Fields, Chicago in 1865
  • Bloomingdale’s, New York in 1872
  • Wanamaker, Philadelphia in 1876
  • Other stores such as Sears, Barney’s and Saks didn’t open until the 1920s

Sometimes students have asked me about Nordstrom:  they didn’t start as the department store you see today.  It was a shoe store started by the Nordstrom brothers in Seattle in 1901:

Aristide Boucicaut may have come up with the “town within a town” idea, but it was American entrepreneur Gordon Selfridge who revolutionized it!

Gordon Selfridge took what he had learned from working at Marshall Fields and applied it to his own store which he opened in London, a place where the department store concept had not yet caught on;  Selfridges opened on March 15, 1909 for $700,000.  He is credited with coming up with the phrase “Only _ shopping days until Christmas”, leaving the lights in the store window on at night, and adding a soda fountain – our modern-day café – for thirsty shoppers.  He understood better than anyone the power of a good and exciting display:

When Louis Blériot crash landed his plane in the English Channel in July of 1901, Selfridge had the plane packed and on a train by 2am and on display in his store by 10am.  50,000 people had showed up the next day to see it!   By 1928 his store had doubled in size to what we see today. (sourceVisual Merchandising, by Tony Morgan)

A window display from Selfridges in the 1920s:

Even then displays weren’t only about the merchandise but in creating a whole elaborate scene reflective of the times.

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