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Posts Tagged ‘history of retail’

An advertising leaflet of the word’s first department store

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Christmas time is also shopping time, so let’s talk about the history of shopping. The oldest shopping malls were the weekly, monthly, or annual fairs open to all kinds of weather. The rest of the time people had to do with local products. What the shops offered was further restricted by a law that permitted selling only one type of commodity. For instance, umbrella merchants could not sell eye-glasses and vice versa. Poor choice of merchandise was common even in large cities until the appearance of public transport. The first omnibuses in Paris started operating in 1828, and they allowed people to venture out of their neighborhoods.

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The precursor of shopping malls. Toward the first half of the 19th century, glass-ceilinged passages equipped with gaslights and lined with shops and restaurants, married retailing with leisure

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The first shopping malls began as narrow streets provided with glass ceilings. These were called passages, and many are still functioning in Paris. The 1830s saw the birth of magasins des nouveautés. These were novelty shops that offered various commodities organized in distinct departments on several floors around a glass-ceilinged courtyard.

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Railways were the agents of change in shopping

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Past the mid-century, the railway changed all that. Trains brought provincials and foreign visitors, who would have never left their home otherwise. They all wanted to see the sights and to shop, shop, shop. Unfortunately, all Paris had to offer these avid shoppers was the lack of retail space. The rise of the giant department stores begun.

Aristide Boucicaut

The first on the market–and in the world–was Au Bon Marché. Founded in 1838, it survived the competition of the other novelty magazines by shrewd display tactics and remained the leader in innovations. The genius behind modern shopping science was Au Bon Marché’s next owner, Aristide Boucicaut who took over the magazine in 1852. He had many tricks up his sleeve, including placing related merchandise at the opposite ends of the store. You bought fabric in one corner, and to get a sewing thread to put the fabric together, you had to cross the store passing seductive displays of fashion accessories that would enhance the new dress. Nearly all the shopping strategies, including the orgiastic sales that influence us today, were invented by Boucicaut and his clever followers in these early days of mass shopping.

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The most important strategy, still employed today, was to bring people in by promises of a good deal (bon marché in French) and keep them there by offering luxury surroundings and classless hospitality. People came, both wealthy and poor. Upper-class women, for whom the streets were not safe, found there a pleasant change from the confinement of home. For the lower classes, never before invited into a palace, it was a self-esteem building experience. Here, they could enter freely and be waited upon, the same as the rich.

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At the time of Boucicaut’s death in 1887, the Au Bon Marché covered nearly 100,000 square feet, employed 1,788 people, and was earning 77 million francs a year, making it the largest retail business in the world.

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Galleries Lafayette

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Other spectacular shopping temples rose in the streets of Paris, such as Au Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. Both are still on the same level of attraction as the Eiffel Tower.

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Related posts:

Crinolines and Impériales: Public Transport in Paris

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 5: Shopping

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