Meet the Man Who Invented Shopping as We Know It Today

I adore shopping. It’s something I’ve taught myself to do and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve become good at it. But these days whenever I enter yet another gleaming retail temple, I’m always painfully aware of the labour that’s gone into creating the goods that are now presented in upmarket and sometimes opulent splendour for my delectation. There’s always another setting that is not seen, but that I think about.

This is what struck me most about Seduction in the City, a wonderful documentary screened on SBS, a government-funded Australian TV channel, last Wednesday night. It was a fascinating program about the birth of the modern department store. Many innovations that we take for granted today are incremental. But if the show is to be believed, the entire department store concept as we experience it today seems to have been dreamed up by a visionary marketer, the French entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut.

Boucicaut owned one of the world’s first department stores, Le Bon Marche. It started off as a dry goods store in 1838 but after 1852 Boucicaut began to innovate, and he was spurred onto greater things by the World Fair that was hosted by Paris in 1855. The innovations he pioneered, and that we now can’t imagine life without, include price tags, the ability to return goods, on-site toilets, lifts, home delivery, sales, store catalogues, relying on high turnover to sell goods with a low mark-up, and the very idea of browsing. According to academic Sally Feldman, ‘The freedom to wander and gaze without having to buy ... was the most arresting feature of the very first department store’. And this, of course, is what still seduces us today.

Most important of all, Boucicaut decided that he was not just selling individual goods, but a lifestyle. Boucicaut’s consumer paradise offered customers more than the satisfaction of material needs. He was selling consumer desire itself.

Boucicaut was decades ahead of his time, but not just through his concept of an inviting store that would offer a complete experience. He focused on a target market that was ignored and denigrated at the time by a sexism that had permeated every discourse: women. Patriarchy was at its intellectual height and science was ‘proving’ that women were both weak and, to put it plainly, stupid.

Ironically, department stores became portals to female emancipation. They got women out of the house and into the public sphere and gave them objects of desire and aspiration. They created new public spaces that welcomed the presence of women, and developed the idea of consumerism. They gave jobs and a measure of independence to young women who came to capital cities and obtained work as shop assistants.

With half the population radically disempowered, leisure shopping for the first time offered women not only a public space where they were valued, but a dazzling array of consumer choices. Is it any wonder that so many women still adore leisure shopping today?

Continuing the tradition
Australian online shopping is way behind the USA and the UK both in popularity and the choices available to customers. Australian department stores and shopping centres are still undergoing stunning and opulent refurbishments in a bid to immerse customers in a seductive bricks-and-mortar experience. In late 2009 Chadstone Shopping Centre opened a new luxury precinct where shoppers stroll in light-filled splendour past elegant, architected-designed spaces housing international luxury brands. Myer’s flagship department store, a Melbourne institution, unveiled its dramatic architectural redesign (pictured above) in March this year.

I visited Myer’s Mural Hall in the city centre on the weekend. The 1933 hall, restored as part of the recent renovation, is a grand art deco space on the sixth floor of the main building, with a striking double staircase that sweeps down from twin balconies and three huge, ornate chandeliers. A series of murals around the walls that are set in decorative panels celebrate the achievements of women. Given that the murals were painted decades before second wave feminism, they attest to the importance of women as a target market at the time, and the need for the store’s design to contribute to women feeling good about themselves.

Behind the scenes
Watching the beautifully produced Seduction in the City, with its recreations of a nineteenth-century department store complete with quaint rows of wooden drawers to hold the stock, and elegant ladies in Edwardian costume, I kept thinking about the coal mines that powered the industrial revolution, and the horrific conditions in which the goods had no doubt been produced.

I was saddened to think about how little things have changed – we’ve simply exported the dark satanic mills to China. Indeed the show’s director, Sally Aitken, has written:

Many a time I have marvelled at the ingenuity and the tenacity of the early department store retailers. And many other times I’ve been appalled – their cunning ploys have left us the legacy of a society beset with instant gratification, debt, throwaway goods and endless fashion.
I still get seduced by the gleaming retail temples I visit, although increasingly less so. Simultaneously appalled and enthralled, I keep reminding myself that new models of making, buying and selling are now being developed that are in contrast with this model of consumerism, which is arguably outdated. We just don’t hear about these new models in the mainstream media – a subject for a future blog entry?

The final instalment of Seduction in the City will screen in Melbourne this Wednesday at 8.30 pm.

If you liked this blog entry you might enjoy Last Days of a Dying Behemoth.

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