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A History of Visual Merchandising in Retail Stores

Updated on April 18, 2008

In our current, consumer-oriented culture, people do not shop merely to obtain items they need, but also to satisfy their wants. Frequently, shopping does not even involve making a purchase. For consumers, window-shopping has become a popular pastime. Visual merchandisers create "miniature worlds" for merchandise in an effort to attract the attention of consumers, draw them into the store and keep them coming back in the future. Despite the advanced techniques seen in visual displays, visual merchandising is not a new concept or art. As early as the 18th century, merchandise was staged in interesting and unique arrangements to attract consumers.

The Early Stores

Prior to the late 18th century, when the contemporary methods of visual merchandising began to evolve, store owners and managers cared little for the appearance of their stores and the presentation of merchandise. Very little merchandise was displayed within the store. Rather, a customer would enter the store and speak with the retailer, who would then present merchandise that was kept in a back room. "Sales talk" and an ability to persuade were very important in convincing a customer of the quality of a product and making a sale. The evolution in store design brought about a new "process" of shopping. It was not longer a verbal engagement between retailers and customers, but now a "sensory experience". The first step in the evolution of store design occurred when small stores began to display their merchandise openly to the public, instead of keeping it stored in back rooms. Eventually, the deliberate displaying of goods became an important tool for retailers. What was once unattractive stores that were not meant to visually appeal to consumers, slowly became exciting shopping venues.

The Development of Arcades

The second step in the evolution process occurred in Europe during the beginning of the 19th century with the development of arcades. Arcades, or passages, were covered streets that were constructed using iron and glass. Historically, they can be traced back to bazaars of the Arabian Peninsula and Asia Minor. The experimentation with new materials greatly improved the aesthetic qualities of the shops that were housed within the arcades. The main features of the arcades were their glass skylights, which often stretched the entire length of the passageway. The skylights created a completely enclosed, visually stimulating shopping environment. Unfortunately, the skylights were extremely expensive and caused many technical difficulties. Also, the visually appealing shopping area that the arcades created outside, usually did not extend to inside of the shops. Therefore, the arcades became mainly associated with observers who were just out to walk around - not necessarily shop.

The Establishment of the Grand Expositions

The establishment of the Grand Expositions marked the next advance in the evolution of store design. The Grand Expositions, which began in London in 1851 with the Crystal Palace Exposition, were originally meant to present and demonstrate new technology. The exposition soon became huge, crowded fairs in which merchandise was displayed in exotic and elaborate settings. The retailers learned that they would be more successful if they displayed their merchandise openly and in a strategic manner to the public. They also observed that it was better to not place objects directly on the floor, but rather on platforms or pedestals - raising the merchandise closer to eye level. This emphasis on deliberately displaying merchandise in a manner that would be pleasing for the consumer was an important innovation in the development of visual merchandising. Displays were often themed, creating an atmosphere of a distant and exotic land. For example, the 1899 Paris Exposition included a replica of a street in Cairo, Egypt, complete with belly dancers. The retailers wanted the people coming into the exposition to feel as if they had just stepped into another world. According to Maurice Talmeyr, a social critic and journalist, "The Grand Expositions contained Hindu temples, savage huts, pagodas, souks, Algerian alleys, Chinese, Japanese, Sudanese, Sengalese, Siamese, and Cambodian quarters - a bazaar of climates, architectural styles, smells, coulours, cuisine, and music."

The Rise of the Department Store

The rise of the department store, or grand emporium, in the 19th century brought more changes in store design and visual displays. The early department stores continued with the idea of displaying merchandise in elaborate and luxurious setting. Techniques that were previously used in small dry goods stores, expositions, and arcades were experimented with, and either used or rejected. The department stores of the 19th century transformed the concept of visual merchandising in four ways. In doing so, merchandise display was made one of the most important aspects of the shopping experience.

The World Expositions only occurred every few years in a small number of large cities throughout Europe, and, eventually, in the United States. The department stores were open everyday, with the exception of religious holidays. The first department that the department stores made in regards to the concept of visual merchandising entailed making the display techniques that were used in the World Expositions a part of day-to-day shopping. The department store retailers were able to not only bring these techniques to their stores, but with them, the sense of "the experience" that people enjoyed while attending the expositions.

The second transformation that the early department stores made was in the use of luxurious store interiors that surpassed even the most lavish arcade. They utilized many of the same techniques and materials used in the construction of the arcades in an effort to bring the outside to the inside. In describing Paris' Bon Marché, the first department store, Michael Miller stated, "The iron columns and expanse of glass provided a sense of space, openness, and light. Immense gallery opnened upon immense gallery, and along the upper floors ran balconies from which one could view, as a spectator, the crowds and activity below. Like the Bon Marché, many department stores used a gallery design with an "open" interior that allowed customers on the first floor to see up to the other floors, enticing them to explore these other areas.

These early department stores strived to exude a sense of luxury, even if it was just an impression. There were huge chandeliers, stained glass, marble, oriental carpets, polished wood, artwork, and balconies. In his articles describing the Bon Marché, Miller states that , "Everywhere merchandise formed a decorative motif conveying an exceptional quality to the goods themselves. Silks cascaded from the walls of the silk gallery, ribbons were strung above the halls of ribbons, and umbrellas were draped full blown in a parade of hues and designs. Oriental rugs, rich and textural, hung from balconies for the spectators below." By displaying ordinary commodities, such as a bolt of inexpensive cloth, in a luxurious setting, these ordinary pieces of merchandise became signs of affluence and wealth. The newly derived value came from staging the product in a luxurious environment. Despite not selling luxury items, this method of visual display led customers to believe that average, everyday products could by symbols of wealth and luxury.

Next, in an effort to convey to consumers that the supply of merchandise was endless, the department store owners displayed their products in an excessive and chaotic manner. Merchandise was often displayed in large and unorganized p8iles and strewn across fixtures. It is said that Aristide Boucicaut, the over of the Bon Marché, enjoyed frequently "hiding" merchandise that customers purchased on a regular basis, therefore encouraging them to search the entire store and, possibly, come across merchandise that they did not originally intend to buy. Goods were also displayed in large volumes. The potential for customers to want, buy, and spend more was great. By displaying merchandise in large quantities, retailers made sure that the desires of the consumer were never fulfilled, therefore, enticing them to return in the future. At this point in time, shortage and scarcity were still threats to large portions of the population. The "endless" supplies in the department stores created a symbolic meaning of surplus.

Lastly, the department stores of the 19th century continued and perfected the use of themed displays, similar to those that were used in the World Expositions. Like the expositions, products were often presented in exotic themed displays, with favorites including portrayals of Parisian rooms, Ancient Arabia, Japan, and Egypt. In the 19th century, possession of exotic items from places such as the Orient, Africa, and Near East, became "fashionable". However, authentic exotic artifacts were very expensive. By displaying goods in these arrangements, the symbolic qualities of the exotic were rendered on average items, thus fulfilling a once unattainable desire for the consumers. Also, merchandise was displayed in "real" scenes. For example, rather than displaying a lamp on a shelf, it would be displayed in a replica of a living room, which would include a mannequin family.


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    • profile image

      Allysa Katherine Perez 

      8 years ago

      is this the examples of Retailing (Store) and it's BRIEF History? please reply.

    • profile image

      londjana gashi 

      8 years ago

      well...ermm this helped me a little bit but could someone please pick out the most important bits for me because i cant seem to do it thanks

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      9 years ago

      Very well explained in easy language and examples are very useful and appropriate.

    • profile image

      Sandeep Soni 

      9 years ago

      This is really helpful. Can I use it in my project

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      9 years ago

      good and quite informative.


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