Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Department Store Dreams: Fantasizing the Future from the Past

Le Bon Marche and the interior of the old Samaritaine in Paris

In their heyday, department stores were “palaces of consumption,” originally modeled on the great World Exposition of 1900 in Paris. Huge, turn-of-the-century fairs and expos helped usher in the consumer revolution, beginning an era of merchandising centered on fulfilling people’s fantasies through purchases made in a dream-like atmosphere. The rise of the department store from the mid 1850s to the end of 19th century was nothing short of a major revolution, not only for business but also for all of society. In Au Bonheur des Dames, writer Emile Zola skillfully describes these exotic and new places, bursting with fabrics, furs, and frills, with Oriental carpets and curtains recreating a harem-like setting where people were drawn in by awe and amazement. To many, the department store was the home of the democratization of luxury and the fantasy of wealth.

But more than a hundred years later, things have changed and some are wondering about the possibility that department stores are at the end of their lifespan. Both the experience of shopping as a form of entertainment and the availability of affordable beauty have diffused to different sites. Even prior to the current economic downturn, hints that the department store was not fulfilling people’s fantasies abounded. Specialty stores in cities and suburbs have increased their size and scope, whether it’s books, electronics, or high-end fashion. Malls, on the other hand, which are the traditional mooring station for the department store, are working hard to stay afloat. The malls that survive are often smaller, more focused on being entertainment and recreation centers, and provide more leisure rather than shopping activities (restaurants, cinemas, fitness centers, play areas, and day spas all do well, whereas specialty fashion stores and the big anchor box stores do not).

While many critics will point to Wal-Mart as a key factor in department store decline, it seems more likely that the experience of shopping as a leisure and pleasure activity has changed. When the original department stores opened, there was nothing else on the landscape that offered the same kind of variety, exoticism, and glitz in one potentially affordable site. People went to see the window displays and merchandise much in the same way one might go to a museum or show. La Samaritaine in Paris, one of the original department stores full of the latest fashions, was unable to stay out of the red and now awaits transformation into luxury condos. Today malls must add musical fountains, interactive game centers, and IMAX theaters to draw in traffic, none of which is enough to encourage wary shoppers to come out and spend money. What remains of the dream world of consumer fantasy?: Retail shopping in urban centers; Online inspiration provides almost instant gratification (and the collective experience via social media; Speciality stores really do specialize (not a bad thing). Frankly, the world is more densely populated with opportunities for consumption.

The department store, like the mall, may be at a particularly difficult point in its life cycle, occurring at an unfortunate moment in economic and social history. It will take some innovative thinking – and some real awareness of the long-term needs of people and their communities – to resuscitate these retail icons. Whether the new palaces of consumption are real, virtual, or some exciting combination, the story is far from over.

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