Giving the Gifts
The holidays are rapidly approaching. Have you finished your holiday shopping?
Actually, I quite like shopping, whether for the holiday season, or just a leisure activity.
The process of consumer buying has changed drastically over time. Initially, people grew their own food, made their own clothes and were generally independent. What goods and services they could not provide for the family were obtained through trade and barter. As populations formed small towns and villages, a merchant class was born. Each town had a “high street” where small shops sold their products. Green grocers, drapers, pharmacies lined the streets and shoppers (usually women) could purchase their goods, socialize, and stop for a cup of tea.
Larger cities, too, had multiple specialty shops selling home goods, clothing, foodstuffs. Usually these shops tended to be in proximity so that buyers could go from shop to shop with ease.
In the mid 1800’s a new establishment was born: the Department Store. Actually, this was a collection of small retail shops under one roof, not the mega store we think of today. In some countries, especially in Asia this is still the case. Each shop within the building may be privately owned but for the convenience of the public they are in one location, much like our indoor malls.
The first department store, The Bon Marche was opened in Paris in 1852. Of course such stores were soon to be found in other large European cities. The sheer size of the building, the enormous selection of items for sale and the lavish décor made this shopping experience hugely successful. While the women in small towns could enjoy a few hours on the “high street”, the shoppers in large cities could spend an entire day. The store provided amenities such as “refresh rooms”, cafes, fashion shows. Public transportation was available for the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. Another important feature of these businesses was the freedom to “window shop”. That is, see the items for sale, and actually, in some cases touch and inspect them. Prior custom was counter service where a staff employee would assist the customer. There was an underlying obligation to actually buy what was presented.
Popular department stores became landmarks for their cities, for instance Harrod’s, the largest such shop in the UK, and Macy’s (originally R.H. Macy & Co.) The flagship store on Herald Square in NYC has over 1.1million sq. feet of retail space.
The pleasure factor of such a shopping experience has been dramatized in such productions as The Paradise, a BBC & Masterrpiece adaptation of Emile Zola’s work “Au Bonheur des Dames” set in NE England (not in original Paris) and Mr. Selfridge. Harry Selfridge founded Selfridges on Oxford Street, London in 1909.
These large establishments have remained for today’s shoppers (and tourists). While in Berlin this spring, my husband and I visited Ka De We, reportedly the largest department store in the world. It was truly magnificent.
|Wine bar at Ka De We
|In-store display of white asparagus and tomatoes at Ka De We
|Of course, a wonderful array of pastry at Ka De We
Many department stores were faced with the emigration of families to the suburbs, where once again small, independent stores formed “strip malls”. The evolution of the Mall became large indoor areas of individual shops, with large parking lots. Amenities include restaurants, cinemas, travel agencies and banking and beauty salons. Many also include large grocery stores so that it is truly a one-stop shopping experience.
However, this retail evolution is not yet complete. A vast amount of “retail therapy” is now done on-line. The ease of internet shopping and the vast array of merchandise available has become a boon for the busy household. Sit by your computer in your robe and slippers, peruse the many, many sites, make your selection, pay on-line and have your purchases delivered to your door, frequently with free delivery, from anywhere in the world.