“Window dressing is, at first glance, so gorgeously useless that it resists all comparison with other derided professions.” – Simon Doonan (Window dresser of Barney’s).
Christmas officially begins on December 25th and lasts for 12 days; however, everyone has their own unofficial “official” start date. For some this might be the first day of Advent, for others Christmas officially begins when the Christmas lights come on in their local town. Many other “Christmas has officially started” traditions revolve around the first Christmas song on the radio, when the Christmas markets open or when the John Lewis and Coca Cola adverts are first broadcast. In many major cities the Christmas season is heralded by the unveiling of the iconic window displays from major department stores such as Selfridges, Harrods, Bloomingdales and Macy’s.
Each year, tourists descend on major cities like London and New York during the festive season, many of them with holiday-window viewing at the top of their agendas. With this in mind, major department stores plan their Christmas window displays over a year in advance in order to outdo their rivals. These displays have become a tourist attraction in their own right, whilst consumers queue and wait impatiently outside the windows to see the unveiling of the cheerfully creative displays.
With department stores revealing their displays earlier and earlier each year, whilst spending more money, how has this tradition grown so much over time and which was the first store to start the much-awaited tradition?
Window displays are now elaborately planned projects, with staff hired specifically to create extravagant displays. However, the birth of the department store Christmas display dates all the way back to the industrial revolution. In the late 1800s, department stores began to invest in plate glass which allowed them to build large windows to display their merchandise. The owner of iconic New York City department store Macy’s, R.H. Macy, saw this as an opportunity but, before that, he had already made significant strides in bringing the Christmas spirit to his store.
In the mid 1800s, Macy’s decided to add something special to the store for the holiday season, so decided to construct a special holiday presentation, before being the first department store to introduce an in-store Santa Clause for children to visit. This was just the beginning, in 1874 Macy’s created the first major Christmas window display which featured a collection of porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”.
Macy’s was seen as more than just a department store; its window displays became iconic and an attraction during the Christmas period. People would travel from afar just to view the spectacular festive creations, thereby becoming a massive marketing tactic.
By the early 1900s, Macy’s had a lot of competition due to the appeal of New York City to large retailers. Rivalry was always rife throughout the year, but it reached its pinnacle during the Christmas season. In order to outdo their rivals, many store owners began to invest in window displays with the aim of creating the most elaborate spectacles.
With Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman all setting up shop in New York City, and investing heavily in window displays, the competition to see who could create the most extravagant display reached new heights. More and more money was being spent whilst advancements in technology helped to upgrade the exhibitions and dictate future displays.
This tradition was not exclusive to our friends across the Atlantic; iconic UK department store Selfridges (ironically founded by an American) adopted the festive institution prompting its rivals, such as Harrods, to invest in their own spectacles, thus becoming tourist attractions in the capital in their own right.
The time and resource needed to create these displays was significant; themes plotted more than a year in advance and renowned designers, directors, artists and craftsmen were used to build a spectacular and unique set. Window designer for Lord & Taylor, Manoel Renha, once told the New York Times “It’s no different than a small Broadway production…It’s very elaborate”.
Despite the digital age, where online shopping has become the forefront of consumerism, the need for retailers to come up with unique window displays, especially around the Christmas period, is still crucial. It is estimated 70% of shoppers emphasise the importance of physically experiencing products, and having face-to-face interaction with staff, before making a purchase.
Just like the annual iconic Christmas adverts, Christmas window displays are still very important to a retailer’s success, indicating that a consumer’s experience is still at the heart of the company. Lord & Taylor estimates that 500,000 people pass by its windows daily, thus increasing footfall into the store whilst Macy’s clocks 15,000 people per hour during the holiday season, up from the typical 10,000 per hour.
Christmas windows are not the ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’; combining theatre with connectivity and consumerism, they remain vital in tempting consumers to make purchases, whilst having a positive impact on local communities and providing a great sense of festive spirit. What began as a retailer marketing strategy quickly became an iconic Christmas experience.