The department store is arguably the cleverest invention of the industrial revolution. The genius idea of turning wants into needs not only created consumer culture, it also, paradoxically, sowed the seeds of female emancipation.
The department store sells more than just bargains – it sells a new life.
This two-part series reveals the foresight of store entrepreneurs such as Rowland H. Macy, Harry Selfridge, John Wanamaker, Aristide Boucicaut and Sidney Myer, who invented such revolutionary concepts such as easy credit, returns policies, window displays, changing rooms and Santa parades. These dynamic showmen created a theatre of shopping, and in doing so changed the world.
At the store a new cast of characters emerged: multi-millionaire owners and upwardly mobile shop girls. The store inspired writers and artists, and helped nurture the aspirations of middle-class life. For the first time, shoppers of all income levels gathered at the same emporiums. The “bargain basement” delivered egalitarian ideals while breaking down old codes of class distinction.
This new commerce had an underbelly, too. Status anxiety, instant gratification, standardised sizing and debt, all entered the modern lexicon. Shopping for fun also gave rise to a new disease – kleptomania. Some consumers desperate for goods even resorted to prostitution to pay for outstanding bills.
Episode 1: A Genius Idea
The first episode of Seduction in the City introduces viewers to the world’s first department store – created by the cunning and visionary 19th century French entrepreneur, Aristide Boucicaut. His new kind of enterprise changes not only his fortunes, but also the lives of women and modern society forever.
Boucicaut’s store, Le Bon Marché, situated on the left bank of Paris and engineered by the famous Gustave Eiffel, brings together a heady concoction of soaring space, iron balconies, stained glass windows, and luxurious merchandise, together with new ideas in retailing such as elegant displays, free entry and even, price tags. It’s a huge success and his magnificent “cathedral of commerce” is very quickly copied all over the world. Stores like Selfridges in London, Myers in Melbourne and Macy’s in New York develop the idea further, craftily inventing ever more enticing ideas to lure in customers and sell industrial goods in huge numbers. Consumer culture is born.
Episode 2: A Modern Game
The second episode of Seduction in the City reveals the canny secrets of the retail game in the early part of the 20th century. Hopping from department stores in America to England to Australia, the program examines the wily tactics of the world’s greatest retailers.
Philadelphia merchant, John Wanamaker, exploits his religion by being the first vendor to create sales feasts out of Christian festivals: Christmas and Easter, (even inventing Mother’s Day to keep us spending between the shopping doldrums of Easter and summer!) Meanwhile, penniless Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, suppresses his Jewish faith by trading on the Sabbath to fit in with the Anglo majority. And it works. His business grows from pushcart to major city institution in less than a decade. Myer also helps shatter class barriers by the introduction of a department store staple – the bargain basement.
Over in England, the showman, Harry Gordon Selfridge in London dazzles his store ‘guests’ with swanky new inventions – escalators, electric windows and telephones (who needs an iPhone when at Selfridges you could ask one of the restaurant waiters to wheel over a telephone table and call direct from your dining chair?). Selfridge is also the first retailer in the world to bring perfume and cosmetics out of hiding in the basement and into the atrium entrance – changing department store layout forever. However, his enormous store successes come face to face with his dangerous vice – gambling. Selfridge squanders millions of pounds on cards and keeps a string of expensive girlfriends decked in diamonds, notably the identical twin showgirls, The Dolly Sisters. Like all things in Selfridge’s life, his own reckoning is nothing short of spectacular.
Physicist and author Brian Greene, brings us a mind-blowing new exploration of space, time, and the very nature of reality.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
A fresh perspective on the birth of civilisation in the Near and Middle East and its dynamic influence on the West.