The Bon Marche
Advertising, aside from traditionally acceptable methods, was rejected almost out of hand, and apparently the idea that consumption could be encouraged through price or service innovations never occurred to these merchants. If it did, it too was evidently dismissed as beyond the pale of respectable practice. Hence turnover was simply not a marketing concept, and profits were sought strictly through the medium of high prices on individual sales. Nor was any attempt made to turn buying into a pleasant or convenient experience. The idea of 'shopping' was, for all practical purposes, non-existent, as entry into a shop entailed an obligation to make a purchase. Returns or even exchanges were unheard of. Indeed caveat emptor was the ruling doctrine of the day. Consumers were offered neither fixed nor marked prices to guide their way, and the common practice was to sell only after a long period of bargaining—and probably haggling—over the price. Undoubtedly some shopkeepers were scrupulous, but the image handed down to us is that many others were not, and most likely one entered a shop prepared for deception rather than service.
Why, with this lack of merchandising finesse, the shopkeepers of Paris should have nevertheless embellished their boutiques with lavish trappings is uncertain. Perhaps it was simply a matter of personal pride. Perhaps as well it was simply another example of their rudimentary understanding of marketing, since most shopkeepers—for the most part dependent upon credit sales and hence frequently lacking sufficient working capital—could ill afford to squander their initial investment on outlays that accorded so little with their merchandising philosophy.
Just when the critical shift began to occur in this pattern is questionable. Some of the most successful of the magasins de nouveautes—the Coin de Rue, the Petit Saint-Thomas, the Deux Magots—could trace their origins as far back as the Restoration. But ownership in these early years was not always the same as later on, and it is unlikely that there was much difference at the beginning between these stores and the other small shops of the period. By the 1830s, however, there were definite signs of change—advertisements from the late 1830s called attention to fixed and marked prices—and with the 1840s one could truly begin to speak of magasins de nouveautes which had broken radically with the commercial traditions of the past.
The term magasins de nouveautes, or drapery and fancy goods store, may not in itself seem indicative of great change, and indeed these stores dealt almost exclusively in dry goods—silks, woolens, cloths, shawls, lingerie, hosiery, gloves, ready-to-wear, and the like, plus occasionally items like furs, umbrellas, and sewing goods. Yet for the times this constituted a revolutionary grouping of what were still regarded as diverse sets of specialties, and almost immediately there were complaints from the tradition-minded small merchants. The new stores were revolutionary as well in their organization along departmental rather than general merchandising lines and especially in their pioneering use of new merchandising techniques. The Ville de Paris, by far the largest magasin de nouveautes in the 1840s (it claimed a workforce of 150 employees and a yearly sales volume of 10-12 million francs in 1844), was now selling at low prices for high turnover. It also used fixed and marked prices, permitted free entry, and was willing to exchange or reimburse 'purchases that are not entirely satisfactory.' Advertising, no longer suspect, was welcomed as a valuable sales tool.' Likewise, if the dating of an 1844 catalogue from the Petit Saint-Thomas is correct, this left-bank firm had learned the value of buying in bulk quantities at discount prices from suppliers in order to pass the merchandise on at low retail prices to its clientele. The catalogue referred to a mail-order service that the store had recently organized, and it added that 'knowing very well that low prices do not entirely suffice to satisfy the consumer, we see to it that he finds in our store the complaisance and politeness that he has the right to expect, as well as the freedom to view the merchandise without being harassed to buy it.' In addition, by at least the end of the decade the Petit Saint-Thomas was offering annual special sales. No wonder, then, that the public in the 1840s began to look to extraordinary images to express their amazement with the commercial changes occurring about them. One account spoke of 'monster stores' (and already was complaining of their bureaucratic character). Another, the 1847 Almnanach Prophetique, perhaps only half in jest, painted scenes of a future of magasins so vast that omnibuses would be required to transport customers from one department to another.
If there was an unmistakably fantastic side to the Almanach Prophetique's vision, there was an equally unmistakable realization that what had occurred in the 1840s was only the beginning of a far greater commercial revolution, as the succeeding two decades were to prove. In the 1840s the Ville de Paris had been an anomaly. In the 1860s the average large store had a sales volume of 10-12 million francs a year. By the end of the decade there were stores with annual sales volumes twice as large and with staffs of perhaps as many as 500 employees.
Advertising was now common and extensive, including the use of full-page ads that frequently announced enormous lots for sale. In February 1853 the Coin de Rue had 3,000 rolls of Madapolam cloth and 1,500 robes albanaises for sale. In 1862 the Ville de Paris advertised a lot of 3,000 dozen cloth napkins. In April of the same year the Bon Marche was announcing a sale of 1,500 parasols. 'Perhaps even more telling of the period than numbers was a sense of the maturing of the magasins de nouveautes, of the standardization and more assured exploitation of the new merchandising practices. The average magasin de nouveaiites now sold only for high turnover at low and fixed prices, offered exchanges, permitted free entry, and generally stressed an ambiance agreeable to the consumer. Expositions or sales were becoming a semi-regular feature. The principle of organization by departments had become fundamental. Hierarchical chains of command were developing.
Among the magasins de nouveautes established in these decades could be found nearly all of the future leading department stores of Paris. In addition to the Bon Marche, whose story we shall explore shortly,15 there were the beginnings of the Louvre and the Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville in the mid-1850s, and the Printemps in 1865. The early years of the Louvre, which was to be the Bon Marche's principal competitor in the prewar era, reveal both the difficulties that many of these stores faced at their start and the rapid growth that could come with perseverance.
The store's beginnings can be traced to the decision to build a grand hotel—to be situated between the newly constructed rue de Rivoli and the Palais Royal and hence to be called the Hotel du Louvre—in preparation for the exposition of 1855. The original project, supported by Louis Napoleon and promoted by Emile Pereire, the Saint-Simonian who was to become one of the leading financiers of the Second Empire, called for a series of arcade shops along a part of the new hotel's exterior. But when Pereire found few merchants willing to lease the shops, he agreed to a proposal of Alfred Chauchard and Auguste Heriot to lease the ensemble as a magasin de nouveautes. As is often the case with the founders of these stores, the backgrounds of Chauchard and Heriot remain obscure, although we do know that the former had been a clerk at another magasin de nouveautes, the Pauvre Diable. This too forms part of a familiar pattern—that of ambitious men with training at one store seeking the financial support of another party (Chauchard and Heriot turned to a certain Fare) and then launching their own enterprise or buying into partnership.
The opening, in 1855, was less than grand. Management was poor, employees were not paid with regularity, and one of the cashiers made off with part of his receipts. Partly because of this, partly because Chauchard and Heriot wisely chose to plow their profits back into the operation. Fare withdrew. A new organization, backed by Pereire and several other investors and capitalized at 1,100,000 francs, was then formed, with Chauchard and Heriot in full command of the enterprise. Several more years of struggle and discouragement followed, but in 1861 sales volume finally advanced from a steady 5,000,000 francs to more than 7,000,000 francs, and five years later it totaled 13,000,000 francs. By the end of the following decade the Louvre was to be the first store to reach the then fabulous turnover of 100,000,000 francs in one year. By that time as well, the now Grands Magasins du Louvre had acquired ownership of the hotel and occupied a fair portion of the original building.
France was not alone in such developments. Indeed if the Ville de Paris caused something of a sensation in Paris in the 1840s, A.T. Stewart's 'Marble Palace' must have created an even greater stir among New Yorkers. Stewart was one of those enterprising young men who were quick to profit from New York's growing hold over the nation's trade in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Buying his goods at auction and then selling wholesale to outlying New York merchants or to country merchants who came to the city to order their own goods, Stewart was able to amass, alongside his retailing profits, a sufficient fortune to build in 1846 what was probably the first multi-story building expressly designed to handle a large volume of trade—the first of 'The Marble Palaces' built by comparable enterprises. Like his Parisian confreres, Stewart's business was predicated upon the new merchandising practices of low markup and low and fixed prices, bulk buying, free entry, and returns. In 1862 he built still another building—this time a 'Cast Iron Palace'—and by mid-decade he had an annual sales volume of perhaps as much as 50,000,000 dollars (although the bulk of this trade—2,000,000 dollars—was in wholesale).
An unparalleled success for his day, Stewart nevertheless had his limitations. Rather than seeking further growth by diversifying his lines, he remained confined to the basic dry-goods trade and instead chose to expand through backward integration. There was some merit in this strategy. But Stewart's grasp exceeded his organizational means. At the time of his death, in 1876, store sales had begun to decline, and gross mismanagement by Judge Henry Hilton, who came into possession of the firm following Stewart's death, turned decline into decay. In 1896, little more than an architectural carcass, A.T. Stewart's passed into the hands of John Wanamaker of Philadelphia.
Stewart's was by far the largest store in mid-century America, but in many ways it was simply the most prominent example of a trend towards innovative retailing throughout the country. Other innovative and growing stores in New York in the 1850s and 1860s included Lord and Taylor; Arnold, Constable and Co.; and Macy's. The latter's sales volume was not yet impressive—only 1,024,621 dollars in 1870—but it was far more diverse than either Stewart's or the Parisian stores at this time, selling house furnishings, toys, stationery, and books in addition to dry goods. In Philadelphia John Wanamaker was beginning his pioneering work in advertising and publicity. In Chicago, Marshall Field's had by 1870 amassed a sales volume of 2,000,000 dollars in retailing and 13,000,000 dollars overall, if wholesale trade is included. Meanwhile, if British retailers were somewhat more sluggish than either their French or American counterparts, there were several notable exceptions, such as Whitely's of London. Opened only in 1863, Whitely's over the next ten years brought together in one enterprise ten neighboring shops that employed, altogether, 622 individuals. In 1872 Whitely took for himself the name of the 'Universal Provider,' although at the time this represented more pretensions than reality.
The simultaneous occurrence of a retail revolution in France, America, and, to some extent, England in the mid-nineteenth century has led to something of a mini-debate over which country produced the first genuine department store. Largely because most accounts have tended (and still tend) to credit the Parisians with this invention, Ralph Hower devoted a fair portion of his study of Macy's to demonstrating that American retail developments paralleled rather than imitated those in France. Not surprisingly, Hower stressed diversification of merchandise lines as the key element in the development of the department store, thus placing Macy's well near the head of the pack. Whether such debates are fruitful, let alone resolvable, is, at best, questionable. Perhaps more useful purposes can be served—as in a sense Hower was attempting to point out—by stressing the commonness of the phenomenon rather than by seeking out honors among individual stores. From the above account it should be clear that between 1840 and 1870 a significant change in retailing took place on both sides of the Atlantic and that by the 1870s this had led to the emergence of commercial enterprises which roughly were approximating—in their size, their organization and practices, and especially their unity of conception—what we have come to know as the modern department store. Whether the first of these was the Bon Marche of 1869, the later but more diverse Macy's of the 1870s and 1880s, John Wanamaker's 'New Kind of Store' of 1877, or perhaps even the Stewart's of the 1840s may be left to the individual reader to decide.