The First<br>Department Store

The First<br>Department Store

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The First<br>Department Store

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The First<br>Department Store

The First<br>Department Store

The First<br>Department Store
The First<br>Department Store
The First<br>Department Store

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The First
Department Store

 By Brian H. Scott

Hercules Poirot would have to enlist C. Auguste Dupin, Inspector Maigret, and the whole Paris police force to establish with absolute certainty the identity of the world's first department store - even if it was a French store, as it almost surely must have been. There are many suspects in this retailing detective story, but few solid clues. England's Equitable Pioneer's Society Ltd., which opened in Rochdale, England, in 1844, has been nominated by a few writers, but Equitable probably didn"t evolve into a true department store until much later. The same applies to New York's A. T. Stewart's, founded in 1826, New York's Lord & Taylor, which opened in the same year, and at least fifty other early stores.

The department store does not derive directly from the medieval fair or the bazaar, despite the fact that it is composed of a number of 'stores" gathered in one place. As Ralph Hower put it in his groundbreaking study of Macy's:

"In contrast with those amorphous antecedents, the department store is not a haphazard agglomeration of independent enterprises. It is a formally created and managed organization, with a hierarchy of control culminating in one man or, at most, a mere handful of executives. It has an intricate and responsive nervous system and an alert brain, so that it can adjust quickly to new situations and ideas. It anticipates public demand and tries to direct it into certain channels. The fair and the bazaar . . . were essentially passive retailing institutions, depending on the active participation of the consumer to determine what goods should be offered and the prices at which they should be sold. The modern department store is far from passive. By means of skilled advertising, special exhibitions, and tempting bargains, it actively attempts to influence our behavior."
There may have been true department stores in the shadows of the pyramids, in ancient Corinth, or perhaps around the corner from the Forum on the banks of the Tiber. Cleopatra may have bought her aphrodisiacs for Antony at a bargain sale in an Alexandria department store. But that is all guesswork. As far as anyone knows, the first true department store arose in France in the mid-nineteenth century. The best evidence ascribes its beginnings to Bon March"of Paris. Founded as a small shop in 1838, Bon March"began to assume the proportions of a department store by the early 1850s. Paris even at that time had a long history as a retail and fashion center, its Mercer's Bazaar, called The Pardis des Femmes and very similar to a modern shopping center, dating back to 1300. According to Thomas Costain in his novel The Moneyman, a department store existed in France as early as 1450, but the store he describes was probably just a large specialty shop. Even at the time Bon March"was founded, Paris was noted for these large retail stores employing up to 100 people and going by such colorful names as The Lame Devil, The Poor Devil, The Little Sailor, The Two Maggots, The Iron Mask, and the Beautiful Farmer's Wife.

Bon March" whose name means "cheap" or a bargain in French, was started by Aristide Boucicaut as a small retailAristide Boucicaut shop selling piece goods. Little is known about Boucicaut, but journals of the day say that he founded the store with hardly any capital. The son of a fairly prosperous hat-maker, Boucicaut was employed by a manufacturer of novelties and worked as a clerk in a large dry goods store on the Rue du Bac before he and his friend Paul Videau pooled their limited resources to open a small shop on the same street. This little man, no bigger than Napoleon and ultimately much more successful, was destined to lay the foundation for the world's enormous department store industry. He was nearly forty-three when he went into business for himself - an old man for the day - but from the very beginning he proved a source of fresh, innovative ideas. Since the neighborhood was a poor one, Boucicaut gave away needles and thread to lure customers into the store. Little by little, saving, purchasing wisely, and organizing with rare intelligence, he built his shop into a great emporium that did an annual volume of over $1,400,000 by 1862. All the while he had added to the scope of his operation, branching out from piece goods to women's coats and dresses, underwear, millinery, and shoes until, sometime in the early 18450s, the store assumed the characteristics of a department store.

Boucicaut stuck to his principles at a time when the respected Journal des Economistes denounced the selling of "diverse goods" such as stockings and handkerchiefs in the same store as "horrible." But his timid partner Videau grew frightened of the expansion, agreeing with other retailers that Boucicaut's new ideas were too radical and romantic. "I prefer to leave you to continue your experiments alone," he told his partner. Boucicaut was forced to buy him out in 1863 with money borrowed from another far-sighted French merchant named Maillard - not with the help of Jesuits as some petty shopkeepers whispered.

Aristide Boucicaut's innovations were revolutionary for retail stores of the era; he was far ahead of his time, and when people finally realized he was right, they said, as they usually do, that it was obvious all the while. To begin with, he let customers come in and browse about without any moral obligation to buy. This was a radical idea in an age when merchants commonly instructed their clerks never to let a customer leave without purchasing something; if a customer resisted all blandishments, a clerk was often expected to block his way until the proprietor came to the rescue with more propositions. A vestige of this custom remains today in the superstition some small merchants have that the first customer who enters a store when it opens must be sold something, even if the merchant only breaks even on the deal.

Boucicaut wisely allowed his customers to exchange merchandise they bought or get their money back. His "money-back guarantee" was a new concept that built up his trade substantially, and he reversed the prevalent practice of taking a high profit on goods that turned over slowly. The presiding genius of Bon March'sole his merchandise at a small markup, depending on a rapid turnover of goods to make his profit. Furthermore, he clearly marked all his goods with fixed prices and permitted no haggling between customers and clerk. This was heresy to some shopkeepers; indeed, as late as the eighteenth century, the distribution of handbills by a few daring retailers advertising sales at fixed prices had actually been prohibited by French law, just as merchants had earlier been forbidden by the state to sell more than one kind of merchandise in their shops.

John Wanamaker, who followed in Boucicaut's footsteps, once commented on the uncertainty of trading that prevailed in America before the democratic fixed price. "The law of trading was then the law of the jungle" he said, "take care of number one. The rules of the game were: don't pay the first price asked; look out for yourself in bargaining; haggle and beat the seller as hard as you can. Naturally the purchaser felt that the concessions he secured from the shopkeeper were so much money made for himself. But how little he knew! Most assuredly the storekeeper, butcher or grocer, always added to the price enough to cover what he had learned was what the customer would beat him down to. And when a thing was once sold, it was sold - no returns. Exchanges of goods were rare and discouraged; the return of money was never admissible unless for goods damaged when purchased."

It would be misleading to say that Boucicaut originated fixed prices and all the other new retail techniques he used. The incubation period between the conception of an idea and its realization can be centuries and was almost always at least decades in those days, so no one can say with any assurance that Boucicaut invented marked and fixed prices, low markup and rapid turnover, the money-back guarantee, freedom of entrance for customers, and the display of a wide variety of goods in distinctly separate departments. In the last of these innovations we know that he was certainly anticipated by trading posts, general stores, and cooperative trading societies, while several contemporary merchants fixed prices before him. The hazy origin of the fixed price show just how difficult it is to establish "firsts" for ideas. An undated business care of A. T. Stewart & Company, which could have been issued as early as 1827 or as late as 1841, advises that the firm's prices are "regular and uniform." Adam Gimbel guaranteed fixed prices at his Indiana trading post in 1840, and several New York merchants were advertising one-price as early as 1842. Finally, Quakers Potter Palmer (an early partner of Marshall Field), Rowland Macy, and the founders of Strawbridge & Clothier established one-price cash policies long before their stores became department stores, perhaps because Quaker leader George Fox had urged his followers to eschew sharp bargaining two centuries earlier. Daniel Defoe, in his retailing history The Compleat English Tradesman (1826), observes that English Quakers "resolved to ask no more than they would take upon any occasion whatsoever and chose rather to lose the sale of their goods, though they could afford at some time to take what was offered, rather than abate a farthing from the price they had asked."

Massachusetts law had regulated the price of shoes as early as 1676, and during the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island passed a law fixing prices on many commodities to provide for "the better supply of our troops in the army." Nevertheless, by making fixed prices and other innovative ideas firm policies in his store, Boucicaut created the first true department store, even though his lines of merchandise were at first limited to clothing apparel and textiles. It is interesting to note that Zola visited Bon March"to research Au Bonnheur des Dames, his novel about department stores. When Boucicaut died in 1877, his childless widow Marguerite immediately sold the shares of the business to his employees, who continued its expansion under her guidance until her death a decade later. For many year Bon March"remained the greatest department store in theBon MarchDepartment Store"> world - it did a total business of over $30 million in 1897 - and not a franc's worth of its stock was held outside the people in the store; the leadership of the strictly cooperative venture was vested in three persons elected from the heads of departments by the employees. With Bon March" began a new thing under the sun, the age of les grands magasins in Paris, with great stores like the Printemps joining its ranks. At Les Grands Magasins du Louvre, founded in 1855, which was inspired by Boucicaut's success but catered to a higher class clientele, home furnishings departments and others were added, and soon three were practically no restrictions on what the department store could sell. Indeed, so successful did Bonn March"become that stores all over the world actually adopted its name!


 
 
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The First
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