Big Stores Changed Retail With Hands-On Shopping

This week we are exploring the evolution of the American shopping experience. Audie Cornish speaks with Jan Whitaker, who has researched the history and influence of the department store.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to get a little help now from Ebenezer Scrooge to set up this next conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ebenezer Scrooge) I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.

CORNISH: The past, the present and the future and the lessons they teach. When Scrooge finally learns his lesson in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," what's the first thing he does? He buys a gift - a Christmas turkey. Well, for the next three days, we're going to explore the past, present and future of that holiday tradition: buying things - how and where we do it.

Today, the retail past. And we're joined by someone who knows a bit about that, Jan Whitaker. She's written about the history of the department store in two recent books. Jan, welcome.

JAN WHITAKER: Thank you.

CORNISH: So what was the original idea behind the department store? And I don't know if there's an early store you can point to that, sort of set the standard?

WHITAKER: Well, the first store is normally seen as Bon Marche in France. And like many of them, it developed out of a sort of a yard goods type of store that sold fabrics, mainly. And then there was this expansion into all different areas. But - so it might seem that the department store was born because of its convenience to the consumer. There's an argument that it was a convenience to the merchants because they were able to sort of hedge their bets so you could have merchandise from all seasons and things that sold better a certain time of year.

CORNISH: Now, once the department store makes its way to America, what are the things that essentially revolutionized shopping?

WHITAKER: Well, one thing that really was different was that people were able to actually touch the merchandise. So in the earlier stores, when you were buying fabrics, everything was behind the counter. A lot of things were kept in cabinets and drawers, and they were all sort of - the sales clerk was often a man in some of the stores, really ruled over that merchandise and would not always claim to understand what you wanted to see, and it was very frustrating for shoppers. And so the ability to see these things up close and to actually touch them, that was all very new.

CORNISH: And was there a kind of class element to this? Was there something for the upper classes or lower classes?

WHITAKER: The department store really is, I would say, for the middle. Really, it was not that appealing or affordable to the very poor. And the very rich, they preferred to go have their clothes handmade, for example. And they really did not want to go mix with the crowds because sometimes these stores could get very crowded. And, you know, if you were a wealthy person, the meaning of your wealth was that you never had to get into things like that, so they tended to avoid them.

CORNISH: What do you consider the golden age of the department store, and at that time, just how elaborate could the top department store be?

WHITAKER: They could be very elaborate. I would say, you know, in the United States, the golden age probably stretched from the 1890s through slightly after World War II. Of course, we had the Depression in there, and that wasn't too golden for anyone. But they could be very elegant in the '20s when the competition was fierce. They, you know, would put chandeliers, especially on the first floor, and just decorated the place. They had marble floors, some of them.

They would have free fashion shows. They would put on all kinds of art displays, and they would have free concerts with sometimes the city's orchestra playing, especially during the holiday season. So they really tried hard to attract people in their doors.

CORNISH: So the department stores of today don't necessarily have chandeliers and don't occupy the same place, but they are still department stores, and what do they represent today?

WHITAKER: Well, some of them actually really have remained very traditional. I think that is maybe somewhat less true in this country but in - if you went to Paris, for example, you know, there are still stores that are very elegant and have kept a lot of the flash factors, you might say. It really does vary a lot from country to country. But there still is that convenience factor also, which is real, of having - being able to do a lot of shopping under one roof and not go out into the weather and that sort of thing.

CORNISH: Well, Jan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WHITAKER: Oh, you're very welcome. I enjoyed it.

CORNISH: Jan Whitaker. Her books about the department store are called "The World of Department Stores" and "Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class." And tomorrow, we'll be visited by the ghost of retail present as we continue our exploration of shopping past, present and future.

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