The World's First Christmas Window Display

Christmas window displays are sparkling away all over Britain, on high streets, in shopping centres and in the windows of smaller retailers away from the city centre. Everyone realises the value of an alluring festive window to draw the customers in at the busiest time of the year.

The aim is to attract potential customers, who may not normally come in. If the Christmas window display is striking enough to stop passers-by in their tracks, they may wander in for a look, instead of continuing on their way.

Today, it’s commonplace for just about every shop with a large enough window to display their wares to the best of their ability, but how did the now-common practice of window displays begin?


First window displays

The tradition dates back to the 18th century, although at the time, it was only the larger stores in the cities who dressed their windows.

Until this point, the practice had been for shopkeepers to stand in their doorway, actively trying to lure customers in with some self-promotion, while their goods were often stacked up in the window area, in no particular order.

Then, the idea of seasonal window displays began to catch on among savvy shopkeepers in the late 18th century. In London, where the competition was fierce among retail stores even by the 1780s, those with more spacious windows often changed their displays to keep them looking fresh.

A letter written by a visitor to London in 1786 described how the practice of displaying silk, muslin and chintz fabrics for women’s garments in shop windows was a “cunning device”. The window displays enabled customers to see how each material would look when hanging in the folds of a woman’s dress, spurring them into buying it.

The letter was quoted by early 20th century social historian Alison Adburgham, the one-time fashion editor of The Guardian newspaper, as evidence that some retailers were aware of more sophisticated marketing techniques more than 200 years ago.


Department stores

By the 19th century, when the main streets had gas lights and there were more small stores with glass windows, an increasing number of traders had seasonal window displays. With many storeys and large plate glass windows, the department store first arrived in the 1850s.

This heralded a new era for window displays, with fashion goods in particular displayed in room settings on shop window dummies, known as mannequins, for optimum visual impact.

Window displays were exhibiting goods in context and settings, with fixtures, stands and accessories, as well as the mannequins. This led to scope for better seasonal and Christmas displays, with the mannequins in festive surroundings.

The widely-held belief is that the world’s first major Christmas window display was exhibited by Macy’s store in New York in 1874. It featured scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inhabited by a collection of porcelain dolls in costumes from all over the world.

The owner of the legendary department store, RH Macy, saw it as an opportunity to bring more Christmas spirit to his premises. In the late 19th century, Macy’s Christmas window displays became legendary and a visitor attraction in their own right.

People would travel to New York from far and wide to see the spectacular festive windows and this became a hugely valuable marketing tactic.

Other retailers soon followed suit and by the early 20th century, competition for grabbing the attention of shoppers was increasingly intense. The trend was prevalent across America, in particular in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago – home of the majority of major department stores at that time.


Leading UK displays

In the UK, department stores also joined the growing trend for dressing up their windows with Christmas displays.

Selfridges, the Oxford Street department store that was launched in March 1909 by American entrepreneur Harry Selfridge, not only had festive window displays, it was also the first luxury retailer to have a Christmas display that filled almost a whole floor inside the store.

During the 20th century, the trend for creating sparkling Christmas windows grew, until it was unusual for a retailer not to have a festive display.

In today’s competitive retail climate, when the digital age means internet shopping is rivalling the high street, it’s even more important for shopfronts to look as inviting as possible, especially at the busiest time of year.

The need for retailers to come up with unique window displays, especially around the Christmas period, is crucial. An estimated 70% of shoppers enjoy physically experiencing products and interacting with staff face-to-face before making a purchase, so luring them into the store is massively important.

In the same way that annual iconic Christmas adverts on TV can affect retailer’s success, Christmas window displays are also at the heart of their high street presence. A recent study by Lord and Taylor, a historic American department store in Fifth Avenue, New York, estimated that 500,000 people passed by its windows daily.

Even if you entice only a small percentage of customers into the shop at Christmas, this will significantly increase footfall – so an attractive window display is paramount.

Commercial Aluminium Shopfronts (CAS) will supply and install high-quality shopfront windows to your retail premises to add a fresh and inviting feel. Please contact us for details of our products and services – we look forward to hearing from you!

The Commercial Aluminium Shopfronts team would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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