by: Geoff Ficke

The Great Department Store Visionaries Created Much More Than Vast Retail Palaces

Before the middle of the 19th century retailing was a disorganized, semi-professional business. Small general merchandise stores carried minimal stock levels and were often limited to local goods and produce. Mass production created by the industrial age was just beginning, so quality and availability of product was uneven at best. Brand names were rarely seen on store shelves in different towns, and never in different countries.

This began to change in the middle of the 19th century. As production increased and quality became uniform there was an increasing demand for goods that could make life a bit easier, more enjoyable. For the first time in history, industrial workers had a small amount of extra income. Life was not solely agrarian and so centered around subsistence farming. The opportunity to gather merchandise assortments under one roof, purchase goods in volume and offer a value proposition to consumers was becoming a real option for retailing entrepreneurs.

This void was filled by merchant princes in France, England and the United States initially. La Samaritaine (Paris), Selfridges (London), Marshall Field’s (Chicago), J.L. Hudson (Detroit), Macy’s (New York), Clery’s (Dublin) and John Wannamaker (Philadelphia) were only a few of the vast emporiums that evolved at that time. This led to their replication in major cities in every civilized country in the world. The age of the department stores had dawned, and with it, major adjustments in the economic and social fabric of every country in which they operated.

The department store made it possible and essential to buy in bulk. This created the need for mass production of a wide variety of products. The result was the evolution of whole new industries to fill the new demand. This in turn resulted in fresh economies of scale and lowering of price points for many goods.

The department stores began to search the world for new sources and types of merchandise. Many established international buying offices. This greatly encouraged the development of the international trade in consumer goods. For the first time, brands could be sold to consumers in all corners of the world.

The department store could organize the widest possible selection of goods and services in dedicated store areas. Shoes, clothing, men’s shops, cosmetics, designer dress boutiques, hosiery, lingerie, millinery, appliances, food and bakery goods, pharmacies, travel agents and more were conveniently organized under one convenient roof.

For the first time in history shopping became a leisure past time. Weather was neutralized. The term “window shopping” was born. The department store democratized the shopping experience. Entry was free. You could walk, look, and browse as you wished. Clerks were trained and available to answer questions about goods on offer in their departments. You were required to purchase nothing as you walked the shopping aisles. There was entertainment on display in these stores.

The sheer size of department stores by the late 19th century and early 20th century created the knowledge of construction techniques and architecture that enabled the coming era of the skyscraper to be possible. Department stores pioneered elements that we have forgotten. One such innovation was regular store hours. Another was restrooms. Tea rooms and restaurants became wildly popular features of every department store. Many had a signature dish or dessert that became a key component of the stores identity.

Gift wrap, home delivery and special orders were introduced by department stores. Reading rooms appeared in a number of stores. One of the great innovations, one that we take for granted today, was the introduction of store consumer credit. This form of credit exponentially increased sales and expanded consumer purchasing power.

In store demonstrations of new products and services were ubiquitous. Every buyer was constantly looking to feature new items through these product performance auditions. What little girl didn’t experience her first contact with skin care products and fragrance at the cosmetic counter? The offer of samples began in department stores. Buyers knew and recognized the unique tastes and preferences of their clientele and stocked their departments accordingly.

The commercial growth that department stores fomented was spectacular. The social changes were just as profound. Before the rise of the department store women were almost invisible in society. There were few places that a woman could tastefully appear in public. Department stores changed this forever. The popularity and growth of this type of shopping venue laid the ground for early feminism.

Department stores required hordes of employees to operate the offices, operations and selling floors. Overwhelmingly this was accomplished by hiring women. At a time when there were virtually no women involved in management of industrial businesses, they were able to find their place in retail. Many women rose to buyers and department managers.

Cities were built around the anchor points that department stores provided. Transportation grids were created to move shoppers and employees to these behemoth stores. The department store became the template for shopping centers. As the stores thrived, so did the cities that hosted them.

Every city and its citizens identified with the local department store(s) and its unique design and specialties. Kaufmann’s was as much a part of Pittsburgh as the Pirates. Shillito’s in Cincinnati, Thalheimer’s in Richmond, Frost Brother in San Antonio, D. H. Holmes in New Orleans, and dozens of other locally owned department stores were woven into the fabric of their towns.

Alas, the golden age of department stores is over. Until the latter part of the 20th century department stores ruled their trading areas. The families that had founded these retailing empires had died off, entered other businesses or sold their interests to financial asset management houses. Real estate became more important than merchandise sales to many of the new owners. The asset play was more important than a century or more of community service and a history of corporate benevolence.

The Hudson, Field, Dayton, Wannamaker and Lazarus families that walked each day into stores with their names on the door are no longer retailers. The history and provenance that they provided to their cities and customers is gone but not forgotten. There has been a void created by the evolution of the impersonal, standardized 21st century department store. Those of us who grew up with the vintage old line department stores as central to our shopping and lifestyle experience know what has been lost.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.