Technology and the Rise of Modern Consumerism

The emergence of department stores brought along an era of consumer culture and luxurious experiences that had not yet been associated with the purchasing of goods. The success of department stores signaled a departure from a more conservative and basic society and ushered in an age of consumerism along with economic and social change. Although department stores fell into a decline by the late 20th century, their success helped shape the retail industry and had overreaching effects on the economy (particularly in the popularity of American consumer credit), womens’ place in society and even the architectural style in which department stores were built. The success of department store in the late 1800s to mid 1900s represented a modern era where individuals were solicited by marketing, branding and advertising and learned to exercise their own agency in making purchasing decisions based on value, perceived worth, price and status.

Department stores experienced explosive success majorly due to rapid urbanization and the emergence of the middle class. Especially during wartime, more jobs meant more people with expendable income living in urban centers. Immigration added millions of new customers to these city centers. As cities grew along with a middle class of people with expendable income, so too did department stores. The rise of a more efficient and accessible source of transportation in the form of subways and trains allowed the growing population to converge in downtown areas which created the perfect environment for stores to capture audience attention and become a part of the urban landscape. (HBC) A modern society of consumerism had emerged and department stores were there to anchor and perpetuate it all.

Bigger cities meant bigger stores and department stores did not disappoint on that front. Even by today’s standards of excess, department stores were physically very large. Their size and the technological innovations applied to make the stores a luxury experience paved the way for a new era of building materials more reminiscent of today’s stores than the dry good stores of the past. The sheer size of the department store required the use of new building materials with an emphasis on glass that introduced the rise of the glass panel store front for optimal product display. Heating and cooling were also new amenities that had certainly never been prevalent in stores before. The department stores differed from any vendors in the past in that from the construction of the actual store to the goods and their display, to the employees, the goal of the department store was to create an enjoyable experience where people could browse items without necessarily needing to buy anything. (Tamilia) The large size and exciting features ensured that people came to regard visiting these stores as a form of entertainment and not as a chore.

Customers of department stores were treated to beautifully expansive architecture and services that were newly incorporated into the shopping experience. Restaurants, restrooms, gift wrapping services and more amenities such as the popular tearooms were other attractions that made shopping at a department store an enjoyable form of entertainment. (Zukin)This lavishness reflected a new modern society where it was no longer enough to get basic goods at a basic store; people wanted the thrill and luxury of shopping at department stores and this attitude translated into other areas of society as luxury brands emerged and thrived. (Larson)

Department stores were not just important in shaping the retail experience but they also contributed to the change of some social customs. In the late 1800’s, women still did not venture outside of the house by themselves if they were not accompanied by a man. The public life was essentially exclusively male. Department stores created a space in which it was not uncommon for women to venture out alone and exercise more independence than before. “From the glamorous shoe department to the rococo haberdashery, wives were free to choose lace curtains and table gongs, and so exercise their economy, taste and judgment.” (Cooke) This was an unprecedented movement to create a public space for women and was met with some hesitation but ultimately it allowed women to exercise some agency in the late 19th century. By the early to mid 1900’s, women were not only occupying public spaces and engaging in activism on their own behalves but they were working jobs as a part of the wartime effort and now were able to spend some of their own money. (Leach)

Another of the ways in which department stores completely revolutionized the retail sector was their establishment of trust between themselves and the buyer. In “Under One Roof”, Adam Gopkin describes the establishment of a trust that was gained through fixed prices and the idea of a “satisfaction guarantee.” By fixing prices, neither the buyer nor the seller is left with the impression that they are getting cheated. The idea of negotiating and bartering is completely taken off of the table and that frees up the mental energy and time for the customer to be immersed in the luxury of the new shopping experience offered by department stores. This is evidenced by the emphasis in customer satisfaction displayed in this advertisement for W.M. Burdine’s Sons. (Burdine)

Changing the “nature of the transaction” is just one of the ways in which department stores had a profound impact on the economy. Consumer credit became a part of the new set of societal values and customs represented by the rise of department stores. It was extremely common for shoppers to have credit accounts that they would charge their purchases to. “The use of credit was one reason why the department store rose to such a level of importance in society, from its modest beginnings in the mid-1850s to its golden age in the 1920s”. Credit cards were issued but could only be used at the specific retailers. The first major company to offer consumer credit was Sears in 1911. It wasn’t until the mid 1900’s that universal credit cards were introduced, beginning with Diners Club. (Steiner)

Department stores were the original lifestyle marketers. Initially department stores had rather humble beginnings and were mainly focused on providing low prices but they soon capitalized on advertising techniques to harness consumerism and sell goods to people that otherwise might not have bought them. They didn’t offer nameless soap from a barrel behind the grocers counter, they offered soap beautifully scented and packaged and displayed to suggest the idea that buying a common household item was now a luxury experience in and of itself. Department stores were separated into their different sections of household items, clothing, beauty supplies, etc but they cohesively perpetuated the idea that purchasing goods was a part of this luxury experience  The rise of American consumerism and the idea of shopping as a luxury experience arose from the establishment of department stores. Buying products was not just about the products but rather about what they said about the consumer. As Jan Whitaker points out in “Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class”, department stores gave “material expression to vague ideas of what success, femininity, citizenship, and popularity might mean.” 

Despite the popularity and economic success of department stores initially, their decline was imminent as a new crop of discount stores took over the consumer market in the late 20th century. One of the most referenced department stores that really exemplified the integration of consumer culture and department stores into modern society as well as their demise was Wanamakers. Wanamakers once resided at Astor Place (where KMart now stands) and was built into the subway line so that people could exist the subway and enter the store without ever seeing the street level. The store was multiple levels and enjoyed success in the golden era of department stores but the competitive prices of chains such as Wal-mart quickly presented a problem for luxurious department stores and reflected the agency of a modern consumer in weighing cost versus benefits in product purchasing. That KMart now stands where Wanamakers used to be means that modern consumers chose a shopping experience that emphasizes low cost at the sake of luxury details.  Smaller boutique national brands like Victoria’s Secret now offered a heavily advertised and specific product branding that appealed to consumers who would rather visit individual stores than the different departments of department stores, a trend that continues in modern times. (Gopnik)
Ultimately, the luxury experience that department stores helped to create did cause a modern age of consumerism and heavy marketing to promote certain lifestyles but department stores were unable to compete with the lower prices of discount stores and the branding of smaller stores like the GAP. Their influence of the introduction and rise of consumer credit was revolutionary as it propelled the world, particularly The United States, into a modern age of debt and the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Ultimately, the rise of department stores is most recognizable as signaling a departure from people buying brand-less products that they really needed to more modern era where shopping is considered a hobby or form of entertainment and people buy products that promise them a certain prestige or value.