Pre-Department Stores

Department stores were an invention of the nineteenth century. However, they were not conceived by Americans. The French created Department stores and then Americans followed their example. A man named Aristide Boucicaut had the first real department store in Paris, France. His dry goods store was called Bon Marche and it was transformed into what we now call a department store. Bon Marche differed from the specialty and dry goods houses that came before in four significant ways.

First, the initial theory of dry goods houses was to sell items with a high mark up and a slow turnover of goods. Boucicaut sold his merchandise at a small mark up. Compensating for this smaller profit margin was the high turnover of goods. The volume of goods sold and the speed at which they were sold differentiated department stores from the ordinary specialty shops and other dry goods stores. Another difference was that goods were offered at a fixed price in Bon Marche. The prices on goods would be the same for every shopper; a certain kind of equality was offered. Previous to this, bargaining in stores was not only allowed but expected. The third conceptual change made by Boucicaut was the custom of free entrance. Every person could enter the shop, inspect the goods, and be free from the obligation of purchasing anything. This denoted a shift in expectations; people were obligated to buy something upon entering the specialty and dry goods stores that came before this. The last major change that was instituted by Boucicaut involved the idea that customers could return the goods they had purchased. If they wanted their money back they could get it or if they preferred to exchange their returned item for something else they were allowed.

Boucicaut's success was impressive. He went from a total of a half- million francs in sales in 1852 to five million in sales in 1860. Because of this boom, Boucicaut diversified his lines of merchandise. He started by selling only piece goods, and expanded to offer dresses, ladies' coats, underwear, and shoes. These new lines were carried in the same store but in separate departments. This change occurred around 1860. Boucicaut's new handling of goods and how they were offered represented the first real department store.

The United States was the first country to follow the French example. Though there were many successful apparel and dry goods stores, many of them did not immediately follow Bon Marche's model. Stores like Lord and Taylor(1826),Jordan Marsh (1841), Macy (1858), Wanamaker (1861), and Marshall Field(1866) still limited their merchandise to dry goods and the traditional retail lines. The first stores in America that followed the Parisian example were A.T. Stewart of New York(that was later a part of Wanamaker),Wanamaker of Philadelphia, and Marshall Field of Chicago. This occurred in America in the 1870's. These stores refer to Boucicaut as their source of inspiration.