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holiday retail display

Photo: Library of Congress

The holiday season in major cities around the world is typically heralded by seasonal window retail displays put up by department stores and retailers large and small.

We can trace their beginnings back to the industrial revolution.

The widespread availability of plate glass in the late 1800s allowed shop owners to build large windows spanning the full lengths of their shops for the display of merchandise.

This is when the notion of window-shopping was born.

One of the first major holiday window displays was put up by Macy’s New York store in 1874. It featured a collection of porcelain dolls and scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

It was not until the early 1900s that competition for grabbing the attention of customers intensified among the largest retailers in three major cities in the United States –– New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Store owners and managers used window displays to lure window shoppers into their stores; and over the holidays the display were a lot more colorful and creative.

By 1914 Saks was stirring public intrigue at their flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York with the emergence of ‘unveiling events’ for their display window. Hydraulic lifts beneath the windows allowed teams of artisans to work on new designs out of public view.

But it was Lord & Taylor that really pioneered this effort when, in 1938, the owners eschewed the traditional method of presenting store merchandise in favor of a purely decorative display of gilded bells that swung in sync with the sounds of recorded bells.

holiday window display

Photo: Ricky Zehavi, Architectural Digest

This represents the full transition from windows being used to display products to those intended solely as a marvel to draw people to the store and generate interest and discussion. It was further a physical version of what John Lewis and others would later do, using advertisements as an anticipated event in themselves without including products.

Competition for shopper attention has continuously intensified, and retailers have correspondingly adapted. Window displays appeal to consumers on a number of more unique levels in comparison to TV or online advertisements.

Being physical, a grand display is much more of a marvel than something viewed through another medium. Further, by requiring customers to visit the store to view the window, these displays actively engage the audience.

Over the decades department stores have teamed up with designers, artists and other companies such as for Bergdorf’s 2015 display created with Swarovski. With the capacity for grandiosity and innovation driven by competition, grand window displays can be repeated annually without losing their impact.

Holiday Marketing Takeaway

Create something spectacular that your customers have to enjoy by coming to your store in person.

Table of Contents

Intro150 Years of the Best Holiday Campaigns
Chapter 1 The Genesis of Holiday Window Displays
Chapter 2 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Brings Spectacle to the Season
Chapter 3 How Coca-Cola Invented The Father of Christmas (Or did they?)
Chapter 4 Budweiser Celebrates the End to Prohibition
Chapter 5 Montgomery Ward Employee Invents Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Chapter 6 Campbell’s Soup Speaks to the ’50s Housewife
Chapter 7 Mr. Potato Head Becomes First Toy Ever Televised
Chapter 8 NORAD Tracks Santa’s Journey Around the World
Chapter 9 Norelco Popularizes Stop-Motion Animation
Chapter 10 Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas? Why You’ll Eat KFC in Japan
Chapter 11 Folgers Advertises the Intangible
Chapter 12 Hershey’s Holiday Bells Defy an Ad Agency
Chapter 13 Coca-Cola’s Polar Bears Humanize Global Warming
Chapter 14 Coca-Cola’s Christmas Fleet Brings Truckloads of Cheer
Chapter 15 M&M’s Stumble Upon Santa –– No One is Left Standing
Chapter 16 Starbucks Red Cups Spark Consumer Salivating (and Controversy)
Chapter 17 Target Keeps it Simple with Their Black Friday Catalog Focuses on Price
Chapter 18 Pampers Silent Night Raises $40 Million for Charity
Chapter 19 Give a Garmin Hits on Travel, Humor and Holiday Stress
Chapter 20 John Lewis Focuses on Storytelling Over Brand
Chapter 21 Macy’s Believe Campaign Raises $10 Million, Involves Schools
Chapter 22 American Express Small Business Saturday Supports Local
Chapter 23 Apple Misunderstood Campaign Makes Technology and Family a Priority
Chapter 24 REI’s #OptOutside Campaign Bucks Tradition