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.

holiday retail display

Photo: Library of Congress

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.