Windows are Still the Show

Even in the Amazon era of retailing, the conversation returns to storefronts at holiday time
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Posted December 4, 2018

Several years ago, about this time of year, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal called to ask me about holiday windows.

How much did they cost? How much did they add to bottom lines? How did retailers justify such a large commitment of dollars and employee time?

I told him those figures would be hard to come by, but that I’d be willing to pass his questions on to some of New York’s visual merchandisers.

Almost everybody I talked to emphasized that those numbers were strictly proprietary. But almost all of them also had variations on the theme enunciated by Simon Doonan, at the time the major domo of Barney’s mischievous holiday windows.

We don’t try to justify the expense, Doonan told me, we do it as a holiday present to the city. Similar sentiments came from Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and others.

The windows were the show. Always had been. I used to love to tell people how VMSD began 121 years ago, as a publication called The Show Window (which debuted, incidentally, near Christmas time). And if you ever heard me talk about it, you know the founder and editor of the magazine was L. Frank Baum, who three years later would write “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.)

But in the past several years, the business side of retail has changed dramatically, and several big-name stores have closed. So do the windows really make sense anymore? That’s the question The New York Times addressed recently in an article entitled “Why Holiday Windows Still Matter” (Nov. 21, 2018). In asking whether holiday windows still matter, it’s also asking whether stores still matter.

In one sense, the answer to the “window question” hasn’t changed much since Doonan’s heyday. The Times article said, “For the most important selling season of the year . . . these [holiday windows] are a family tradition and a tourist destination, a spare-no-expense arms race for delighted gasps, bugged eyes and Instagram feeds.”

David Hoey, Senior Director of Visual Presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, told The Times, “We’re trying to induce aesthetic delirium.”

In other words, the “spare-no-expense arms race for delighted gasps and bugged eyes” continues to be the feel-good, for-the-people enterprise it used to be. Sales may or may not follow.

And that goes for Nordstrom, the newest kid on the Manhattan block, as well as for some of the oldest: Macy’s, featuring its elaborate, classical windows even as it closes hundreds of stores; and Lord & Taylor and Henri Bendel, still going all-out despite the fact that their New York stores will close in 2019.

When my children were little, a visit to the Lord & Taylor windows was an annual event on Christmas morning. If the weather were good, we’d extend the trip, from B. Altman’s windows at 34th Street up to Tiffany, Bergdorf’s and Bonwit Teller at 57th Street.

Of course, Manhattan was an anomaly, one of the few – and certainly the largest – urban neighborhoods of storefronts. In most markets, the action was in the suburban malls. But now, the action is beginning to shift. In many markets, businesses, residents and retailers are moving back downtown. Perhaps the elaborate holiday window presentations will eventually follow.

One thing has changed: Digital technology has given retailers some Christmastime metrics they never had before. “We track how many people are taking their photographs [in front of our windows] and sharing them back out,” Frank Berman, an Executive Vice President and the Chief Marketing Officer of Bloomingdale’s, told The Times. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”

Which shows that this, at least, has not changed. The public hasn’t lost its appetite for a good holiday window show.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.