In 1895, while still at Marshall Field’s, Harry Gordon Selfridge hired Arthur Fraser for “display work.” Now we all know who Harry Gordon Selfridge was. Some of us because we’re retail aficionados, some because we’re history buffs and some because we watch television and love the series “Mr. Selfridge.” As for me, who knows how or when I first learned of Selfridge? But I do I know how I learned of Arthur Fraser, and I also know that we in the visual merchandising industry owe him a debt of gratitude.
I discovered him when researching the enticements employed by the pioneers of the industry to attract people into stores. He, along with folks like L. Frank Baum (author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,”, and the founding editor of The Show Window, later to become VMSD magazine) elevated, if not started, the visual merchandising profession (known as “display” in those early days). Selfridge provided Fraser with a grand canvas – the first show windows in Marshall Field’s, reportedly the largest plate glass windows in Chicago. Selfridge also provided an enduring philosophy: “Every day is show day in this establishment.” Like-minded, Fraser spoke of his convictions, “We would dramatize our merchandise, really stage work. I derived more from theater than anything else.”
The merchant princes of the day: Selfridge, John Wanamaker, Henry Cooper and Hugh O’Neill; and the great display artists Baum, Fraser and Herman Frankenthal, to name a few, were on the cusp of a new beginning. The turning calendar would bring progress and an age of enlightenment, offering broader educational opportunities, greater access and mobility and extended avenues of communication. Sound familiar? A hundred years later and we too are on the cusp of a new retail beginning.
The only difference is today’s change is exponential. The industry’s evolving faster than ever before. And like the early industry pioneers, we too must recognize that embracing change is a vital ingredient for success. But some food for thought: In order to move forward, we sometimes have to look back. Although the argument grows weaker with every new technological advance (augmented reality, and the like) stores are not going away anytime soon. But retailers must raise the bar. While retailers may recognize the physical store as their most valuable asset, they still must provide a reason for customers to return. And so perhaps the words of Harry Gordon Selfridge must ring true today: “Every day is show day in this establishment.”
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.