This is clearly a window. But it wasn’t built for people to see out of- it was built to let people see in. The better the display, the more likely a passerby is to want to enter. So you could safely say that store windows should be alluring, but that is where the standard purpose of shop windows ends. What’s inside a window depends on the owner’s definition of what will pull potential customers inside. Some windows contain elaborate displays that tell the customer nothing about what merchandise is in the store, but instead hint at a certain kind of environment. For example, an Anthropologie window might host a bunch of whimsical creatures but have no merchandise in sight. The window doesn’t show you what you can buy, but corresponds quite well to the overall brand image. Other windows delight by showing many displays of the store’s offerings, such as a Zale’s window full of dazzling diamonds. And some stores might leave their windows rather empty- sometimes the fanciest stores in the mall fill their windows with large versions of their logo, hinting that the store is so exclusive they aren’t even going to show the merchandise to the general population (or genpop, as one of my coworkers likes to say). Three different approaches, but in each case the store owner is using the window to tell a story.
The window pictured above caught my eye for a number of reasons. First of all, I salute the emphasis on purple. Ten points for jewel tones! Second, this store’s owner clearly chose to use his windows for a straightforward purpose: the display screams “Hey! This is what my store sells! And this is how much it costs- come and buy it!” However, you probably won’t find a lot of store windows that look like this in a typical U.S. mall. U.S. clothing store windows tend to be very well maintained, and larger chains have entire staffs of Visual Merchandising personnel who are in charge of designing and decorating windows. Whether or not the windows display price tags depends on the chain but you probably will never find a display like this one, where you just see clothes hanging on hangers. Our windows have well-dressed mannequins, all of whom seem to have impeccable taste when it comes to accessorizing.
I found this window in Prague, in a working class neighborhood quite removed from the main shopping district. I snapped the picture because it made me think of how retail has evolved over the years. Back in the day (as in, a couple of centuries ago), shop windows would have looked a lot more like this one. There would have been piles of merchandise, meant to give passerby a pretty good idea of the type of merchandise each store sold. The idea was that potential customers needed to see all of the amazing options available inside, and they needed to get a sense of what they’d find when they entered. A window with whimsical creatures would have thrown shoppers off. But that all changed as department stores came on the scene. Department stores altered the shopping experience by creating an environment in which the shopper was encouraged to linger, as opposed to traditional stores that were function-focused. The first department stores in cities like Paris even had lounges specifically designed for women’s use as they wrote their daily correspondence- the owners wanted women to see the store as a familiar place, a place that could become part of their daily routine. Shopping transformed from an errand to a pastime for many women in the 19th century/early 20th century, and newly trained window dressing experts came along for the ride. Store designers started to put much more emphasis on displays both within the store and in the store windows.
As I walked through Prague I had to wonder if this store would be successful on my local shopping street. In my opinion, the answer is no. I think U.S. shoppers have been trained to expect neatly merchandised windows with coordinating outfits and awkwardly posed mannequins. A window like this just doesn’t scream polished, snazzy retail per American standards; the exception off the top of my head is small hardware stores in the U.S. that shove jumbles of merchandise into every nook and cranny. But even the slightly dreary discount clothing chain I pass on my way to work has mannequins with heels. Is window shopping more fun when you see a ton of merchandise or a ton of merchandising stories? Are you more likely to enter a store if you see 4 tops you might want to buy or if the window has an interesting theme? Next time you find yourself at a mall or in a shopping district, do some window shopping and see how much you focus on merchandise vs. display. It’s a curious exercise.