Why Do Department Stores' Lavish Holiday Windows Still Matter?

For most of the country, the holidays officially kick off with what's arguably one of the most headache-inducing capitalist events ever invented: Black Friday. But for New Yorkers, yuletide cheer comes even earlier, with the (much more welcome) tradition of seasonal window displays. Weeks before the autumn chill transitions into an unbearable, snowy commute, the city’s most renowned department stores unveil their much-anticipated masterpieces. Droves of tourists flood into the city and crowd around finger-smudged glass to catch a glimpse of the glamour, storytelling, and tradition all synonymous with holiday windows.

But here’s the thing: these windows cost a lot of money to execute — we’re talking millions, in some cases (as estimated by The New York Times). And widening the scope to a year-round business, window displays are a huge investment for retailers, especially in the digital age. So as e-commerce continues to grow and, subsequently, account for increasing sales, one has to wonder: Are brick-and-mortar window displays still worth the investment?
Photo: Courtesy of Lord & Taylor.
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The tradition has been around for quite a while: Window dressing dates back to Georgian times (that’s the 1700’s, FYI), when women were first given the freedom to escape the domestic sphere for some good, old-fashioned shopping. With fresh foot traffic in London’s shopping arcades, shopkeepers were desperate to secure new clientele, thus birthing the creative marketing strategy of window dressing.
Photo: Print Collector/Getty Images.
Fast-forward several centuries later, and many of us are getting our retail-therapy fix at home, surfing Net-A-Porter on our laptops. E-commerce has eliminated the need, but not necessarily the desire, of shopping IRL. And choosing to digitally stock our closets is growing exponentially each year. New census data cites $93.7 billion in e-commerce sales for the third retail quarter, up 15.6% from last year. So, given how dramatically technology has changed the way we shop, are people still hitting up physical stores in droves hearty enough to justify these glitzy window displays?

Well, for the holidays, profit isn’t necessarily the point of these lavish tableaus. Even though an estimated 15,000 passersby per hour view the windows at Macy's 34th Street flagship, “these aren’t necessarily people coming to go inside the store,” Roya Sullivan, the store’s national window director, told Refinery29. “But certainly, after they’ve had a wonderful, positive experience outside the building, it will bring people in.”

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The idea behind window displays seems to have transitioned from a competitive, sales-driving tactic to more of a collective, city-wide tradition. “[The windows are] something that our audience comes to expect and look forward to,” Dennis Freedman, Barneys New York's creative director, told us. For the tourists who’ve traveled across the country or even the world to see them, you can bet they’re checking out the displays at a plethora of department stores, and not just stopping at the ones they’re planning to shop. “It’s our gift to the city,” explained Denis Frenette, senior vice president of merchandise presentation at Lord & Taylor.

It does seem a bit strange for a profit-driven industry to base investment results on the “happiness [they] see on the faces of customers and visitors as they visit [their] displays,” as explained by Frenette. But it certainly provides insight into how seriously retailers take Christmas traditions, in spite of sales increasing into the cyberworld.

Photo: Courtesy of Barneys.

“I can’t stress enough that during the holiday season, no matter how much you love shopping online, if you came to see the Macy’s windows as a child, with your parents and grandparents, you will still come and you will bring your children,” Sullivan said. “This experience will not go away. It is an experience that’s nostalgic, it brings back memories, and it’s a tradition not only for us, but for many of our customers and families.” And beyond the warm-fuzzies derived from serving up holiday cheer, Saks Fifth Avenue's Mark Briggs insists that window dressing is a valuable art form that encourages creativity. “We’re bringing to life the stage and screen,” the EVP of the Creative COE for Hudson Bay Company explained, noting the various film-industry partners Saks has worked with throughout the year.

Especially for fashion-focused department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, the expanded role of windows during the holidays provides designers the opportunity to push their creativity and create exclusive, on-theme pieces. This year, the store’s candy-colored wonderland windows will include bespoke pieces from Erdem, Carolina Herrera, Marchesa, and Jason Wu. In Saks' case, since these exclusive designs are often one-offs and unavailable to the masses, profit isn’t the primary impetus for bedecked windows.

And as we saw in the documentary, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, the iconic store invests so much into the design of the windows in order to highlight the whimsy and high fashion of it all. “I want the windows to almost be perceived as hallucinations,” David Hoey, Bergdorf Goodman’s window wizard, says in the film’s trailer.

Photo: Courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue.
While the dramatic, Broadway-esque windows are often exclusive to New York City, big-name department stores often repackage the gist of the displays for tens (or, in some cases, hundreds) of locations nationwide. Whether for the holidays or year-round, the investment of window dressing extends to suburban mall stores, as well as downtown flagships in other U.S. metropolises. And in light of declining foot traffic, some big-name department stores are actively strategizing new ways to monetize their windows. As Briggs noted, “The brick-and-mortar window is significant free advertising space to do whatever we want.” Often, the window displays highlight a new or exclusive collection, and they're intended to drive excitement and kick off a customer's experience with the store, from the street to (hopefully) the checkout counter.

But knowing that much of fashion retailers' sales are now digital, stores are constantly experimenting with innovative ways to drive sales. Soon after the launch of Iris Apfel’s collaboration with INC, one of the private-label brands offered at Macy's, the windows team unveiled their corresponding windows, which directed passersby to shop the collection online, and the corresponding URL was even included in the display. Sullivan says that the windows made a significant difference in terms of traffic on the store's site, as well as online sales of Apfel's collection. “The experience is on the street, there’s no doubt about that. But we can certainly direct customers to e-commerce or to our stores, which is part of the responsibility of a window display,” she added. Macy’s isn’t the first to integrate online lingo into their offline windows. Anthropologie proudly displays the hashtag #AnthroWindows, directing shoppers to share their own snaps of the displays on social media, presumably to draw customers either into stores or onto their site.

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Photo: Library of Congress/Getty Images.
So yes, we may be spending most of our time (and money) online when it comes to shopping these days. But perhaps brick-and-mortar window displays have a greater effect on our shopping habits than we'd expect, whether or not we realize it. And this centuries-old tradition will likely evolve further in coming years, as retailers embrace technology to strengthen the customer experience and hopefully drive sales. So don’t expect department stores to ditch their seasonal window extravaganzas anytime soon. We're expecting many more decades of over-the-top displays to be part of the whole holiday-season shopping experience. And, hey, any cynicism about the aggressive consumption of holiday shopping aside, that’s something worth smiling about.