Every winter, as New York City’s department stores gear up for millions of gift-seeking shoppers, retailers turn to a ghost of advertising past: the venerable holiday window.
Carefully manicured and artfully prepared, extravagant holiday displays have graced Manhattan’s sidewalks for more than a century, reflecting in their polished glass a passing SUV just as they may have once revealed a Model T. These days there are more ways than ever to influence shoppers, from Instagram campaigns to Super Bowl commercials—yet the windows persevere.
In New York, and perhaps elsewhere, the wonder of these windows—sometimes a year in the making—has made them a regular stop on the urban holiday tour. Rockefeller Center? Check. Christmas Spectacular? Check. The block-long Lexington Avenue window extravaganza at Bloomingdale’s, replete with sidewalk sound system? Check.This year the theme for the two biggest players is pretty old-school. Macy’s outfitted its flagship store with Santa and polar bears. Bloomingdale’s had a Grinch-themed set, in conjunction with the cranky guy’s latest iteration in movie theaters. Saks Fifth Avenue, meanwhile, went with a “Theater of Dreams” motif. Bergdorf Goodman created a candy wonderland, while Henri Bendel, which is closing soon, constructed a skyscraper tribute to the city. Barneys New York aspired to a more philanthropic spirit, joining with Save the Children in its “Make Change” charity drive. Its display includes 40,000 pennies affixed to a white board.
Next year there may be more windows for holiday gawkers. Neiman Marcus said it will open a new Manhattan store by March, and Nordstrom plans to unveil its flagship come fall. Although it’s unclear whether they’ll join in the holiday window extravaganza, it’s a pretty safe bet.
Lord & Taylor’s flagship, a staple of New York shopping since it opened in 1914, won’t be at the party in 2019. This season its signs say “everything must go” as the store prepares for oblivion. This is the grim reality facing department stores trying to adapt to an era of e-commerce, off-price retailers and mass-market merchants. While they’re rejiggering store formats, adding services and acquiring hot startups to attract shoppers, there have been many casualties. Bankruptcies this year alone included the final implosion of Sears and the collapse of Bon-Ton.
Still, for all the strategizing, the windows remain. The holiday-display-as-marketing-device began at Macy’s in the 1800s….