The Bon Marché is considered to be one of the first department stores in the world, revolutionizing the way Parisians shopped and helping to create a new consumer culture. The Bon Marché began as a dry goods firm, or magasin de nouveautés, and then developed in to a department store, or grands magasin, thanks to Aristide Boucicaut. The Bon Marché has since been acquired by the LVMH Group and developed into a high-end department store. Customers are now also able to shop online through The Bon Marché’s new online platform. Furthermore, the location of the department store adds to the shopping experience.
The Bon Marché got its start as a magasin de nouveautés, and these dry goods firms began the process of revolutionizing retail in Paris. Before the magasins de nouveautés, retailing in France was controlled by a guild system which ensured that sellers were confined to a single trade and shop. The guild system meant that “little leeway was left to entrepreneurial innovation” (Miller 22). Also, before magasins de nouveautés, the idea of browsing did not exist. If a consumer entered a shop, that “entailed an obligation to make a purchase” (Miller 24). No exchanges or returns of product could be made. Also, items did not have a fixed or marked price because it was customary to bargain over the price for a long time before actually selling the product. As a result, shopkeepers relied on high prices of individual sales for profit (Miller 24). The guild system, however, was abandoned with the appearance of dry goods firms.
By the 1840s, the magasins de nouveautés were revolutionizing the retail experience in France. These dry goods firms sold silks, woolens, cloths, shawls, lingerie, hosiery, gloves, ready-to-wear clothes, and sometimes items like furs, umbrellas, and sewing goods (Miller 25). These items being sold together in the same place was revolutionary as they were considered different specialties. Furthermore, magasins de nouveautés used fixed and marked prices and allowed customers to return purchases as well as to shop without an obligation to purchase. These stores focused on a high turnover at a lower price for profit (Miller 25). Overall, shopping became a more enjoyable experience with magasins de nouveautés. But, it was not until the creation of The Bon Marché and other department stores that retail in France was completely revolutionized.
The Bon Marché eventually became a department store because of Aristide Boucicaut. In 1852, Boucicaut had enough money to become co-owner of The Bon Marché which at that time had 12 employees and four departments. In 1863, Boucicaut became the sole owner of the store, and in 1869, he officially turned it into a department store when he substantially expanded the floor space (Miller 20). While other large stores existed in Paris at the time, this was the “first time a store was being constructed that was formally conceived and systematically designed to house a grand magasin” (Miller 20). The Bon Marché and the other department stores offered the same benefits as the magasins de nouveautés such as low, fixed prices and being able to peruse with no obligation to purchase, but department stores were larger and had more choices than the magasins de nouveautés.
The grands magasins like The Bon Marché allowed for an environment of mass consumption to form in Paris. The new standard of fixed prices gave way to increased desire: “Active verbal interchange between customer and retailer was replaced by the passive, mute response of consumer to things – a striking example of how ‘the civilizing process’ tames aggressions and feelings toward people while encouraging desires and feelings directed toward things” (Williams 67). The consumer no longer had to haggle with the store owner over the price of an object, but instead, the consumer only interacted with material things, encouraging their longing. Department stores specifically targeted this human desire for materials. Williams notes, “As environments of mass consumption, department stores were, and still are, places where consumers are an audience to be entertained by commodities, where selling is mingled with amusement, where arousal of free-floating desire is as important as immediate purchase of particular items” (Williams 67). Looking and longing over product became equally important as purchasing things which allowed for a new environment of mass consumption to form.
This environment of mass consumption has been exemplified in The Bon Marché as it has become a world-renowned, high end department store. In 1984, the LVMH Group acquired The Bon Marché. LVMH is a multinational, luxury good conglomerate based in Paris that is home to some of the most elite fashion houses in the world such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Céline, and Givenchy. In 1987, The Bon Marché was rebranded to become a more exclusive shopping experience. On the LVMH website it says, “An elegant atmosphere and a refined selection of high-end products and services make Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche the most selective department store in Paris” (“Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche”). In 2017, LVMH launched 24 Sèvres, an online platform which allows consumers to shop from a curated selection of over 150 luxury womenswear brands from The Bon Marché. The website, which got its name from the store’s street address, tries to embody the spirit of The Bon Marché and Paris: “The entire platform is imbued with the spirit of Paris, the fashion capital of the world” (“Launch of 24 Sèvres, the New Online Shopping Experience”). The website allows consumers to shop by designer, new arrivals, ready to wear clothes, shoes, leather goods, accessories, and beauty. 24 Sèvres also offers live video chats on their app with personal shoppers who will help the customer browse the department store. 24 Sèvres truly aims to offer the full Bon Marché experience in an online platform.
The Bon Marché’s location also plays a large role in establishing it as an exclusive, luxury department store. It is located on the left bank, or Rive Gauche, which is known for its high end establishments. However, 24 Sèvres notes that the left bank is “more than that, it’s a way of being, an art of living, a spirit of elegance” (“The History of Le Bon Marché”). Furthermore, The Bon Marché is located on the boundary of the 6th and 7th arrondissements right by the Saint Germain des Prés neighborhood which is known for its rich cultural history. The Bon Marché is an “embodiment of this Rive Gauche spirit – its openness to the world, its taste for culture, its sense of tradition constantly renewed” (“The History of Le Bon Marché”). By embracing the culture of the left bank, the department store has become a place where tradition and modernity meet to create a friendly atmosphere. The shopping experience is not meant to be overwhelming because there is no “frenzied consumption” or “explosion of competing offers” (“The History of Le Bon Marché”). But instead, the location and attitude surrounding The Bon Marché give customers an enjoyable, high-end shopping experience. The Bon Marché has truly become a landmark department store in Paris.