Though there are other contenders in the UK and US, Le Bon Marché, which opened in Paris in 1852, claims to be the first department store in the world.
It was created by a young man from Normandy, Aristide Boucicaut, and his wife Marguerite. Together, they introduced a whole new concept of shopping which they said would be “a new kind of store that would thrill all the senses.”
He was the son of a milliner, born in Bellême, Orne in 1810. She came from a poor family in Verjux, near Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy. Both went to Paris to find work and met at the restaurant she served in.
Aristide Boucicaut first worked as a salesman in a shop called Le Petit Saint Thomas. When that went out of business, he was taken on at the Bon Marché. It was a simple little shop, which he was keen to change, because he had realised there was a market for a new kind of store which offered more choice. In 1852, he became a shareholder and started working with the owners to make improvements. In 1863, he borrowed 2.2 million Francs and bought out the owners, leaving him free to experiment with his innovative sales methods.
First he introduced a wide selection of goods and, unheard of up until then, left shoppers to walk around and browse undisturbed.
Other ideas – which we take for granted now, but were ground breaking at the time – quickly followed, including fixed prices when it was still common practise for customer and client to haggle; reduced profit margins; home delivery; allowing articles to be exchanged; mail order; seasonal sales and a reading room for waiting husbands. Their new style of commerce was soon copied the world over.
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Aristide Boucicaut was also a philanthropist and well ahead of his time in providing improved working conditions for his employees. He introduced paid holidays, evening classes, medical assistance, a career structure, a canteen and a retirement fund.
The shop moved to bigger premises at 24, rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank in 1869, which were enlarged with the help of Gustave Eiffel and architect, Louis-Charles Boileau. The resulting ironwork structure provided the first large, open-spaced shop without partitions. Elegant glass openings in the ceiling made it light and airy.
Le Bon Marché was bought by the LVMH Group in 1984. In 2013, it was closed for 18 months for extensive renovation and it is now a high-end luxury department store, called Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche attracting 15,000 customers a day.
Aristide Boucicaut died in 1877. Marguerite continued to oversee the business. She died in her villa in Cannes in 1887, and was given a lavish funeral in Paris, attended by many employees, customers and friends. She left most of her fortune to the Public Assistance and asked them to build a modern hospital in her name, which remained open until 2000.