The History of Shop Window Displays

The idea of ‘window shopping’ is even more relevant at the moment, where smaller shops have to limit the number of customers in their store at any one time. Now, if there is a queue outside your shop, a potential customer may think twice before spending time waiting their turn. This means that an eye-catching window display is more important than ever.

What do we appreciate the most when window-shopping? Could it be the layout of the items; the different colours and decorations used to complement the products? Perhaps it could be the recreation of real-life situations or even touching and heartfelt messages used to advertise. All shop owners know the importance of using their shop fronts to encourage patrons to enter. Yet this wasn’t the case for British retail in the 1800s before the store display revolution. Shop windows were originally just an extra storage area for stock and not much thought was given to their appearance.

Who created the first shop window displays?

Those of us who have watched the first few episodes of Mr Selfridge may have been surprised to learn that the evolution of the window display was part of a radical change in the way we shop. Interactions between sellers and customers were very straightforward and transactional. In the show, when Mr Selfridge goes shopping for a pair of gloves for his wife, he is frustrated by the need to request to see each individual pair of gloves and requests that they are all emptied out on the counter for him to look at and feel. This sparks the idea for how he wishes his brand new department store to look and work for his customers.

The opening lines of the show are:

“You really think London is ready for all this?”

“… Once they see what we’ve done here there’ll be no turning back”

Harry Gordon Selfridge was credited with injecting life and creativity into the shopper experience. He introduced the art of shop window displays to the UK in 1909. He was one of the first to create window dressing displays to attract customers. The American millionaire’s aim was to “make an art of window display and upgrade window dressing”.

Around this period, the First World War took place (starting in 1914). Consequently, the store used its ‘War Window’ display to show the latest war news. This included maps and war photographs which became an attraction. It drew people from all over London to Selfridges just to read its contents.

Harry Gordon Selfridge circa 1910

The evolution of creative store window displays

With the boom of creativity in the retail industry, the use and commissioning of artists to create displays took flight in the 1930s. High profile artists such as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol are among some of the most noteworthy. Salvador Dali’s Bonwit Teller shop window display designs in 1939 were not particularly popular with passing shoppers, resulting in them being censored and Dali, while rebelling against the reaction, fell through the glass.

The warning against being too artistic and not creating sales remained into the next few decades. There is a beauty to simplicity. In 1962, Liberty in London had a minimal approach to their shop displays, which increased their sales. In one window, a few items of baby clothes simply hung mid-air in lifelike positions.

How technology has advanced shop front windows

Window displays transitioned through the 1980s to the 2000s with the technological boom. Visual digital technology came a bit later and this was used to further vitalise the art of display. Nike had 8 interactive window displays on show at Selfridges during the 2012 Olympics. Each window display, powered by Kinect technology, interacted with passers-by in different ways. The retail tech company Ombori creates interactive displays and uses the latest technology to seamlessly merge in-store retail with ecommerce.

Inspired by the shop windows we see

We often post on Instagram any beautiful, creative and inspirational shop window displays we come across.

Here’s a few of our favourite shop window displays along the streets of Champs-Élysées.

zara home window
One of our favourite shop window displays along the streets of Champs-Élysées during our trip to Paris in 2019!
Heals window dislplay
Everyone loves window displays during the Christmas period and Heal’s Christmas Circus window display from 2019 is a great example.
Zara window display
Another shop window that caught our eye was from Zara. Their use of led lighting helped to outline what they were trying to sell in the window!
Floral window display
We spotted this floral window display down Oxford Street in London.
Store window display
You would think we were in Paris seeing this window display… Nope, it’s down the high street of Oxford Street, London!

A very creative Christmas window displays entitled “Future Fantasy” at Selfridges in Oxford Street, London.

Throughout its transformed lifetime, products and brands have remained at the core of store displays. From the extravagant and creative to the minimal and simplistic, the product has always been able to stand out and tell a story.

The question is, what can you do with your store window display to attract those much needed customers when shops open back up?

Empty shop window display

Over the years we have created many displays used in stores and for shop windows. Take a look at some of our past projects. We love getting creative, so if you have an idea for your brand or store, get in touch to discuss how we can help design and build a truly unique and memorable display.

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