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Department stores past

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LISA NAPOLI: $16.2 billion. Shopper Trak says that’s how much money we spent over the weekend. That may seem like a lot of cash, but it’s not as much as retailers expected. Saturday’s shopping alone generated just under $9 billion, but that’s a little less than what stores made on Black Friday. Retailers are counting on people shopping the after-Christmas sales now.

Today’s one of the few days a year you couldn’t even go shopping if you wanted to. Well OK, you could buy something online, but there once was a time when the focus of most commerce in a town had to do with the department store. Jan Whitaker has written a book about the history of this social institution. It’s called “Service and Style: How the Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.”

JAN WHITAKER: Before there were color movies and color magazines, they really displayed the good life. They cast an aura to their merchandise, they gave you something to aspire to, what was the way to live and they showed you how to do it. They showed you how to put it together into ensemble. That was something of a new idea, that you would decorate your house or that you would arrange your house so that it didn’t clash.

NAPOLI: So as now where I get that from all sorts of other media messages, certainly in the early part of the 20th Century that wasn’t available.

WHITAKER: Not in the same way. You know they accompanied merchandise with lectures and displays and demonstration and fashion shows and concerts and la-di-da that made things seem like more than just a package in cellophane that you take off a hook.

NAPOLI: At the very beginning how did people react to the concept of buying everything under one roof?

WHITAKER: Well the customers liked the convenience of it and strangely now it would be seen as inconvenience because they had let’s say eight or 10 floors and it took a while to get around and navigate in them but they were regarded as very convenient then. But who didn’t like them though and this was a parallel to now, there was opposition, it usually came from local merchants, small merchants.

NAPOLI: But what is different about shopping today?

WHITAKER: The department store shopping, it took a lot of time. You had to get downtown, well later you could go to the suburbs but you were going into a big building. You were probably going to spend several hours there, perhaps eat lunch, maybe pay your electric bill, stop at the watch repair. You could do all kinds of things. You could plan a trip. You could take your children to the playroom and leave them there for a couple of hours for free. You could go to a fashion show. You could easily spend all day.

NAPOLI: Jan Whitaker’s the author of the new book, Service and Style.

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