Practising Display: Window Shopping and Window Dressing

Carla Banks, PhD Student
Lancaster University, Sociology Department

How can a window sell goods? By placing them before the public in such a manner that the observer has a desire for them and enters the store to make the purchase. Once in, the customer may see other things she wants, and no matter how much she purchases under these conditions the credit of the sale belongs to the window

L. Frank Baum (1900) The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows
The aim of my research is to produce a detailed account of how visual merchandising practitioners design and create commercial displays. I am currently in the process of ethnographic fieldwork which has so far involved shadowing visual merchandisers at various branches of the British department store John Lewis and will also include interviewing a number of visual merchandising practitioners from elsewhere in the retail sector. So far, my fieldwork has lead me to consider how visual merchandisers as ‘cultural producers’ seek to tell stories about commodities through display and I am interested in how their practices relate to wider themes such as branding, commercial creativity, consumer culture and fashion. My research is also concerned with how visual merchandising practices mediate relationships between people and the material world and create settings in which the consumer encounters the commodity.
All Saints Window Display, Manchester
My project will also consider how practices of window shopping can be conceptualised in relation to the visuality of urban space. Accounts of contemporary consumer ‘browsing’ tend to focus on a rather abstract analysis of ‘sign consumption’ (Baudrillard, 1998) and there are very few empirical studies of people’s window shopping practices. Part of my research will therefore involve a number of ‘go-alongs’ with participants as they shop which will be followed up with in-depth interviews with the informants in order to gain an insight on their interpretations of the window shopping experience. This aspect of the research will allow me to think about the ways in which ‘the gaze’ is shaped and mobilized within the commercial urban landscape. Commercial retail display can be seen as a practice through which shopping has come to be understood as an engagement with commodities which is not necessarily about economic exchange, but more complexly entrenched in ‘just looking’ (Bowlby, 1985).
Baudelaire, Charles (1964) The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, New York: De Capo Press Inc.
Baudrillard, Jean (1998) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Denoel: Sage.
Benjamin, Walter (1999) The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Bowlby, Rachel. (1985) Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola, New York: Methuen.
Debord, Guy (1977) Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red.
Friedberg, Anne (1993) Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lea-Greenwood, Gaynor (1998) Visual Merchandising: A Neglected Area in UK Fashion Marketing? International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 26: 8.
Gluck, Mary (2003) ‘The Flâneur and the Aesthetic: Appropriation of Urban Culture in Mid-19th-Century Paris’ Theory, Culture and Society 20: 5 pp. 53-80.