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Le Bon Marché is 170 years old: how are department stores changing?

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Le Bon Marché is 170 years old. For this occasion, the ancestor of “department stores” adopts a very “energetic” decoration on all floors. A recent visit to this shopping temple also allows me to reflect on what the department stores have become. Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Samaritaine, … are all heirs of the “Bonheur des Dames” celebrated by Emile Zola. But before going into philosophical considerations on the evolution of retail, let’s take the time to walk through the floors of Le Bon Marché.


Le bon Marché 170 ans

For its 170th birthday, Le Bon Marché has chosen a special decoration.


The 170th birthday of Le Bon Marché

Colorful stands are installed on every floor of the Bon Marché. You can’t miss them because the signage is really visible with orange and red colors. More than corners, these large spaces gather well-chosen trendy products that echo the floor’s theme. From a decorating point of view, I particularly appreciated the effort they made to refurbish the floors and ceilings. The visual effect was all the more spectacular.

Le bon marché a 170 ans - rez-de-chaussée


A labyrinth on the top floor

The most spectacular part is located on the top floor of the Bon Marché, where a labyrinth has been installed. Yes, you read correctly, a labyrinth. I encourage you to look at the photo below, which will allow you to appreciate the realization in a city where the square meter exceeds 10000€. Sacrificing a sales space this way is a courageous decision, and I say this almost without irony.

Le bon marché a 170 ans - labyrinthe

For its 170th birthday, Le Bon Marché has built a labyrinth on the top floor!

What’s less funny, though, is that this labyrinth wasn’t a labyrinth for me. From my height of 2 meters, it didn’t take me long to see the exit 😁. The kids, on the other hand (and a few short adults), enjoyed getting lost in it.

These playful considerations lead me to wonder about the “Department Stores” model and their evolution.


To capture the tourist clientele in its department store is, therefore, to prevent them from visiting the others.



The Grands Magasins, a Parisian trademark?

Visit a Parisian department store and open your eyes. These are tourist destinations, just like the Eiffel Tower or Euro Disney. So far, nothing new under the sun, you may say. But what I find more interesting is the formatting of these establishments. They look more and more alike.

In addition to the fact that they are moving upmarket and are aimed at the Chinese and wealthy Americans, I also notice a “conceptual formatting.” Their layout, products, and marketing tactics are all the same.

The Samaritaine recently reopened after years of renovation, represents the pinnacle of this quest for the tourist (see the walking tour of the Samaritaine below). Remember that when the Chinese fly into Paris, they usually have little time to spare. So, there is only room to visit one department store. Capturing the tourist clientele in its department store prevents them from visiting the others.

This results in a race:

  • excessiveness: department stores invest astronomical sums in renovation and design to “show off
  • exhaustiveness: all desirable brands must be present to make the foreign customer captive

This race inevitably leads to a convergence in terms of marketing strategies. Operational marketing will logically use the same recipes.


A disturbing conceptual mimicry

All department stores (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Samaritaine, Bon Marché) are now open with “corners” dedicated to the same brands. Those of the LVMH empire are omnipresent and rub shoulders with other usual suspects. It is impossible not to propose Devialet, Chanel, Bulgari, Louboutin, or Tag Heuer.

Christian Louboutin La Samaritaine Paris

The Christian Louboutin corner at La Samaritaine. A must in Parisian department stores.

Customer experience on all levels

The emphasis on the customer experience is also present at every level. The department store, as a good tourist attraction, becomes a place of consumption in the true sense of the word. We come there to pass the time as the Americans do in the “Malls” (with less charm and class all the same).

La Samaritaine Paris

The architecture of La Samaritaine is a showcase in itself. It is part of the customer experience.

Catering has become essential

Restaurants have therefore opened their doors to meet all desires. La Samaritaine has no less than 12 food outlets, some completely incongruous in the form of refrigerated display cases in the middle of cosmetics or clothing.

From the “Ladurée” corner to the starred restaurant at La Samaritaine, via the panoramic bar on the 7th floor of Galeries Lafayette, there is something for everyone. The customer must be able to rest. If in casinos, the windows are closed so that the players lose the sense of time, it is the opposite in department stores. They need a window to the outside to take a breath before plunging back into the frenzy of consumerism.

restaurant rive gauche samaritaine

One of the restaurants that is accessible on the top floor of La Samaritaine. Restaurants are now inseparable from department stores. La Samaritaine proposes 12!

The department store absorbed the concept store idea

The pleasure of exploring the Merci concept store has nothing to do with the stereotypical condensation of high-end merchandise that department store spaces propose. The department store has also absorbed the idea of the concept store. Now in the clutches of marketers, the once delightfully surprising concept store has been repackaged into a blander version.

The corner proposed by La Samaritaine at the entrance is a model of its kind. Impeccable, faultless, but without flavor because without risk. The goal is to sell at all costs.


One keyword: the customer experience

If I had to sum up the marketing excesses of department stores in one word, I would say “customer experience.” It seems to be the magic word, the solution to differentiate and crush the competition. However, this recipe is becoming increasingly bland. It takes moments of audacity, like the 170th anniversary of Le Bon Marché, to finally find a little innovation and energy.

I regret that the customer experience, which I believe so much, is being hijacked for the sole purpose of commercialism. It is essential to give the department store a little extra soul so that it can return to its roots as a place of life that is appropriated by a neighborhood and its inhabitants.

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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