Christmas window displays on last legs

The holiday window display at Lord & Taylor's on Fifth Avenue in New York earlier this month.
The holiday window display at Lord & Taylor's on Fifth Avenue in New York earlier this month.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • When people heard a few months ago that Lord & Taylor was selling the Fifth Avenue building in New York that houses its flagship department store, their first reaction was alarm.

What would happen to the Christmas window displays?

Even after a decades-long decline of America's urban centres as shopping havens, New York remains a stronghold of holiday tradition. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade officially kicks off the Christmas shopping season and elaborate department store windows are still a major draw for tourists.

But as online shopping continues its relentless assault on brick-and-mortar retailers, even those traditions may be in peril.

As the stores decline, so too will the traditional holiday windows, said Mr Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.

"It would be a public relations disaster to eliminate them. I suspect they'll quietly cut back, spend less, become less elaborate," he added. "And they'll disappear when the companies themselves eventually disappear."

Part of the windows' allure has always been that the displays were fantasies untainted by any overtly commercial appeal.

Those days seem to have passed.

At Lord & Taylor, this year's windows are co-branded by the Hallmark Channel, which is promoting its Countdown To Christmas holiday programming.

Further uptown, the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue not only carry the MasterCard logo, but the Snow White theme on display is also basically a plug for Walt Disney.

Ms Tiffany Bourre, a spokesman for Hudson's Bay, the parent company of Lord & Taylor and Saks, said the sale of the Lord & Taylor building would not affect the window displays in the future and that the company was committed to the store's "rich history" of holiday traditions. She also said the holiday windows and light show at Saks would continue "for years to come".

She noted that the Lord & Taylor windows were created by a team of close to 75 artists, craftsmen and engineers who put in more than 35,000 hours on the project.

"The holiday windows are considered a gift to the city," she said.

The window displays and holiday traditions "were never overtly commercial", said Jan Whitaker, author of Service And Style: How The American Department Store Fashioned The Middle Class.

The goal was to attract people to the stores with amenities such as fashion shows and even nurseries.

"The department stores created a magical sense of occasion," she said. "Families came and brought their children. Years later, they wouldn't remember the gifts they got, but they remembered the windows. Those children became future customers."

Shopping now, she noted, is "not an experience. It's just about buying something at the lowest price. I find it depressing, but there's no point in wallowing in nostalgia".

Mr Cohen agreed.

"We've crossed the Rubicon into gross commercialism. There used to be an almost spiritual sense of kinship that gift-giving and gathering together enhanced, and the store displays and marketing tried to embrace that.

"Now the holiday is just the trigger for an extreme state of acquisitiveness. Holiday decor and atmosphere just get in the way of that," he added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Christmas window displays on last legs'. Print Edition | Subscribe