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Aristide Boucicaut

Aristide Boucicaut

1810-1877

Department store founder

Sources

Early Years Aristide Boucicaut, founder of the first French department store, was born in the Norman village of Bellême, where his father was a hat maker, and left home at eighteen to work with an itinerant peddler. By 1835 he was living in Paris, where he was employed at the Petit Saint-Thomas, a dry-goods store (known in France as a magasin de nouveauté, or novelty store), selling wares such as silks, cloths, ready-to-wear clothing, stitchery, umbrellas, and gloves. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Boucicaut met and married Marguerite Guerin. After rising to a managerial position at the Petit Saint-Thomas, Boucicaut borrowed 50,000 francs and went into partnership with Paul Videau to purchase Au Bon Marché, a similar novelty store on the Left Bank of the Seine. When the two partners bought the store in 1852, it had only twelve employees and retail sales of about 450,000 francs annually. During the 1850s and 1860s the store expanded in size, and by 1863 Boucicaut was able to buy out Videau with borrowed money. In 1868 he was able to buy the rest of the block in which the store stood, and the following year he began construction on a new building to house the first true department store.

Business Success Employing engineer Gustave Eiffel and architect L.A. Boileau, Boucicaut began building a department store that eventually covered more than five hundred thousand square feet and took up an entire block of prime Parisian real estate. The architecture of the store was a marvel, employing innovative iron-and-glass construction, with skylights to maximize natural lighting. Aristide Boucicaut died ten years before the building reached its full size in 1887, but he did live to see his dream of a retail empire come to fruition. In the year he died, 1877, sales in his gigantic store grossed more than 73,000,000 francs, dwarfing most of his competitors, and the store employed 1,788 workers. Nearly thirty years later, the retail sales and mailorder purchases at the store topped 188 million francs.

Significance. Though Boucicaut may not have been the father of modern mass marketing, his department store successfully exploited new developments in merchandising, financing, and retail organization. After purchasing Au Bon Marché in 1852, Boucicault expanded the product line and increased the number of departments from four to thirty-six, including readyto-wear clothing, men’s wear, children’s products, household furnishings, camping goods, perfume, shoes, leather goods, kitchen wares, and eventually toys and sporting goods. On a particularly brisk sales day in the 1890s, the department store might open its doors to as many as 70,000 shoppers. Au Bon Marche also instituted a large-volume mailorder service. During the winter of 1894, for example, more than1.5 million catalogues were mailed to prospective customers. The mailorder business not only reached customers in France but as far away as Russia, the United States, and South America. Boucicaut also offered financing to manufacturers and wholesalers, and eventually he vertically integrated his business from production through sales. For example, the company had its own workshops within the store to produce shirts, baby clothes, bedding, coats, cloaks, made-to-measure bridal gowns, and many other products. By 1890, 600 workers were employed in these workshops alone.

Sources

John William Ferry, A History of the Department Store (New York: Macmillan,1960).

Michael B. Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store 1869–1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

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