department store history

Le Bon Marché, Paris 1875. 

Le Bon Marché (“the good market”, or “the good deal” in French) is a department store in Paris. It is the first ever modern department store founded in 1852 by Aristide Boucicaut.

A novelty shop called Au Bon Marché had been founded in Paris in 1838 to sell lace, ribbons, sheets, mattresses, buttons, umbrellas and other assorted goods. It originally had four departments, twelve employees, and a floor space of three hundred square meters. The entrepreneur Aristide Boucicaut became a partner in 1852, and changed the marketing plan, instituting fixed prices and guarantees that allowed exchanges and refunds, advertising, and a much wider variety of merchandise. The annual income of the store increased from 500,000 francs in 1852 to five million in 1860. In 1869 he built much larger building at 24 rue de Sevres on the Left Bank, and enlarged the store again in 1872, with help from the engineering firm of Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower.

The income rose from twenty million francs in 1870 to 72 million at the time of the Boucicaut’s death in 1877. The floor space had increased from three hundred square meters in 1838 to fifty thousand, and the number of employees had increased from twelve in 1838 to 1788 in 1879. Boucicaut was famous for his marketing innovations; a reading room for husbands while their wives shopped; extensive newspaper advertising; entertainment for children; and six million catalogs sent out to customers. By 1880 half the employees were women; unmarried women employees lived in dormitories on the upper floors.

The architecture of the store was very innovative for its time; the 1869 store was constructed by the architect Louis-Auguste Boileau. Alexandre Laplanche ornamented Boileau’s ironwork technology. Louis-Charles Boileau, his son, continued the store in the 1870s, consulting the firm of Gustave Eiffel for parts of its structure.