Stores may have boasted new, exciting, and exclusive products, but how did they attract customers to come through their doors? What made their store more special or better than their competitors? The answer lies in how they marketed and advertised themselves. Department stores used a number of advertising and promotional ventures to increase their customer base. These methods included (but were not limited to) traditional advertising in newspapers, catalogs, radio broadcasts, and television, but also extended to in-person promotion like extravagant window displays, holiday specials, and events that would attract people to come inside.
At the height of DC’s downtown commercial empire, department stores had to use unique advertising and marketing strategies to set themselves apart from their next door neighbors. With every store concentrated in one area, competition was stiff and made these measures necessary. In their earliest iterations, department stores and newspapers shared a close relationship. Because most people read the newspaper on a daily or regular basis, advertising in their pages was a consistent stream of marketing. Additionally, stores could use visual and text elements to showcase their products.
By the 1920s, however, technology had advanced to also include radio marketing. With radio’s increasing popularity across the country, retail businesses capitalized on the market by purchasing their own radio stations and broadcasting programming locally. In DC, Woodward & Lothrop even hosted its own radio station. Many were hesitant to leave print advertising behind, though. Radio added to their arsenal for bringing customers through their doors, but was less widespread and utilized as other forms. In the advent of the television era, department stores saw a new and opportunistic platform to advertise on. Unlike radio, television combined visual and audio aspects and had more potential for growth in the coming years. Television was also quickly growing and could be utilized in-store.
With every advertising technique, department stores were often testing grounds for future trends on these platforms. Because department stores had the space, financial backing, and business acumen for experimentation in advertising, these industries often formed relationships with executives to promote their products in stores.
Beyond these means, stores created elaborate and interactive experiences that would increase foot traffic. One of the most popular and enduring representations were (and continue to be) window displays, especially around the winter holidays. While New York City’s department stores often took the crown for these displays (and still does), DC had its own beautiful scenes that brought shoppers downtown each holiday season. For example, in 1960, Hecht’s created a teddy bear village; Woodward & Lothrop did the same with kittens and cats; Kann’s took a more traditional route, creating Santa’s blacksmith shop, complete with reindeer. Some went even further. Again, Woodward & Lothrop offered in-store activities around the holidays specifically for children, like pony rides. Garfinckel’s, ever the purveyor of elegant tastes, opted to place Christmas trees throughout their store along with holiday lights to boost holiday spirit throughout the store.
Each store tried its best to create a unique experience for shoppers in order to increase profits and sustain loyalty. DC’s department stores consistently created new advertising and marketing strategies that would reverberate throughout the decades. Their expansions would employ these same methods, and helped create retail empires.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.