The evolution of storefront design: Christmas tradition

14th Dec 2016

As traditional as the turkey and the tree, the appearance of festive window displays at major shopping destinations around the world heralds the start of the holiday season. The unveiling of displays at Harrods, Macy’s and other major department stores have become an event in themselves, with crowds gathering to witness the spectacle each year.

Such displays have often been inspired by magical fairytales and the nativity, while others have chosen more unorthodox themes like Christmas from an alien’s perspective. But it’s not just about decoration. As the busiest time of year for retailers, a well-dressed window can be the difference between the consumer passing by or walking in.

In tribute to the art of window dressing, we take a look at window displays from Christmas past, present and future.

Little boy looking through the display window at Christmas decoration in the shop.


Christmas Past: The pioneers of festive storefront design

R.H. Macy, founder of iconic US department store Macy’s, pioneered the tradition of the Christmas window. In 1874, he created one of the first major holiday window displays at his flagship New York store, exhibiting a collection of porcelain dolls from around the world. In another window, scenes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin were displayed with steam-driven movable parts.

By the turn of the 20th century, competition had intensified between America’s largest retailers. Major stores in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were all attempting to lure consumers with enchanting festive displays. Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman were two of the first stores to use mechanics in their arrangements, bringing life to their otherwise motionless exhibits.

Retailers also became aware that window displays had become sightseeing destinations, moving beyond their original commercial purpose. In 1938, Lord & Taylor took the first step away from promotional displays, favouring a decorative window of gilded bells that swung in sync to the sounds of recorded bells.

The retail tradition made its way across the Atlantic in 1909, when Harry Gordon Selfridge founded his namesake store in London. He introduced the elaborate decorations seen in US shop windows to British audiences, which prompted Harrods and other major department stores to swiftly follow suit.

As time has passed, department stores have used increasingly elaborate methods to create winter wonderlands in their windows. The annual event has become so big that retail heavyweights begin planning their spectacles more than a year in advance. It’s fair to say that this year’s offerings have not disappointed.

Christmas Present: Magical adventures and literary nostalgia


Upmarket department store Liberty treated us to a nostalgic affair in 2015, when it transformed its mock Tudor house into a doll’s house on a giant scale. This year, Liberty has teamed up with the Royal Ballet to take us on a Nutcracker-inspired adventure. Liberty’s windows feature no merchandise for the first time and instead portray the story of the Nutcracker with carved wooden ballerinas, toy soldiers and a myriad of clock cogs.


Thousands of people gather outside Fenwick’s flagship Newcastle store each year for the unveiling of its annual Christmas window theme. This year’s concept is inspired by the 150th anniversary of celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter. The whimsical display retells some of her most famous stories and features Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and several other iconic characters.


Harrod’s have collaborated with Burberry to give their displays a contemporary twist this year. Titled “A Very British Tale”, the store’s 29 windows tell the story of two children on a magical adventure through a snow-swept country house. Not content with a beautiful exhibit, Harrods have taken it a step further by introducing customer interaction opportunities in their windows. Visitors can use a motion sensor to experiment with lighting and music, bringing the enchanted tale to life.

Christmas Future: What next for festive window displays?

Harrods is not the first to experiment with interactive Christmas displays. Last year, Selfridges created it’s spellbinding “Journey to the Stars” theme based on the signs of the zodiac. Shoppers could control the glittering LED lighting using a smartphone or tablet, allowing them to focus on particular aspects of the display.

Men’s clothing store Jonathan Trumbull was one of the first to use interactive technology in its Christmas window display. In 2013, the Norwich-based retailer installed an LED screen with digital falling snow. When a person stood in front of the window, a photo was taken using facial recognition technology. The shopper was then able to view their photo using a unique four-digit code on a mobile responsive website, or by sending an SMS to view their photo in a dedicated Facebook gallery.

In the future, more Christmas window displays are likely to follow suit, tapping into the experiential economy with interactive elements tailored towards the connected customer. 85% of smartphone owners use their device in-store, so displays are likely to use mobile-oriented technology to offer personalised storefront experiences. Who know’s, in a few years time we could be seeing Santa’s sleigh virtual reality experiences or festive smell-o-vision windows on our high street storefronts.