The "Bon Marché"

It's the oldest department store in Paris. Its creator, Boucicaut, was a true advertising pioneer. His sales methods revolutionized commerce. Today's mecca for luxury and fashion also served as a model for the great writer Émile Zola's novel "Au bonheur des dames". The book, published in 1883, recounts the consumer fever that gripped society during the Second Empire, and provides a vivid picture of the lives and working conditions of female employees.


The invention of department stores

This is the "Bon Marché". It is located in Paris on the left bank of the Seine. It is not the best known of the Parisian department stores and yet, as you will see, it is this shop that revolutionised retail trade and brought it into the era of mass consumption.

Aristide Boucicault, an ambitious young Norman who "moved up" to Paris

The story of Le Bon Marché is first and foremost that of one man, Aristide Boucicaut, a young Norman who moved to the capital at the age of 19 in 1829. At the time, small-scale commerce was still based on traditional principles. The shops were very specialised and offered a limited choice of articles. You always had to talk to a salesman, prices were not displayed, which led to endless haggling, and the price was often set at the customer's head.

But the "novelty" shops are beginning to make a timid appearance: attractive shop window, free entrance, display of prices. It was in one of these modern shops, at the "petit Saint-Thomas", located on rue du Bac, that Aristide Boucicaut was hired as a salesman. The ambitious man joined forces a few years later with a certain Paul Videaux, who had recently set up a novelty shop on the corner of rue de Sèvres and rue du Bac, "le Bon Marché".

A pioneer in advertising

Boucicaut was full of ideas: first of all, he introduced low-profit sales, based on a rapid turnover of stocks: the success was so great - the turnover of the Bon Marché jumped from 450,000 to 7 million francs in a few years - that Paul Videaux became frightened and gave up all his shares for a pittance to this partner who was too ambitious for him. Boucicaut was now the only one in charge. Now he was to create the concept of the department stores', a shop in which everything could be found and not just textile articles.

This required a revolutionary architecture. Don't be fooled by the apparent classicism of the façade. Behind the stonework is an iron structure that allows for large windows and huge, open spaces inside. It was a dazzling success: from lingerie to furniture, stationery, toys, crockery, etc., etc., everything could be found at Le Bon Marché. Boucicaut innovated all over the place: creation of seasons, such as the month of white, recourse to new forms of advertising: mail order, free shipping of articles to customers and above all this famous principle whose slogan still hits home today: satisfied or reimbursed.

As for the customers who arrive from far away, they only have to cross the square Boucicaut to go to the art deco palace, the "Lutetia", which Madame Boucicaut had built especially for them.

Émile Zola's model for his novel "Au Bonheur des dames

To keep this enormous shop running, a large staff was needed: department heads, seconds, and a host of salesmen and saleswomen, often young girls arriving from the provinces, who were housed in small rooms under the roofs of the Bon Marché. The work was exhausting, even though Boucicaut, under the influence of his wife, had developed a paternalistic system that was very advanced for the time: a work day reduced to 12 hours instead of 16, remuneration by commission, health insurance and a pension fund.

The life of these employees is formidably described by Émile Zola who, wanting to devote a great novel to the true phenomenon of society represented by the Bon Marché _ it was to be "Au Bonheur des Dames" _, begins by carrying out an investigation of several months on the life of the shop's employees. It was a fascinating investigation in which Zola proved to be a great documentarian before his time.

The Bon Marché was copied many times throughout the 19th century, sometimes by former Bon Marché employees themselves, as with the "Printemps". The Berlin equivalent, the "Kaufhaus des Westens", word for word "the western department stores'", was not created until the beginning of the 20th century.

What about the Bon Marché today?

Bought by Bernard Arnault's LVMH group in 1984, the Bon Marché, unscrupulously denying its own name since, let's remind our German friends, "bon marché" means inexpensive, the Bon Marché, therefore, has become the luxury department stores' of the left bank of the Seine, the one in which the Parisian bourgeoisie is sure to find the famous French good taste


More videos on the history of Paris :

Baron Haussmann's Paris

The Paris Commune

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