Multisensory Marketing and the Design of Retail Establishments from the Middle Ages to Late Modernity

David Howes
Seminar, 12 July 2007

David Howes, CCA Associate Scholar and Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University, explores the meteoric rise of “sensory branding” in the last two decades and presents the results of an ethnography, or sensography, of shopping which he and his students have been conducting at a range of retail establishments in Montréal, with particular emphasis on Ogilvy’s and Wal-Mart. Constance Classen, CCA Visiting Scholar, provides a brief historical survey of retail establishments during the first half of the seminar.

The great stores of the nineteenth century – le Bon Marché in Paris, Harrod’s in London, Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Ogilvy’s in Montreal, among others – made an important contribution to the urban environment of modernity. As their owners boasted, these immense shopping complexes contained ‘a city within a store,’ and, as such, provided an alternative sensory and social ambience to that of the ‘real’ city outside. In this we find the reverse of the prevailing situation in premodernity. The ‘shopping centres’ – primarily marketplaces and fairs – of premodern towns invaded the public spaces of the city, the streets and the squares, rather than constituting private, enclosed areas. Hence the smells of the marketplace were the scents of the city and urban weather, rain or shine, provided the atmospheric conditions for shopping expeditions. In order to understand the unique sensory and social contribution of the department store to the modern city one must first explore the role its predecessors played in the urban environment.


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