With the assistance of Gustave Eiffel, Le Bon Marché boasted the first metal roof structure in the world, making it a monument of architectural innovation.
New industries in the late 19th century helped expand the market for consumer goods, which brought the economy out of stagnation by the end of the century. Overseas imperialism also opened new markets for European consumer goods. New forms of retailing and marketing appeared—department stores, chain stores, packaging techniques, mail-order catalogs, and advertising—which simultaneously stimulated and fed consumer demand.
A new way in which goods were being consumed was through the development and construction of department stores in the mid-19th century. Department stores, such as Le Bon Marché in Paris (apparently the first department store ever) sold a wide selections of consumer goods under one roof. These modern stores increased the economic pressure on small traditional merchants who specialized in selling only one kind of product. In a traditional shop, the retailer (who was also the producer) offered a single product—gloves, for example—in limited quantity at a fairly high price. Oftentimes, this price was not set and the customer would haggle with the shopkeeper until a price was agreed upon. “Browsing” was virtually unheard of— an individual who entered a shop was expected to make a purchase.
Department stores, however, made profits from a quick turnover of a very large volume of goods set at low prices. In order to stimulate sales, department stores sought to make shopping a very pleasant experience by offering well-lit expanses filled with alluring items, well-trained and friendly clerks, in-store reading rooms, and restaurants.
Middle-class women especially were encouraged to patronize these stores even though critics had charged that these stores turned sober housewives into irrational shoppers, who were wasteful of family resources and let their consumer fantasies run wild in a store like Le Bon Marché. Indeed, women were the ones who primarily participated in the vast expansion of consumerism and domestic comfort that marked the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Women filled their homes with manufactured items such as clothing, china, furniture, carpets, drapery, wallpaper, and prints. In these decades, women’s pursuit of fashion in their home furnishings seemed to lean towards imperial motifs as Empire began to increasingly invade the domestic spaces of the bourgeois household: Persian-inspired designs were seen on textiles, oriental carpets were laid across floors, wicker furniture was placed in drawing rooms, and Chinese porcelain was used at mealtimes.