The department store is a retail store originally a multistory business in a downtown area that offered a wide array of merchandise, especially soft goods, compared to smaller competitors.
According to “Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940” by David E. Nye, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990 , department stores developed after the electric streetcar increased the distance shoppers could travel in about 1890 (a direct result of Edison's lightbulb and creation of the electric utility industry). Commuter trains, subways, and electric interurbans also played a role.
By drawing customers from a wider area, the store could offer more merchandise. Better selection coupled with banner events like visits with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny were part of the mystique that made them successful.
With the development of the automobile and the move to green, leafy suburbs, department stores followed with their own multistory stores surrounded by parking. Modern malls with additional stores in the shopping center anchored by one or more department stores evolved over time.
Department stores were generally regional. Most evolved from local general stores. Major cities often had several. Chain stores were less common, but Sears, Montgomery Ward, and JC Penney became mall based department store companies.
Department shores reached their zenith in the covered mall era in the 1980s. Many survive, but shoppers have shown a preference for modern, single story big box stores. As a result many have consolidated into national chains. Macy's is the best known of these. National chains can better advertize on cable TV and in national media.
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