All the world’s a stage, including retail spaces.

And the antagonist of this piece, online shopping, can only be kept at bay if department stores keep up the promise of a unique experience to entice shoppers through their doors.

The conventions of department store architecture are easily recognisable with grand, theatrical designs setting the stage for ravenous consumption.

Window Scenes

Arguably the most famous features are the display windows. Grandiose scenes are acted out within their confines, delighting passersby and intriguing them enough to walk through those doors. More than just visual merchandising, the designers of these spectacles have to be as creative as they come. The competition gets especially tense around Christmas time, which may be why Harrods, in collaboration with Burberry, created a festive interactive window display in 2016.

Harrods Burberry Christmas windows

This video shows the surreal fantasy land created for Bergdorf Goodman’s 2016 holiday windows on Fifth Avenue in New York.


Department stores are characterised by their many floors, so it’s no surprise that escalators, stairs and elevators became a focal point. The mode of transportation to the next selection of retail wonders is an interval between acts and should serve as a suitable transition rather than interrupt the experience.

photo – Kathryn Burrington@travelwithkat

photo – Kathryn Burrington@travelwithkat

Last November, stunning nickel bronze escalators were added to Harrods’ entrance hall in line with the store’s general theme of opulent luxury. Berlin’s iconic KaDeWe is also undergoing renovation work including the installation of sculpture-like staircases.

As you peruse from one department to the next, how does each scene play out? Care is taken by interior designers to ensure that even the most polar departments, housing very different products and brands, keep the story flowing without a jarring effect.

The Performance Space

Since cramped, intimate spaces are not compatible with a theatrical shopping experience, many department stores provide impressively wide and bright areas for shopping.

GUM’s glass ceiling

Moscow’s historic GUM boasts a magnificent arched glass ceiling that accentuates, with classic beauty, the prevailing architectural design. In the ultra-modern overhaul of Siam Discovery in Bangkok, designer Oki Sato wanted to open up the atrium as much as possible to make it like a canyon.

Sculptured art installations, whether the historic Buddhist statue engulfing Mitsukoshi’s main store or handcrafted Ai Weiwei characters at Le Bon Marché ’s white sale, appear perfectly at home in these dramatic spaces.

Ai Weiwei’s ‘Erxi’ exhibition at Le Bon Marché – photo Passion Leica at

The ongoing drama pitting department stores against online shopping may never reach its finale, leaving us to forever speculate what futuristic designs and innovations will come in the next act…