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Matthew Powell | December 19, 2013
To explore the topic of visual merchandising at some of the most legendary holiday meccas, the New York School of Interior Design assembled a panel of three leading figures in the field: Tom Beebe, vice president of creative services for the W Diamond Group; Harry Cunningham, senior vice president of store planning, design, and visual merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue; and Paul Olszewski, visual director of windows and interior flagship marketing for Macy’s.
The panelists moved past the enchantment and imagination to prove there's much more than pixie dust behind the iconic New York windows. The actual tradition dates back to the 1870’s when Macy’s Herald Square was the first to decorate its windows with holiday-themed merchandise. The practice was soon understood as a means to effectively draw spectators inside to shop. Evolving to incorporate window elevators, electricity, and mechanized pieces, the displays became increasingly elaborate. By 1938, Lord & Taylor presented the first purely decorative windows completely without merchandise. Today, visual merchandisers grapple with ever-changing technology and how to incorporate interactive features to engage their audience.
As Olszewski said, “It’s a good thing we like Christmas, because we live with it all year long.” The process truly never stops for these visual merchandisers and their teams of 60 to 75 people. During the month of December, the departments are already brainstorming ideas for the following year. By early spring, final ideas and storyboards must be approved. Just as the summer sun hits, construction starts and frantic pace continues until final installation. Cunningham joked that as New York was melting in the humid heat, he was busy building yetis, the current subject of his holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.
The panelists were asked how they measured the effectiveness of the windows among thousands of visitors each hour (Macy’s averages 7,000 per hour). Cunningham answered simply: “Dirty glass equals success.” Seeing kids press their faces and hands up against the glass in amazement, it would be difficult to argue the contrary.