Neighborhood Tour: Midtown, The Birthplace Of Holiday Retail
Santa Claus is a New Yorker.
The modern holiday season has its roots in New York City. The first public Christmas tree went up in Madison Square Park in 1912, 21 years before Rockefeller Center's tree. Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast gave Saint Nick his iconic beard, jovial smile and rotundness decades before Coca-Cola gave him his red suit. Households worldwide can thank Thomas Edison for their Christmas lights.
As holiday imagery began to take shape in the mid-19th century, so did a transformation in retail. Fueling what would become one of the busiest shopping seasons of the year was the rise of the department store. New Yorkers with disposable incomes were drawn to merchandise displayed across rows of windows.
At its original 14th Street location, Macy’s was the first retailer to create holiday window displays, associating the excitement of window shopping with the festive season. The holiday shopping experience was born.
Macy’s has since moved its displays to its 34th Street flagship, where 10,000 tourists an hour pass by during the holidays, New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper said.
Herald Square has long been a retail center. Department stores like Gimbels, Korvettes and Ohrbach’s set up shop at the turn of the century, all within walking distance of each other. Each catered to a different client, from Ohrbach’s discounted products to Korvettes’ catalog of appliances.
“Herald Square was a retailers' paradise for department stores because it was so densely populated with foot traffic,” Eastern Consolidated Senior Managing Director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli said. “At the time, vertical retail was a new concept, unlike in the suburbs where retail was horizontal and spread out.”
In 2017, the stores have changed, but not the activity. Korvettes has become H&M; Ohrbach’s is now an Amazon Books. Some buildings no longer offer retail, as the sector transitions toward more boutique experiences. The B. Altman and Co. building, once a luxury department store, has found a second life as a home for the CUNY Graduate Center, the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library.
The strength of brick-and-mortar in the area is unlikely to change, Polsinelli said. People come to New York City to shop, and Macy’s in particular ranks high among top tourist destinations.
“A lot of tourists that come to New York come with empty suitcases,” Draper said. “Tourists know they are going to spend money on retail.”
Fifth Avenue, part of the Ladies' Mile Historic District, has become synonymous with luxury retail experiences, and its history reflects its status as an elite shopping destination. Well-heeled New Yorkers flocked to iconic stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor.
“Department stores gave people something to do,” Draper said. “From the 1850s to today, people suddenly had free time. Like experiential retail today, people wanted to go outside and do things.”
Andrew Saks, who founded his eponymous department store in 1867, was among the first to capitalize on the value of the Fifth Avenue name, equating his store with the upscale vibe of the area.
Saks’ holiday window displays offer major corporations the same value.
This year, the Walt Disney Co. partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for the first time, creating a window display celebrating the 80th anniversary of “Snow White.” The partnership creates an opportunity for both brands to work together to draw in visitors and potential shoppers.
The cachet of these brands has drawn interest from outside of the retail sector. Earlier this year, WeWork acquired the Lord & Taylor building for $850M. While the retailer will downsize, renting a quarter of the building, the famous holiday windows will remain, emphasizing the continued importance of retail.
"They are monetizing the real estate as best they can,” Polsinelli said. “We don’t really have too much exciting new office property here, and now Lord & Taylor will help make that more viable.”
Shoppers wanting a break from the glamour of Fifth Avenue can explore more than 150 food and artisan kiosks at Bryant Park’s Winter Village. As consumers demand more boutique experiences and products they cannot find anywhere else, pop-up retailers keep the selection of stores fresh.
The Winter Village at Bryant Park also highlights the impact investment in public space can have on surrounding property values. Once a high-crime part of the city, new hotels and office towers have risen around the revitalized park, Draper said.
Across the street from Saks' window display, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree draws visitors into the famous plaza. It is an accidental tradition. After seeing construction workers place a small tree at the center of the plaza, John D. Rockefeller Jr. insisted on continuing the practice, albeit with a much larger tree.
Each year, 125 million people visit the over 60-foot Norway Spruce — and the shops around it.
Shoppers can escape the cold by visiting the connected, climate-controlled tunnels beneath Rockefeller Center, the site of the world’s first mall, Draper said. Unlike malls across the country, which have seen increased store closures, pedestrian traffic continues to drive strong retail sales throughout the center, leading to continued rent growth.
For visitors who doubt the success of retailers at Rockefeller Center, visit Teuscher Chocolates. The Swiss candy store is one of the center's original tenants.
To help celebrate the festive season, Kevin Draper will be leading a private holiday tour on Sunday, Christmas Eve, at 10 a.m. The tour will follow the same route. Click here to sign up.
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