THE HISTORY OF LE BON MARCHÉ
19th-century Paris was a bustling place where everything was changing and everything was being invented afresh. The earliest Paris department store to open, Le Bon Marché, was part of this shake-up of traditions. Aristide Boucicaut was a milliners’ son who’d gone to Paris to be a fabric merchant, and quickly realised that there was a market for a new kind of establishment that offered buyers more choice. In 1852 he and his wife Marguerite transformed a simple little shop into an unprecedented Parisian "grand magasin” or department store, with a wide selection of goods where shoppers could walk around and browse undisturbed. Le Bon Marché was born, and the innovations kept coming – fixed prices, reduced profit margins, home delivery, allowing articles to be exchanged, mail order, seasonal sales, private concerts, a reading room for waiting husbands... Soon the commercial model invented by this pioneering and revolutionary couple was inspiring copycats worldwide. In early 1875 they opened an art gallery, a novel facility that they generously made available to painters and sculptors to exhibit work and connect with the many shoppers who flocked to Le Bon Marché. The management willingly took on the role of unpaid intermediary between artists and art lovers.
The LVMH Group acquired Le Bon Marché in 1984 and the new team set up by Bernard Arnault in 1987 decided to rebrand it with a refurbishment that would make it the most exclusive shop in Paris. Le Bon Marché became a very Parisian high-end department store with a warm, friendly atmosphere that combines tradition and modernity, where values of authenticity and culture intermingle with the pleasure of buying. The Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, has rather chic connotations. But it’s more than that, it’s a way of being, an art of living, a spirit of elegance. On the boundary of the exclusive 6th and 7th Arrondissements of Paris, within a whisper of Saint Germain des Prés known for its rich cultural history, Le Bon Marché is an embodiment of this Rive Gauche spirit – its openness to the world, its taste for culture, its sense of tradition constantly renewed… Here there is no frenzied consumption, no explosion of competing offers. Day after day, Bon Marché Rive Gauche confirms its belonging to this realm where creativity and modernity are the balancing points. Communications are firmly anchored in contemporary culture, with advertising campaigns shot by the biggest names in photography. La Grande Epicerie de Paris – a subsidiary of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche – has since 1988 been transformed into the biggest food emporium in Paris. It celebrated a renaissance in late 2013 following 18 months of renovation. Now you can enjoy new and always unique experiences there, revealing all the subtle expertise of the culinary trades. It offers an ever more specialised selection of exceptional products, rare or traditional, and new realms of products and services. Shopping at La Grande Epicerie de Paris is an absolute must when you’re in the French capital, and want to accord yourself a moment of undiluted pleasure.
Aristide Boucicaut was born in Bellême, Orne, on 14 July 1810. He was the son of a milliner, and trade in wools and fabrics in Normandy markets before heading to Paris at the age of twenty-five. There he took up a position as salesman in Le Petit Saint Thomas, a novelty store in Rue du Bac. Soon he met the woman he would go on to marry in 1848, Marguerite Guérin, who worked in a nearby eatery where he was a regular.
Marguerite was born on 3 January 1816 into a very modest family in Verjux, near Chalon-sur-Saône, and left her native region when she was twelve to go to work in a Paris laundry.
When Le Petit Saint Thomas went out of business in 1848, Aristide went to work in a shop run by the Videau brothers called Au Bon Marché, on the corner of the Rue du Bac and the Rue de Sèvres. He became a shareholder in 1852 by investing alongside the brothers to transform and expand the shop. In 1863 Boucicaut borrowed 2.2 million Francs from his friend Henry-François Maillard and bought out the Videau brothers. Now he was free to experiment with innovative sales methods based on a good grasp of customer psychology, like allowing them to enter and browse freely; fixed prices indicated on labels; catalogues and mail order; linen and bedding displays, etc.
Aristide Boucicaut was a philanthropist, and took measures to improve the living and working conditions of his employees. He put in place medical assistance, paid holidays, career promotions, evening classes, a canteen, a provident fund and a retirement fund. ‘The man America envied us’ died on 26 December 1877, leaving the couple’s son Antony-Aristide, born in 1839, to manage the company. After Antony-Aristide’s untimely death, his widowed mother Marguerite had no other descendants, so she turned the family business into a joint-stock company with key employees Narcisse Fillot, Émile Morin and Jules Plassard as founding members.
Marguerite Boucicaut died in her villa in Cannes in 1887. Her lavish funeral was held in the church of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Paris with many employees, customers and friends attending to pay tribute to her kindness and achievements. Her social and philanthropic work continued in her will, as she left the bulk of her fortune to the Public Assistance system and entrusted them with building a modern hospital named after her. Bon Marché employees also received bequests based on how long they had worked there.