The Change in Product Displays and Merchandising

Like the shopfronts discussed in the last edition, interiors were slow to change. At the beginning of the period every area of retail from the corner store to the large department stores were laid out in the same way. The customer was served by sales staff and they were separated by counters.

The genesis of change came in 1924 when five Sydney businessmen came up with the idea and the capital to emulate the concept of an open display chain store which they witnessed in operation in America. The idea was an instant success and by 1928 they had opened four Woolworths stores in Sydney. By 1933 they had 31 and by 1940 there were 86 around Australia and New Zealand. The effect of this success was to drive many other retailers to also steadily move in the direction of self-selection, it being apparent that increased exposure of stock increased sales and reduced the need for sales staff. Gradually, as the floor area occupied by counters gave way to bins and island displays, service steadily became concentrated at a central cash and carry point and retail as we know it today was underway.

From a shopfitting point of view, the change in the merchandising method saw a change in the design of how products were displayed. Whether island counters with serving staff or standalone displays, they all had merchandise on open display at the top with back up storage below. Units were generally made of timber with the merchandise on the top divided by wire mesh binning and later by glass and metal clips. By World War 2 the principle of open display was well entrenched across the broad spectrum of retailers.

There were of course a few places where self-selection was not applicable. The growing popularity of milk bars, cafes, movie theatres and hotels to name a few. The expanding retailing of prepared food raised hygiene considerations and the need for refrigeration and ducted commercial range hoods. A new industry of stainless steel fabrication emerged with a number of shopfitters carrying out both traditional joinery and metalwork in-house. Gradually health regulations were tightened and these in turn led to very specific designs.

Milk bars and cafes were inclined to be owned by migrants, often Greek or Italian, and given the long opening hours, were an ideal family operation. The design often reflected the taste of the owner with a mural of the Acropolis on the wall considered ‘not out of place’. Many of these milk bars and cafes could be considered as the precursor of today’s restaurants; with the larger ones seating up to one hundred people in booths panelled, typically, with book matched Australian Walnut veneer.

Hotel bars also proliferated and were a very male orientated domain, designed and built to purpose. A typical bar would have a brick front, faced with some impervious material dependant on the class of the bar. There would often be a continuous trough running at floor level serving as an ash tray with a foot rail above the trough. The bar top was usually made of large sheets of plywood covered with waxed linoleum, which was a popular floor covering of the time, the idea being to have few or no joints for the inevitable spilt beer to penetrate.
The edges of the bar top were generally heavy timber cored stainless steel moulds, for the resting of elbows, similar to the image of a wine bar shown above right.
The influence of Art Deco made itself felt from the 1930’s, as shown in the image of this Department store [bottom image].

The image of Burts Milk Bar [previous page] shows how curves were very much in vogue and while these could be achieved with curved Carrara glass on shopfronts; interiors used plywood, french polish and lacquer as laminates were not available until the 1950’s.

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