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Bloomingdale's Big Brown Bag at 50
A Tale of Retail Innovation and Influence
Before we dive into this, I want to introduce my co-author Rebekah Kondrat. Rebekah is the founder of Rekon Retail, a physical retail agency that specializes in managing the end-to-end process of getting stores up and running. She’s worked with Outdoor Voices, Warby Parker, Adore Me, Hypebeast, and The Container Store. With her expertise, we will uncover the profound impact of the brown bag on the retail industry and how it has created a foundation for the future success of retail channels. Let’s dive in!
In the world of retail, few symbols are as iconic and enduring as Bloomingdale's brown bag. This unassuming brown paper bag, adorned with the store's distinctive logo, has become synonymous with luxury shopping, style, and even New York City itself. As it (the bag) celebrates its 50th anniversary, we delve into the fascinating history of Bloomingdale's brown bag, its profound impact on the retail world, and the genius behind its marketing success.
The Birth of an Icon
It’s hard to not appreciate the significance of Bloomingdale's brown bag, but we must first delve into the rich history of the department store itself. Bloomingdale's, often affectionately referred to as "Bloomie's," opened its doors in 1861 on New York's Lower East Side as Bloomingdale’s Hoopskirt and Ladies’ Notion Shop. Little did anyone know that this humble beginning would eventually lead to one of the world's most iconic retail destinations.
A decade later, in 1872 the Bloomingdale brothers opened Bloomingdale’s Great East Side Bazaar, a dry goods store at 938 Third Avenue, between 56th and 57th St in NYC.
Over the decades, Bloomingdale's evolved into a fashion mecca, consistently at the forefront of innovation in the retail industry. It introduced New Yorkers to concepts like in-store boutiques, window displays as works of art, and the concept of a "curated" shopping experience long before these ideas became industry norms. This commitment to innovation laid the groundwork for the introduction of the now-famous brown bag in 1973.
The Brown Bag
Imagine a simple brown paper bag, unassuming at first glance, but imbued with an aura of luxury and sophistication. This was the genius of Bloomingdale's brown bag. Its design, a creation of the renowned graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, was a lesson in elegance and minimalism. CEO at the time, Marvin Traub, tasked Vignelli to create something iconic. Vignelli's choice of a bold, clean font and a plain brown background was a stroke of genius. What was most surprising, was Traub decided to leave the store’s name off the bag in the original design! This wasn't just a bag; it was a statement, a status symbol for shoppers.
Vignelli Associates was also known for doing Bloomingdale's rebrand in 1972 as they were celebrating their 100th anniversary and, more famously, designing the NYC Subway System signage the same year (note this is not the current design, that was done in 1979 by Michael Hertz Associates).
The introduction of this bag marked a pivotal moment in retail history. It elevated the act of shopping to an experience. Walking out of Bloomingdale's with one of these bags became a symbol of indulgence, and soon, other retailers took note. The brown bag's design philosophy influenced brands worldwide to adopt cleaner, more sophisticated packaging and branding, proving that sometimes, less is indeed more.
Eventually, the demand for the Brown Bag led the brand to produce it as its own product—a vinyl tote in many sizes and styles—taking it beyond packaging. A bit meta, it is a way for customers to signal their loyalty to the brand even if they haven’t made a purchase.
The Cultural Impact of the Brown Bag
Beyond its commercial success, Bloomingdale's brown bag has made a profound cultural impact. It has become a symbol of New York City itself, synonymous with the city's cosmopolitan lifestyle and fashion-forward attitude. It's not just a bag; it's a representation of the city's spirit.
The bag has made its way into countless different mediums showcasing its status as a symbol of NY. It appears, famously, in Friends. In fact Bloomingdale’s is a major plot point as Rachel works there for a period of time. It can also be seen in Gossip Girl, House of Gucci, Halston, and Elf. (See Product Placement Blog for more examples)
Borrowing and Lending Clout Through Collabs
For the Brown Bag’s 50th anniversary, Bloomies has a bit of something old and a lot of something new in its Big Brown Bizzare shop. Because of its status, the iconic bag has the ability to both borrow and lend its clout as it continues to innovate around this simple piece of packaging.
From a Ralph Lauren sweatshirt (that is, frankly, adorable), to the celebrity-loved Stoney Clover Lane travel bags, to joining the pickleball craze with a Big Brown Paddle, the Brown Bag is able to engage its brand loyalists while also entering the minds—and closets—of an entirely new customer base.
What’s in a Bag?
There’s no question that the Brown Bag is, and will likely continue to be, a recognizable symbol of luxury–but what about the store whose logo it bears?
It seems the sustained success of the Brown Bag stands in stark contrast to the overall sentiment toward its namesake–and legacy department stores generally. Bloomingdale’s second quarter earnings showed comp sales down 2.7%. Yes, non-luxury apparel is having a tough go at the moment, but when you think about the breadth of assortment from designer apparel to beauty–both categories that are faring well even in economic uncertainty–it’s clear there are other forces at play.
Bloomingdale’s parent company—Macy’s Inc—has struggled to maintain a luxury customer base as its store environments and service have declined over the past decade. In fact, CEO Jeff Gennette bragged in a recent earnings call that the teams had “surgically implemented clearance markdowns” in an attempt to offload a glut of overbought spring inventory.
While this, and other publications, have spent much time celebrating the Brown Bag and its ability to transcend time, demographics, and trends perhaps more attention should be paid to the environment it symbolizes and how to reinvigorate that to welcome a new customer base.
This much is clear: having a nostalgic symbol of luxury does not make the environment a luxury experience.
The Bloomingdale's brown bag is more than just a shopping bag; it's a symbol of style, luxury, and marketing brilliance that has captivated the retail world for 50 years. For someone deeply involved in the commerce space, it serves as a reminder that the simplest of items can wield incredible influence when crafted with care, consistency, and an understanding of consumer culture.
As we celebrate its 50th anniversary, the brown bag continues to be an emblem of retail innovation and an enduring testament to the power of branding and design in the world of commerce. Its story is a lesson in the art of creating enduring brand symbols that resonate not only with shoppers but with an entire culture. It's a symbol of retail brilliance, a symbol of New York, and a symbol of a timeless shopping experience.