Marketing food, marketing a necessity? Belgian food retailing and the concept of luxury in advertising, 1870-1940

Nelleke Teughels

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Over the past two decades, the humanities and social sciences have progressively come to recognize the importance of food as a research topic. Initially, historical research focused mainly on the quantitative aspects of nutrition, such as prices, caloric intake and produce. However, the interest by other disciplines, and particularly ethnology, broadened the field of food studies to include the social context and cultural aspects of food. Food and activities related to food can carry a myriad of meanings, which are all culturally constructed. Thus, it has been widely acknowledged that not only what people ate, but also where they purchased their food cannot be separated from their aspirations, their identity and their social relationships. This insight put (food) retailing and shopping in the centre of a blooming interest in consumption history.
In Belgium, the social context of food retailing and the evolution of consumer society during the last two centuries have received little attention. Moreover, the main focus is on the profound economic and legislative changes. Up to now, food retailing in relation to cultural and social distinction remained largely out of scope. Yet, given their organisation, chain stores held the promise of bringing a larger array of products within reach of an increasing number of people from broader layers of society. However, most retailers then, as now, wished to address a distinctive target group. This social divergence would have been visible in the in the appearance and organization of the stores, the choice of goods on sale and the advertising strategies and style, which each retailer used to create the desired image, to play into the expectations of the consumer, and to entice them to buy.
The aim of this paper is to focus on one aspect of food advertising and the self-representation by retail chains in Belgian food distribution, namely the use of the concept of luxury. Obviously, this is only one, very particular means of advertisement among others such as price, geographical origin, or health. In his book The idea of luxury (1994), Christopher Berry notes that the abundant use of the term and references to luxury in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century advertising seems to be paradoxical in character. There is no doubt that the main goal of retailers was and is to make as large a profit as possible. In order to do so, they have to persuade as many people as they can to buy their product. Labelling their merchandise a luxury seems to be in contradiction with the basic principles of (big) retailing, since this implies exclusiveness. However, given its prevalence, it is reasonable to assume that it is a tactic to incite consumption. But how does this selling point actually work? How do retailers apply the concept of luxury to arouse certain desires and expectations? Moreover, how does this fit into their brand-building strategy? In other words, what can it tell about the customers they wish to attract? These questions will be addressed through a case study of the posters, catalogues, shop architecture and customer service of the Belgian chain store Delhaize Frères & Cie 'Le Lion' during the period 1870 - 1940.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLuxury in the Low Countries. Miscellaneous reflections on Netherlandish material culture, 1500 to the present.
EditorsR.c. Rittersma
PublisherPharo Publishing
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)978-90-5487-797-4
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Bibliographical note

R.C. Rittersma


  • visual culture
  • material culture
  • consumption
  • retail history
  • advertising


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