Shop ’til the Stores Drop

After what is being described as a “disappointing holiday season,” some of America’s largest retailers are about to close even more doors of their “brick and mortar” outlets, thus laying off thousands  of additional employees.   Macy’s, Sears and Kohls are among the most visible, but there will be others.  And Sears has even been forced to sell off its Craftsmen Tool division, which should prompt bewildered handymen across America to ask, “What’s next?”

What’s next will likely be more of the same -- and the gurus of retail merchandising have been quick to explain why.   In the unlikely event that we hadn’t noticed, they point out that on-line shopping has taken a big bite out of conventional consumerism, which in previous, more traditional generations, was regarded as one of the greatest joys  of being Americans. Millennials, however, seem to have better things to do with their time. And since most of it is spent in cyberspace, that’s where they prefer to shop.

I can’t get irrationally exuberant over clicking on an order for, say, a pair of red Easy Spirit walking shoes, though I’ve  been there, done that.  To be sure, the effort expended was minimal.  But the anticipation came fraught with the frustration that if the shoe doesn’t fit, it will need to be returned.  Or that the color red on the screen is a different shade in the box.  Unfortunately, re-bundling a blunder, even with a return label and prepaid postage,  is not as easy as ordering  the merchandise in the first place.   For the unhappy returns of the day, packages must be transported to a UPS or Fed Ex office.  How much of such unsatisfactory merchandise is ultimately retained by the consumer because it’s just too much trouble to do otherwise?

With such potential hassles, I might as well visit a  “real” store and try the stuff on before I buy it.  That’s what I did all of my life before the intrusion of technology.   In fact, for many of us, the lifelong experience of shopping was far more than the act of buying.  Venturing into big, decorative and bewildering  emporia was a challenging  experience that took us out of our ordinary routines.  We made a “day of it” and we expected to return home weary and – with any luck -- triumphant,

Not that all shopping memories are necessarily idealized.  Some recall being tediously dragged around from store to store, burdened with piles of clothes to try on in fitting rooms, or forced into  hastily making consequential decisions about the virtues of one  appliance or outfit over another.  During my childhood, I lived in the suburbs of a very  large city, so the return trip late in the day  usually meant being squeezed like the proverbial sardine  by swarms of ordinary subway  commuters who worked while  I  shopped.  

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in a small southwestern town where stores of any stature were miles away, and   getting to them in the family car became an exciting dawn-to-dusk excursion, often finalized by “eating out” at a special restaurant.  As a tyke, he no doubt spent time annoying shoppers by rummaging under racks of clothing.  But what he remembered most was the delight of spending a whole day away from the prosaic –- and a whole dime on a cherry soda.

Of course, even today many families shop together at the over 1,000 malls nationwide. But the concept that sprang up so enthusiastically in the ‘60s is suffering a slow death, as America’s landscape becomes more and more pockmarked with the ugly, neglected shells of malls that failed.  It is possible that the phenomenon, with its homogeneity of shopping choices, ultimately spawned a sense of consumer disillusionment as we began to see the same stores proliferating everywhere.  And while there may be competition from more recent entrants in the retail trade, the merchandise from one venue to another seems to be growing boringly similar.

This, by the way, was not included in the list of reasons gurus offered for the shrinking of brick and mortar outlets.   Or for the disappointment of the recent holiday sales.  What they said was that the economy has been shaky, so people are buying less.  But I contend that we are also buying less because there is less we like enough to buy.  If Macy’s shutters over 60 additional stores, it isn’t a particularly novel action on the part of its management.  One Macy’s store -- a block from where I live -- was closed a couple of years ago and later bulldozed, eventually  to be replaced by a boutique hotel and a phalanx of  fancy high-rise  condos.

What remains of the upscale outdoor mall once anchored by that Macy’s is not promising . Small retail stores open and then close a year later, when their pricey leases expire.  The mall is like a morgue on weekdays, though it picks up on weekends when customers materialize -- not to shop, but to eat at the restaurants and go to the movies at the cinema complex.

Macy’s officials may blame the economy and the online alternatives for its bottom line woes. But a significant problem lies in the steady deterioration of the shopping experience in terms of selection and service.  Customers who might anticipate Macy’s merchandise to be a cut above some lower-priced competitors have become disillusioned by the reality that in today’s apparel industry the lines have become surprisingly blurred.  Regardless of outlet, clothing has curiously started to look all the same, pieced together without distinction by a corps of unskilled workers in foreign sweatshops.  As explained to me, clothing designs are  kept as simple as possible so that everyone working on the human assembly line can manage to  turn them out.

So we find ourselves shopping in a retail market of The Emperor’s Clothes. Unless you buy expensive haute couture or haunt vintage clothing shops for some sartorial blast from the past, you end up looking like everyone else.  The greatest compliments I get are for the clothes that have hung longest in my closet.

A parallel might be drawn between the current failures and gripes of retail merchandisers and those of disgruntled Democrats.  Neither has justification to blame the American people for a reluctance to “buy into” what they are offered.  The inability of merchants or politicians to sell what they pitch has little to do with the “ground game,” the newspaper ads or the media hype.  Nor is it necessarily the economy, stupid.  What takes the wind out of their sales could simply be that what they offer is not what the public wants.