The offers flood my inbox every day: Final day; Ends tonight; 75% off everything; Buy one get one free; Our biggest sale of the year, etc. Translation: “You know you want this. You can have it tomorrow. It will make you so happy, fulfilled, beautiful, or whatever. Besides, your friend was a total dick to you today—you so deserve this.” Facebook, porn, booze, gambling, I scoff at your addictions. Resisting the siren call of blowing all your money on “stuff” is the new black.
The thrill of the hunt, the lure of the new. No, I’m talking about shopping.
Remember how it was back in the day? Shopping used to take effort and a trip to town—downtown, where the big department stores were; or uptown, home to the local mom and pop stores. The first big mall near my home, Northland, opened in 1954, and was designed to provide the downtown experience but without all the office buildings, street people, or ethnic dives to harsh the middle class spending buzz. By the early 1970s another mall opened even closer and it was a completely enclosed space. I still remember the awe I first felt in this massive temple of commerce, a brilliant innovation in shopping in the dreary midwestern winter and humid summer.
Remember before credit cards? You paid with cash or checks. The big department stores started offering their own credit, an improvement over layaway. But then bank credit cards came along and allowed you to charge anywhere, so the smaller stores and catalogs could now compete.
Remember the early catalogs? Sears’ was a veritable doorstop of a tome with all the allure of the phonebook. Later in the ’60s the upscale catalogs began to arrive, but you still had to mail in your order. Phone ordering made the time to acquisition quicker, but it still took weeks for your order to be delivered.
Now I don’t even have to drive to town or travel to a distant land or even pick up the phone to purchase just about anything I can think of. I don’t know how we survived before Amazon et al, and I don’t know how we’re going to survive it. Why is it that we haven’t all bankrupted ourselves with the fire hose of retail instant gratification?
It’s certainly made my life easier, but at the same time the romance and the satisfaction of a serendipitous purchase is lost. Just as always getting your news from the same like-minded sources as yourself, always buying your clothes from REI is boring and unimaginative.
The evolution of shopping is a story of efficiency. But shopping used to be a quest, and a social one at that. Good stores have as much visual and design appeal as a gallery or museum, as does quality merchandise. I am energized by the new. I don’t always have to possess it, but I do want to experience it. You can’t touch or smell over the web. Once we’ve commodified everything, where is the art? Where is the challenge?
Patricia is a co-founder of Retrospect, and generally can be found two standard deviations from the mean on most issues. Lover of chef's tasting menus, cute shoes, and the music of Brahms.