I’ve seen it coming for a while now, but I’m still sad about it.
Yup, just like wearing a wrist watch to see what time it is; learning cursive writing in third grade, and snapping
photos using a stand-alone camera, another take-it-for-granted experience of years past is ready to join the
Soon to Be Extinct file.
It’s something I couldn’t have imagined even a few decades ago, but it appears that shopping at a department store—a cherished memory from childhood—is about to bite the dust.
Once upon a time, this sort of leisurely activity was a necessary component to growing up, especially for those of the female gender.
When I was very young, my mother and I would don dresses and white gloves, and head off to Buffums’, the fancy pants department store in our town, where the very air itself seemed rarified, smelling like new money and clean carpets. It might have even been where I was fitted for my first brassiere, and it was definitely the place to get our pictures taken every Christmas with Santa Claus.
A short walk away was Walker’s, a lower rent affair, but also several stories tall. Here, its sewing department—imagine, a section just for seamstresses!—sported not only aisles of fabric, but embroidery thread in every color of the
rainbow; pillow cases with stamped patterns, and the metal hoops needed for what became one of my most consuming high school hobbies.
A big outdoor shopping mall was one city over, and we’d go there, too, spending most of our money at its anchor store, The May Company. I distinctly remember buying a neon orange mini skirt with matching belt, size three, for seventh grade there. And, this was probably the same store where my mother found my first bell bottoms—black and white, boasting a zebra themed pattern. (Looking back, my clothing choices back then were a definite predecessor to my clowning career a few years later.)
But department stores are now slogging through what most of us know: the only real constant in life is change.
To that end, millions of people—and I’m one of them—no longer leave their front doors to go shopping. Purchasing the
e-commerce way absolutely doesn’t have the panache that browsing through The May Company once had. But let’s face facts: it’s way easier to buy stuff sitting at a home computer. Plus, you can eat dinner at the same time; never get out of your pajamas, and not wonder where the bathroom is.
The latest statistics on the demise of the department store aren’t favorable.
According to a roundup article in the March 20 issue of The Week magazine, Macy’s quarterly profits fell by nearly 40 percent, with other major stores, including Nordstrom, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney also reporting strong declines in same-store sales. In addition, an astounding 3,300 retail stores have closed just this year; employment at department stores has also fallen nearly 50 percent in the last 15 years. In other awful news, analysists predict that by 2022, up to 25
percent of all shopping malls in the U.S. will permanently shutter their doors.
But here’s the good news.
First, retail sales in our country have actually been steadily climbing every year since the last decade. So while shopping malls are seeing more empty parking spaces, it doesn’t mean that we’re shopping less. We’re just making our purchases in a different way.
Plus, I don’t think brick and mortar stores will ever completely vanish.
Like millions, I’ve bought food and socks and sheets and books online, all with limited success. But the results have been disastrous when I’ve purchased dresses, shirts and pants the same way. When these items get to me, the material is inevitably way thinner and shoddier than the web site pictures imply; also, the apparel just doesn’t fit properly. Equally crazy making is that many online businesses charge for returning their stuff. It’s like paying a department store fitting room attendant money for every garment that isn’t bought.
Even Amazon—after Walmart and CVS, now the third largest retailer in the world—gets it.
Last month, the online giant opened its seventh you-can-walk-in-and-buy-something store, this time in New York City.
The first store opened in Seattle only two years ago, with the company planning 13 physical stores by end of this year.
And while Amazon executives admit that these locations represent a marginal part of its business, they also acknowledge that a physical store has benefits. Besides the novelty experience of shopping in person, there’s a personal engagement with sales staff, along with the fact that consumers here can “test drive” Amazon’s tech products such as the
Yup, our love affair with department stores is fading fast.
But I’m convinced that other ways of shopping will continue to evolve and take up the slack—which will ultimately give consumers more choices when it comes to the shopping experience. When the dust does finally settle, this can only be
A Very Good Thing for consumers.
What are your memories of going to a department store? I look forward to your stories and comments!
P.S. The Department Store Museum is a terrific online walk down memory lane. Check it out here, at www.thedepartmentstoremuseum.org.