Soapbox

Middle class shoppers feel retail stores’ decline most keenly at Christmas

In this photo made Wednesday, July 14, 2010, Christmas displays are set up in a work room at the Lord and Taylor flagship store on Fifth Aveune, in New York.
In this photo made Wednesday, July 14, 2010, Christmas displays are set up in a work room at the Lord and Taylor flagship store on Fifth Aveune, in New York.

Department stores in their heyday offered much more than displays of goods for sale, especially around Christmas time.

Sparkling window displays and grand interiors welcomed people of all classes to share a few moments of awe and delight in places like Macy’s, Alexander’s, B. Altman’s, Bonwit Teller, Saks, Gimbels, Mays, Woolworth’s, A&S, Wanamaker’s and S. Klein. Even the inexpensive stores, where my family shopped, offered a feeling of dignity.

Sadly, that experience is waning as more people — especially middle class shoppers — choose the cheaper and easier experience of online shopping.

Lord & Taylor is the latest example. The department store is selling its flagship New York City building to office space startup WeWork. The store has shrunk its beloved holiday display to two windows, from six, for its last Christmas in the building.

Brick and mortar retail isn’t dead, but it is changing. This year’s $15 billion sale of the Westfield corporation, which operates high end shopping malls in Europe and the United States, promises a continuing trend toward luxury leisure hubs with movie theaters, grocery stores, and gyms.

Opinion

These luxury spaces offer a much different experience from the department stores where shoppers could linger, stroll, people-watch, eat a meal and use a restroom. These stores offered refuge from bustling streets, a few moments of delight and escape from everyday doldrums.

I grew up with stories of department stores’ golden age. My mother, who window-shopped on lunch breaks from her secretarial job, mourned Gimbels with the devotion of a dearly departed relative.

Stacy Torres.jpg
Stacy Torres

My mother would take me to see Santa at Macy’s in Herald’s Square before we crossed the street to Woolworth’s for a cafeteria meal and modest Christmas gifts. The ephemeral beauty of window displays were a civic gift.

These special commercial public spaces are quickly turning into “zombie malls,” with business forecasters predicting a quarter of U.S. malls will close in the next few years.

With their closing we have fewer opportunities to enlarge our social worlds with face-to-face interactions; to rub elbows with people different from ourselves; to strengthen our patience, trust and contact with strangers. These seemingly minor nicks at our collective commercial and civic life open up another void in a time of political divide.

Some young shoppers still pick up on the pleasures of the in-person experience, according to reports. My 13-year-old nephew would rather take his savings to the store than pay cheaper prices my sister might find online.

“He loves to go and browse,” she said. “But there’s not too many good stores left for that anymore.”

My nephew senses this: Online shopping can feel a lot like eating junk food. He prefers to digest his purchase as part of a more fulfilling shopping experience. To survive, retailers need to tap into the early pleasure these young shoppers find in social shopping as they mature and obtain credit cards of their own.

And other steps should be taken. We should develop incentives using public-private partnerships to convert empty anchor stores in dying malls into accessible public atriums and community spaces. We should protect retail workers so they can take care of themselves and their families, in turn bolstering their ability to provide customer service that makes visiting stores more attractive. Consumer patterns might have changed, but the need for pleasure and connection remains.

So if you find yourself with no choice but to make a last-minute trip to the store this holiday season, don’t grumble. You could be helping save an endangered experience.

Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. She may be reached at Stacy.Torres@ucsf.edu.
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