Farewell Department Stores

We may be losing more than we think

Opening day newspaper advertisement for the Fedway Department Store in Bakersfield, California 1954

I’m not a traditionalist. But when it comes to small town department stores, I do confess to some regret as they and the megastores that displaced them, fade from the retail scene. These smaller-town department stores were centers of commercial life, conversation, and what passed as popular culture long before online meant anything other than standing in one. Do I feel the same about Amazon, Stitch Fix, or Zappos? No way. My long-deceased father, who managed department stores for decades, would have explained the difference in a single word: salesmanship

Salesmanship might seem a strange behavior to extoll in the time of Trump, yet that’s the point. The concept of gentle and intelligent persuasion has been debased by the quest for the best, cheapest and quickest deal. As for salesmanship, who needs it? Most would say it just gets in the way. And perhaps it does when you’re rushing toward a virtual shopping world where even the existing stores are simply showrooms for a web “experience.”

But in this future of clicks and mortar it’s not just the tactile experience we are leaving behind. It’s the human experience. Call it quaint, but interacting with professional, career-minded salespeople in the controlled environment of a department store was a perfect training ground for critical thinking skills. Whether it was a shirt or a washing machine, you were tested by inquiries, tempted by suggestions, alienated by glibness, charmed by honesty, or on guard against banter. And all the while you were evaluating and assessing others, just like our ancestors on the savanna. You were learning how, what, and if to choose and by so doing, putting your brain to work in league with — and sometimes against — the brains of others.

Salesmanship, after all, is centered on common human interests leading to an exchange. The exchange — in this case a purchase — was based on need some of the time, want most of the time, and feelings all of the time. In my father’s era, professional sales staff also knew that the full department store experience could be like a date, including shared confessions and the occasional intimacy. I still recall being asked during a fitting for dress pants whether I wore my penis on the left or the right. (It affects the inseam.]

If this exchange sounds creepy today, consider what kind of information is already available to online retailers, how it is assembled into profiles and constantly refined with every purchase or search term. What was once in a salesperson’s head — your last purchase, the colors or brands you prefer — is now part of an algorithm, and an algorithm doesn’t care about you in any way other than tapping your wallet. Sure, one could say that a department store salesperson didn’t care much either; it was just a job. The difference is that there was a face to the transaction, which in my father’s credo, meant that there was an implied human promise and a personal accountability. Quite literally, you knew where the salesperson lived and it wasn’t in the cloud.

There was another face to small department stores, too. Call it the sour puss, particularly when it came to returning merchandise. Yet even here there was a deeper truth at work. Returning merchandise was unpleasant because as a customer you had failed in your duty to purchase thoughtfully and wisely with the help of competent, expert staff. This was the department store’s role: To provide choice, of course, but curated choice because it both anticipated your taste and shaped it. It knew you, its customers. In return, you did not casually return items. You had spent the time to consider your purchase and used your critical thinking skills to evaluate their worth. Lay-away plans nurtured this long view.

There’s no point now in belaboring the obvious. Competition has crushed the old department store culture and while some stores might survive, they will likely be hot-house creations for specialty audiences, not Main Street mainstays. Mega malls that hosed downtown shopping districts and giant stores flooded with cheap merchandise each share the blame for this outcome, and will reap the whirlwind as well. But I also wonder how much poor wages and the decline in status of retail sales careers helped fuel the decline. We’ll never know for sure. But in our farewell salute, I’d like to remember department stores as more than trading posts; they were teaching and learning centers, staffed by professionals, places where we learned how to navigate the mercantile world that is America. Today’s lessons? Think on that question the next time you’re scanning your own purchases at the checkout line and packing your own bags — all in the belief that you’re keeping prices low. Perhaps we should now drop the letter “c” in cheap and replace it with an “s.”