Retail Report: A Deep Dive into Dodgy Downtown
(Caveat: If you live near one of the suburban malls that is not dying — most of them reportedly are, but not all — the following may ring hollow. Some of us swore off malls back when they were thriving. But we never swore off going Downtown.)
Remember downtown department stores? As handy as online shopping is, I miss department stores.
Well, what I REALLY miss are the uniformed elevator operators who sang out, “Floor six: Lingerie, women’s handbags . . .” and things like that, as they politely pulled back the folding grate and reminded you to watch your step. And the salesladies roaming around, eager to help you find the right size. And the doormen who weren’t packing guns.
Mostly, though, I just miss the people. You know, those crowds of preoccupied shoppers rushing around as if you and they were together on some important mission. In a crowd. Not necessarily a Filene’s Basement type crowd or an end-of-the-holiday-sales crowd, but a buzz-producing crowd at least. Isn’t wandering amongst fellow humans the whole idea behind not shopping online?
Crowds, however, are hard to come by in these antsy maybe-post covid days.
In a burst of enthusiasm for fellow over-consumers, I ventured into San Francisco’s Union Square Macy’s store. There are actual tourists around Union Square now, most of them dressed in newly purchased sweatshirts — selling sweatshirts to tourists who think San Francisco observes summertime is how the city supports itself. But the tourists were mostly getting onto tour buses, which are heated. And anyway, why would anyone with a brain plan a trip to San Francisco and go to Macy’s?
Which leaves the locals to shop in a department store, and the locals with brains have long since quit hanging out at Union Square. (I go to Union Square a lot. It’s a never-uninteresting two mile walk from my place and I am at peace with my unhoused fellow citizens.) In need of a new backpack, I figured Macy’s Union Square would be the place to go. Plus, you know, crowds of fellow humans. Wearing masks maybe, in honor of the latest Covid variant, a new one of which seems to appear every other day — but still: crowds of fellow humans.
Do not go to a department store for company. For a game, maybe — plenty of colorful aisles along which one might roll bowling balls.
Also, do not expect to find salespeople at a department store. They have long since all found something more rewarding to do from home, and the department store people have long since given up paying salespeople to hang out with their non-crowds. What you will find at a department store are unmanned checkout counters scattered amongst rows and rows of pricey stuff you could more easily get online.
So here’s the deal: you wander around picking up pricey stuff and feeling forlorn because there is no one to take your credit card. You consider just going home with the merch, but then you remember the guys with guns at the outside doors — none of whom looked like checkout people (in a manner of speaking.)
If you’re lucky, though, before you faint from dehydration (it’s wise to carry a water bottle on shopping excursions) you will spot a person hanging up merchandise who doesn’t look like a shopper. And on being asked if she knows how you might pay for something she smiles and takes your stuff into her own hands. “Sure, dear,” she says. “We’ll just go right over this way.”
And you are on your way home with a lovely new backpack.