I work as a fashion designer. So, for better or worse, shopping the stores is part of my job. A few weeks ago I spent a day at South Coast Plaza, the biggest, most prestigious shopping mall in Orange County. It wasn’t close enough to Christmas to be crazy on a weekday but there were a fair number of shoppers in the stores.
I realize that you might not have empathy for me, but after walking all day I finally sat down in the Tory Burch store to lounge on their fabulous couches and rest for a moment. Tory Burch is one of the hottest brands out there today and their stores are always crowded. This day was no exception. Next to me on the sofa were several women trying on pair after pair of the newest boots contemplating and debating every detail. There were a few men, obviously on a mission for their wives, and several women “just looking” but what really struck me was a woman slumped across from me in a plush overstuffed chair. At this location they process all payments in the back of the store. This allows their customers to sit down for a few moments to wait for their (beautifully) wrapped packages to be delivered to them. I could see that she was waiting for her purchase.
She looked completely defeated. Her shoulders were slumped, she had another shopping bag at her feet and she seemed miserable. She didn’t have a lovely glass of champagne in her hand or one of the tiny little bottles of water that they bring for anyone who asks. She seemed isolated and alone, waiting with resignation for something I’m not at all sure that she even wanted.
What I was witnessing was the opposite of Joy. I realized in looking back on the day that I had seen this on face after face in the mall that day. When did this happen? When did the joy go out of shopping? When did shopping become a chore?
I thought about the way shopping, especially shopping for clothing, has transformed for myself. I used to get excited about each and every purchase. I would save for things, lust after things, watch for sales and be delighted when I finally brought something I had desperately wanted home. I realize that I don’t do that anymore. If I really want something and I love it I will usually just buy it. Truthfully though, I don’t buy much anymore. One of the reasons, certainly, is that I have several closets full of clothes I don’t wear but beyond that I find that I don’t yearn for THINGS the way I used to.
When I was fifteen all I wanted was a pair of Hash jeans. In my little town in North Dakota Hash jeans were the epitome of high fashion. Popular girls had multiple pairs. I just wanted one. They were outrageously expensive for the time. Now most of us are desensitized to the price of denim, many people don’t blink at jeans that cost $200 and up. At the time my mother still bought Plain Pockets jeans from JC Penney. I don’t know what those Hash jeans cost, but they were the equivalent of many pairs of Plain Pockets. No matter how hard I pleaded with my mother she wouldn’t budge. Plain Pockets were good enough for me.
So I dreamed and I strategized and I saved until I finally had enough money to purchase my own pair of Hash jeans. I clearly remember the day I actually went into the store to buy them. What distinguished Hash jeans from every other brand at the time was the fact that they had different embroidered designs on one of the back pockets. I easily spent over an hour in the store debating between the different options before deciding on a pair with an EAGLE on the back pocket. I was happy to hand over my hard-earned money in exchange for this fantastic symbol of lavish luxury. I wore them as often as I dared with pride. Acquiring those jeans was an accomplishment for me. They meant something.
Today I have a drawer with a dozen pairs of expensive jeans that I never wear. None of them are special. None of them have an eagle on the back pocket.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the future of retail, about how brick and mortar stores can differentiate themselves from all the online options available today. I think the key lies in changing the shopping experience for the consumer. It lies in finding a way to allow that shopper in the Tory Burch store to find JOY again in the shopping process. It lies in educating consumers about the everyday choices they make between quality and quantity and how these decisions affect us all. It lies in each of us taking responsibility for how and why we buy things and what they mean to us.
As we round the bend towards the end of this holiday shopping season may we all keep this in mind. Whether you are still buying gifts for others or buying things for yourself, what is special to you? What is really valuable to you? What will bring you or your friends and family JOY?
How has the shopping experience changed for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.