In Defense of IRL Shopping

In-person browsing allows for something that’s become a novelty in our algorithm-addled age: serendipity.

A gif of a pixelated, digital gift box
Erik Carter/The Atlantic

Online shopping has been on the rise for the past two decades, spiking abruptly (and unsurprisingly) during the pandemic. My household certainly did its part; for the past few years, we’ve filled our digital shopping cart, struggled to recall the credit-card number, and summoned groceries, kids’ clothing, and CDs (yes, I still buy them) to the porch.

I was grateful for the delivery trucks, suddenly everywhere and idling. But by 2021, I’d had enough of scrolling. I was missing an essential human activity, one that’s necessary to the nourishment and advancement of the soul. I was missing it so much, in fact, I wrote a small book about it: a long-form ode to the art of in-person browsing. To browse is to wriggle free of algorithms, strike out for brick-and-mortar stores, and wrangle actual stuff—books, DVDs, and records—in proximity to other corporeal forms. To browse is to open oneself up to boredom, aimlessness, and, crucially, serendipity. It’s to wander the world with one’s smartphone firmly pocketed.

This approach is especially helpful during the holidays. You might have a specific list in mind, but browsing expands those ideas, exposing you to unforeseen possibilities—arranged on shelves by human hands. Sure, shops can be hectic during the holidays. But there’s plenty of festive stimuli to savor: the nondenominational Starbucks cup, the visions of sugar-plum fairies, the Vince Guaraldi.

Online holiday shopping, conversely, dispenses with the hustle and bustle of real-world browsing—but all the pleasure too. It boils the full-bodied practice of perusing material reality in person down to thumb and screen. It relegates the shopper to their browser and reduces browsing to scrolling. It’s a poisoned chalice, packaged in bubble wrap.


When I was in my early 20s, holiday shopping was a breeze. I had a small family with virtually no extended relatives. I dealt with Christmas mostly by way of gift card, no browsing required. The cards were acquired on foot, usually at a mall. My sister liked a Canadian clothing chain called Jacob (now mostly defunct), and my mom was partial to The Bay (a beloved department store) and Tim Hortons (a beloved purveyor of bad coffee). My father collected stamps, so the Canada Post counter, at the back of Shoppers Drug Mart, sufficed.

Now, 20 years later, the pool of giftees has swelled. My father is gone, but my sister has a husband and three children. My wife and I have two young kids who require toys from Santa’s workshop, not gift cards. What’s more, the wife has family, and the family is serious about gift giving. My in-laws even exchange stockings, a ritual I’ve come to adopt. The stockings are great fun but require brain power. And browsing. Lots of browsing.

Before the pandemic, my wife and I did our share of in-person holiday shopping. We had our gift lists, but we benefited from the chance finds made possible when navigating a brick-and-mortar store. (Plus, assembling the manifold elements of a stocking—especially a kid’s—was easy to do when confronted with shelves and bins.) I knew I could simply show up at a Kate Spade, pan my gaze across the shop, and zero in on a couple of quick wins—a wallet, say, or a necklace.

But during the pandemic, our analog browsing tailed off. Toronto’s second lockdown began on November 23, 2020, a month ahead of Christmas. By that point, heading online seemed like a no-brainer, even if some stores were still open to foot traffic.

The digital shopping cart is tantalizingly convenient. You submit what you’re after to the search bar, scroll through a linear list of options, and click. Yes, you’re strong-armed directly to some product page and thus aren’t very likely to stumble on something unexpected. (The algorithm is the enemy of chance finds.) But online shopping is easy and safe—at least for the people placing the order. A shiver passes through some distant fulfillment center, and a box embarks for your address, the human labor faceless. It’s long been the optimal transaction for grinches who object to crowds and Christmas music—and it has been handy for those with compromised health or a cautious disposition. Why not shop online?

The eye-straining screens, for one. If you work all day in front of a laptop, you might not want to spend your evening there too. Online holiday shopping sends you back to your screen—or the screen of your significant other, that loved one who wants to walk you through gift options and solicit your opinion. (Watching someone else scroll on a laptop is surely one of the penances described in Dante’s terza rima.)

Worse, those gift options are hypothetical, even when they purport to be readily available. Not infrequently has my household arrived at a consumer decision and triumphantly clicked “Check Out” only to find that the desired tchotchke, on hand mere moments before, is out of stock, the tech-bro deities having hurled a thunderbolt at our hubris.

This doesn’t happen when eyeballing the goods in a store. Cashmere and nonfiction and Nintendo Switches don’t dissolve into smoke when you reach for them. The bounty is whatever you can see and heft—or whatever the sales associate, returning from some back room, has managed to rustle up. Oh, and discovering that a store doesn’t have something you’re looking for is nowhere near as frustrating as getting an email with the subject header “There have been a few changes to your order,” which I received on the very day I was editing this article.

Put another way, in-person browsing is instantly illuminating. Last November, ahead of the second pandemic Christmas, my wife and I took a turn around a half-empty Toys “R” Us and filled a cart—the old-school kind—with gifts for the kids. Although we’d been shopping online as well, the full and physical cart was clarifying. No futzing with dozens of open tabs, no balancing scales in our mind, no surprises; we could see what was in front of us and judge what we had for each child. A novelty in our digital world: to have a grasp on the actual size and quality of things.

What’s more, there are no mysterious delays when you wheel your cart to the register. The sales associate hands over your bagged items; you bring said items home. But not a year has gone by when some opaque shipping snafu hasn’t left me or a loved one shy an important gift come Christmas morning.

In-person browsing also helps prevent your dwelling from devolving into a warehouse of filthy, corrugated boxes from Halloween through Christmas Eve. Maybe this isn’t a problem for you; maybe you’re organized. But as packages arrive at my address, the harried adults hustle them to the basement—away from the pupils and paws of small children—where they pile up like the crates in Xanadu at the end of Citizen Kane. Someone might slit open a box to confirm what’s inside. But they inevitably procrastinate on the processing of cardboard and plastic and bubble wrap, because there are dishes to wash and lunches to assemble and, of course, more boxes to summon.

All that packaging and reliance on fast shipping is a gut punch to the climate. According to Martina Igini at Earth.org, many of those delivery vans idling in your neighborhood are never more than half full so that companies can make their narrow shipping windows. “When consumers opt for a fast delivery,” she writes, “the emissions far exceed those generated from in-person shopping.” (I’ll leave it to you, dear scroller, to Google fulfillment-center working conditions.)

Browsing isn’t just better for carbon levels; it’s better for the soul. Online shopping promises abundance, but too many choices can paralyze. (To click or not to click?) It certainly seems like you have agency when scrolling; after all, you can hop from hyperlink to hyperlink or fan out your browser windows like trading cards. But you’re also potentially at the mercy of consumer-gouging algorithms and the whims of websites that suddenly, like Bartleby, prefer not to load.

Most essentially: In person, en route to the things you think you want, you will sometimes stumble on the unanticipated things you actually need. You will also encounter other souls whose job it is to help you. Sometimes you even run into people you know. Serendipity presides over browsing like a goddess her realm; your scrolling, on the other hand, is the purview of some dude in Silicon Valley.

My family will certainly do its share of online shopping this year. But now that the 3-year-old is properly vaccinated, we’re ready to return to brick-and-mortar stores and browse again. There will be light-entwined and wonder-inducing fir trees, intricate window dioramas, cosplay Kris Kringles (and their elven support staff), carolers we’ll try not to make eye contact with, the call of coffee kiosks, and, on the PA, some of the finest studio recordings by Elvis, Mariah, and Darlene.

Am I being sentimental? Maybe. But the youngest members of the household—who aren’t yet cynical about the seasonal worker behind the Santa Claus beard—will be thrilled. What a gift.