For some time, department-store chains have also been trying mightily to capture their own best features online. Amazon’s imperial sprawl allows you to order salsa, saw blades, and syringes from the same website. But such variety is not terribly helpful when you realize, belatedly, that an upcoming reception is a black-tie affair and your client expects you to find something appropriate in a hurry. I was in just this predicament earlier this year. After a flurry of anxious texting with friends, I picked up a dress from the Bay online. If it didn’t fit, I reasoned, I could return it in person and pick up something else.
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But I needn’t have worried. The size chart was accurate, and the website functioned intuitively. I could filter results by price, size, brand, color, sleeve length, hem length, and event type. My other experiences were the same, when I shopped for sheets, pillows, towels, and dishes—all of which I picked up for 50 percent off or more at prices comparable to Canadian prices on Amazon, and all of which were delivered within two or three days for free. All of this happened without my relying on a mysterious third-party retailer or a delivery mechanism that involves entering my home unattended.
This should not have felt revelatory, but it did. Were my choices limited? Yes. But that made my process blisteringly fast. Rather than wandering in the dark-pattern labyrinth of an e-commerce giant that offered me everything but expected me to devote my own time and energy to navigating it, I found what I needed on a traditional retailer’s website. It was a close approximation to the experience of asking a department store customer-service rep for help and being brought immediately to what I was looking for. Recently I had a similarly pleasant experience while procuring a duvet cover. As a shopper, I was in the zone—the Goldilocks Zone.
Even so, the department store is still best experienced in person. Shopping in physical space sustains more than just the retailer. Foot traffic—whether it’s in a department store, a strip mall, or an unbearably twee neighborhood ruled by a local branch of the stroller mafia—creates nonautomated jobs for real people. Foot traffic means coffee, or lunch, or drinks, and those mean tips for tipped workers. Foot traffic means standing cheek by jowl with neighbors whose names you don’t yet know. What is retail therapy for you as an individual is therapeutic for public spaces. It’s no accident that urban mixed-use real-estate developers have taken the most blandly pleasant aspects of the public square and nestled them in the heart of commercially zoned real estate.
For the shrinking ranks of department stores to survive, shoppers will have to realize that convenience comes in multiple forms, and that the literally centuries of expertise these stores have in helping people find what they need remains valuable, whether online or in the flesh. So this holiday season, while they’re still around, you might just want to take advantage.