The Forgotten Glories of Department Stores

Amazon offers shoppers unlimited choices. But a limited selection of well-chosen options offers a different—and more useful—kind of convenience.

People shopping at Macy's during Black Friday
Diane Bondareff / AP

I renewed my relationship with department stores two years ago, on a sopping wet September evening in Amsterdam after a workshop I had been invited to participate in. Thousands of miles away from my home in Canada, I had just received the kind of invitation a lifelong film nerd like me could not refuse: a spot at a premiere party at the Toronto International Film Festival. The problem: It was happening the night I was to return from Europe.

“I can make it,” I insisted to my doubtful colleagues in Amsterdam. “I’ll have just enough time to go home, shower and change, then leave. I just have nothing to wear when I get there.”

They all had the same recommendation: De Bijenkorf.

They led me through pouring rain along swollen canals to the flagship location of the Dutch retail giant—where, quite by accident, I quickly became reacquainted with the many conveniences of pre-internet commerce, which are now on the verge of disappearing.

On the rare occasions I’ve shopped at department stores, it’s been at the nearest outlet of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the venerable trading firm that was chartered by the English Crown in 1670 and helped colonize Canada. It lives on, for now, as a retail chain for shoppers of ordinary means. I hoped De Bijenkorf might feature similar price tags.

Is it like The Bay? Or Macy’s? I asked the people who recommended it.

It’s like Nordstrom, I was told. Or Saks.

I gulped and considered my other options. Ordering a dress online would mean guessing at sizes and hoping for the best when I got back home to Toronto. I had already RSVP’d to the party. Given my other obligations in Amsterdam, I had just shy of 90 minutes to make a decision about an unplanned expenditure on clothing that I would wear among professionally beautiful people. I was living a stress dream.

And so I marched into the department store to try on dresses. Like a growing number of global consumers, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done so—I even bought my wedding dress online. De Bijenkorf was quiet. Blissfully so. After the double onslaught of rain and the crowds lining Amsterdam’s streets, it was as if I were entering a cathedral, albeit one consecrated to a retro kind of consumerism. Like all the best cathedrals, it even had its own fragrance. The ladies’ department (my status as a “lady” being a question for another time) was curated by someone with an actual design sensibility, rather than an algorithm trained to offer me Instagram’s fake news in fashion form. A limited selection of items makes for fast shopping. Instead of sifting through an infinite number of items online, I quickly spotted, tried on, and purchased a dress—in International Klein Blue—that I’ve worn multiple times since. My companions and I even had time for drinks in the upstairs bar afterward. Was this the experience I’d been missing out on for years?

To study the decline of department-store retail is to study the erosion of the middle class. Department stores emerged in tandem with the bourgeoisie in the late 18th century, as the Industrial Revolution and the spread of electric light allowed rapid fabrication and longer work hours to spread the wealth once established only through landowning and slaveholding. Department stores provided one-stop shopping for consumers who had time and money to spend—just not too much of either.

But stagnant wages mean stagnant spending. The retail landscape has polarized along with the rest of the economy: Walmart on one side, Bloomingdale’s on the other. Even opulence is no guarantee of survival. New York’s venerable Barneys has gone bust; its iconic Madison Avenue store will now become a “pop-up retail experience.” We’re not far from Meow Wolf and Punchdrunk reviving the department store as a performance-art space with the occasional touchless transaction sprinkled in.

This is not to discount (pun intended) the failure of department stores to embrace a changing customer and a changing society. The department store has always relied on one customer segment in particular: women with enough time and money to shop on weekdays. There was also a stubborn refusal to desegregate, with department stores being frequent sites of protest during the 20th-century civil-rights movement. White flight and the ensuing suburban sprawl meant a variety of branch stores that hollowed out downtown department-store flagships. The legacy of division lingers: In 2014, Barneys settled a racial-profiling complaint to the tune of $525,000. And despite the relative ease of online shopping, in-store shopping is still a design disaster for people with disabilities. Department stores are experts at categorization, and your comfort in their space depends on whether they consciously make room for your category.

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.

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.