I remember shopping at a Woolworths (5 & 10) when I was just a kid. I think I was given a whole dollar to spend however I liked. There was a lunch counter where you could get a grilled cheese sandwich and a vanilla milk shake and still have enough change for a tip. Woolworths was known for its musty wooden bins, filled with paper fans, coloring books, comics, Silly Putty and Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, jumbo bubble wands that promised to make the worlds largest bubbles, record albums, yo-yos that lit up, wooden tops that whistled, and a hundred things I had to have. I came home with a goldfish in a fluted glass vase, and three giant size Tootsie Rolls. (Note to readers: the Tootsie Rolls lasted longer than the goldfish.) Shopping was fun. It was a treasure hunt–how much garish stuff could I get for so little!?
When I was in Junior High School, the Livingston Mall opened up. It was slick and modern, clad in white brick, a weekend excursion that my family took without fail. I spent hours at Azuma, an import store that sold glass toothbrushes; three book stores, one that sold “The Nothing Book;” Wick’s & Sticks, where they sold candles that smelled like fresh mown grass; Spenser Gifts, with its psychedelic and black light posters. I trolled the hierarchy of suburban chic retailers, shopping from Macy’s (high-end) to Sears (low-end). We ate jumbo chocolate chip cookies from Mrs. Fields. I could window shop at Roots (men’s clothing) and the Mod Shop. I went through every poster at The Poster Mat. There was a kiosk called Bonsai, where bonsai trees were sold along with Japanese calendars made out of bamboo shoots. The mall was safe, enclosed and free from the constraints of weather. Most importantly, I could break away from my parents–shopping was a rite of passage for an adolescent, providing the caveat that I returned to the big fountain by the exit at the designated time to meet them. Shopping was fun. It was a scavenger hunt. How many self-defining things could I find in so little time?
Shopping traces my life. If I did not write my autobiography, but just wrote about shopping, you would still have a fairly comprehensive view of my life.
Shopping is still a primary occupation in my life. I seldom buy–I long ago reached the saturation point, but I do shop. Do I enjoy it? Yes, definitely. Is it “fun”? Sometimes to seldom. Shopping was once a fun thing to do. It was an adventure, riddled with surprises. Shopping was meant to entertain, delight and amuse. Those days are long gone. Shopping has become a serious activity. It’s a task, a chore. It’s brand trumping price-point, it’s price-point trumping product, it’s product trumping visual. The paradigm is set in stone like the 10 commandments; thou shall not have false stores before me, and honor that retailer.
The experience of creating an environment reached beyond the shade of the ivory wall and how dark the stains on the wood fixtures are. Case in point, Banana Republic (many years ago) had an iconic jeep crashing out of their store's exterior; they sold used silk parachutes, pith helmets and cargo pants in camouflage print. Walking into their store, you were transported into the African dessert, or an Egyptian archeological dig. Today, I’m transported back to my office. Yikes, that’s not fun, I just came from there.
Store windows once were theatrical, whimsical, topical, dramatic, poignant, funny and a thousand other adjectives. They had the hand of an individual stamped on them. Windows today are more predictable, familiar, derivative and rigid. They have the stamp of approval from the Director of Sales, the Director of Visual and Creative Services, and the Director of Operations. Alas, none of them seems to know what I want, or how to sell it. I could be in Ann Arbor or Istanbul. Esprit and ZARA look the same, city to city, country to country. Creativity and uniqueness are no longer trusted values, sameness and uniformity are. Lest I be accused of painting the picture all black, there are lots of exceptions–the two that come first to mind are Bergdorf and Barneys, which are always fun. It isn’t rocket science, it's common sense tempered with imagination.
Product assortment is indistinguishable. I can get a pistachio green v-neck sweater at Nordstrom, Aeropostale, JCPenney, The Gap, Uniqulo, Polo Ralph Lauren, Club Monaco, H&M or Brooks Brothers. So where’s the incentive? When something (or someone) embraces “fun,” it’s extraordinary. When retailers merchandise the same or similar product differently, we are drawn to it.
With nods to Cindi Lauper, “Shoppers just want to have fun!" When was the last time you had fun shopping? Do tell.
–Ron Knoth, Guest Blogger