Old School Shopping

Seeing holiday decorations, like this trio of wreathes on an historic house in downtown Guilford, CT., puts me in a festive mood.

I’m doing most of my Christmas shopping in person this year.

I usually shop online to spare myself the craziness: crowds, long lines, rifled shelves with missing sizes, packed mall parking lots and cold and flu germs. Who would do that when you can go on your computer and shop with the click of a button?

But here’s the thing: none of the stores are that crowded, at least in southern Connecticut. Stores are brimming with merchandise slashed as much as 70 percent to draw shoppers. And though I may be overstating my case, it’s my little way of trying to keep retail alive.

Over the past few weeks, a large plumbing supply company and bedding store along our commercial strip abruptly closed, leaving behind shuttered storefronts. Our town is dotted with closed businesses with lease signs in the windows, a sad sign of lost jobs, income and broken dreams in our online economy.

This plumbing supply company was a quick and convenient stop for everything from new faucets to toilets. It abruptly closed its doors a few weeks ago.

It makes you wonder what will be around next month or next year. If Sears, JC Penney and Toys R Us can’t weather the tide, can any retail establishment survive in the digital age?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a proud member of AmazonPrime and enjoy the convenience of online shopping as much as anyone else. But I find there’s a certain emptiness to online shopping around the holidays. There’s no sense of accomplishment, enthusiasm or holiday spirit that goes along with it, at least for me. 

The Amazon boxes arrive on my doorstep and I bring them in, often not even bothering to open them to see what’s inside. (How can anybody be so lazy?) I’ve bought the items, but I’m not all that interested in them, perhaps because I’ve made no real investment in the process.

When I go to a store, my senses are engaged, particularly sight, sound and touch. The sight of a sparkly holiday top is enticing, while the feel of a soft gray velour sweater is delightful. (I’m an extremely tactile person. I’m a sucker for anything soft and fuzzy, explaining why I’m sitting here in a new pair of JCrew lounge pants I impulse bought. Let’s keep this our little secret.)

The sound of Christmas carols get me in the holiday spirit, making me realize how much music can influence mood. Standing in the JCrew outlet checkout line, Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czhZbqpyBm8 comes on, making me wonder how this catchy little ditty slipped my notice for 30 years. I must have been living under a rock.

Shopping in person also gives me a chance to try to get it right with sizes for my daughter the first time. I bring in her favorite jeans to the Lucky Brand outlet store in nearby Clinton, CT.  Though the style has been discontinued, two saleswomen do their best to find a close facsimile.

It’s always fun to see how downtown merchants dress their windows. I love the cardinals in a lighted tree in this store window.

One looks up the style in the computer, determining that they’re a mid-rise skinny jean. When they show me something similar, they ask about my daughter’s body type and whether she’s got muscular legs. This will help determine if they’ll look good or just sit in the closet.

Without prodding, they tell me which jeans they like, and how they hate low-riding (aka hip huggers) that slip below love handles (Doesn’t everyone? Seriously, why are these still on the market?). Our discussion prompts another customer to point out that she’s wearing the jeans I’m considering for my daughter. Sold.

At a nearby running store where I’m the only customer, a saleswoman who runs marathons accompanies me around the store, pointing out the best running pants and equipment for my daughter. She draws heavily on her own experience, giving me insight into why certain socks are great, or why every runner needs chafing protection. (Where has this woman been all my life?)

I’m not saying all salespeople are great. In fact, many are awful, preferring to stack and fold sweaters or chitchat than offer a greeting or assistance. But I don’t think there’s any substitute for a helpful and knowledgeable salesperson. Most are in their jobs because they want to help. They don’t expect you to know as much about the merchandise as they do, and are happy to offer advice if asked.

I know this because I work in a small gift shop that helps support a group of cloistered nuns. One of my jobs is knowing the merchandise so when people come in, I can point them in the right direction. My first rule is to acknowledge everyone. I don’t think there’s anything worse than entering a store and being ignored by a salesperson.

Most customers have a pretty good idea of what they want when they come through the heavy wooden doors. But others are stumped, unsure what to give the grandchild making their Confirmation or the young couple buying their first house.

As a salesperson, it’s my job to help people and I take enormous satisfaction helping them find the right gift. I think people would view salespeople differently if they understood that most of us want to be helpful. I think people would look at shopping in person differently if they realized that people count on it to survive.

With no online shopping, our shop depends on people coming through the doors. Perhaps this is part of the reason that I’m going to stores this year: I realize how important customers and the personal touch are to this whole operation. 

I can’t expect people to shop in person if I’m unwilling to do it, so I’m making the commitment to show up this year. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long, but I’m doing most of my shopping old-school this year.

I’m hitting the stores, chipping away at it an hour at a time like my 84-year-old mother, who still does most of her holiday shopping in person. I’ve had my share of cardboard boxes. Now, I want to feel the weight of a full shopping bag and the sense of accomplishment it brings.

15 thoughts on “Old School Shopping

  1. I was talking to Ally spectacled bean the other day about shopping. The stores are doing nothing to entice me….they’re so disorganized, which is my issue. However, I did enjoy the seasonal pop up markets that have sprouted up, because they make the displays attractive and help you out. It’s a catch 22…

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  2. Thank you! Having been a retailer my whole life, it is nice to hear that there are still people who want the personal touch. I have trained many salespeople in my time, none on commission and tried to instill a sense of pride in their jobs. A lot of people look at retail as just a way to earn money in-between “real jobs” but it is a real job with real people trying to earn a living. The only on line shopping I do is Etsy and some food(baked goods) sent to faraway relatives. I shop small because these people truly are your neighbors and deserve support. Thanks again for supporting us and have a great Christmas.

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  3. A very important reminder about local economies. My wife had to remind me of this recently when I moaned about her wanting to stop at Barnes and Noble while we were out shopping (full disclosure: she tends to want to linger in there beyond the time expectations I have in my own mind). I made a lame criticism that it’s not truly a local business but merely a corporate franchise. However, she just as quickly remarked, “yes, but those are local people who have JOBS there.” Point well taken. #shoplocal. – Marty

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    • It’s true. When the plumbing supply place closed, people just commented on the other places people could go. No one talked about the lost jobs. You have to wonder where people will be able to find jobs. Every little bit helps.

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  4. I couldn’t agree more. A few months ago I needed new running shoes. I usually go to our local running store where I can try on 10 different brands and only one will fit perfectly. The brand I wore for several years was no longer comfortable. The sales person, a college athlete, noted that several customers had a similar experience with the brand recently. After discussing my situation, she recommended another brand (which she wears on long runs and in training) and my new pair is terrific. There’s no substitute for that face-to-face input.

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  5. I completely agree! Online shopping can be convenient, and it certainly has a place in our lives. But I hate the thought of it replacing all retail stores (which is Amazon’s intent). There is something so nice about going to an actual store, and being able to physically exam something before we buy it and to have an actual shopping experience. I don’t want to spend my whole life sitting at home in front of my computer.
    But most importantly, real people need those jobs! And we need to be willing to make the effort to keep them in business, I think.

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  6. I do little or no Xmas shopping; my wife does a truckload, and she’s had it. I’ve grown ambivalent about Xmas for a myriad of reasons. One thing I’ve noticed – after listening to the same Xmas songs for70 years, I’m sick to death of most of them. Family and friends are what I enjoy, and I enjoy them 12 months a year. I’m not the grinch or Scrooge, it’s just that Xmas leaves much to be desired for me personally. It’s grossly over-commercialized, and I’m not religious.

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