As a child of the sixties, I can well remember the sense of magic accompanying my mother on her shopping trips into Manhattan, New York City at Christmas time. The cliché and slogan of the Manhattan shopping experience “A World of Wonder” was perhaps an understatement in this former child’s eyes. There was FAO Schwartz were toys came alive, and Bambergers’s “The World’s Greatest Department Store” and B Altman’s “Where Style was Born” and Alexander’s whose slogan was “You’ll find Alexander’s has what you are looking for; how lucky can you get”.
Although my mother’s working class purse was severely limited being the prolific Catholic Mom that she was. The thrill of traveling to the big city during the most decorated time of the year was intoxicating to this suburban kid from Jersey.
When I came to Rhode Island in my young adulthood, there was the Outlet Company downtown where I obtained my first department store credit card. Also, there was G Fox at the Midland Mall where I obtained my second one. Apex on Greenwich Avenue in Warwick was great for finding almost everything. And Zayre was the perfect place to pick up clothes for the little ones when my children arrived. Last but not least, the best place to find the kiddos’ toys at a reasonable price was Benny’s which sadly went defunct this year.
These stores were not only part of fond memories of the past they were part of our culture. Something has been lost in their extinction. In our highly computerized world, where Amazon is king and presently courted by competing states to set up distribution centers and regional headquarters, perhaps a moment of contemplation about what we are losing as a society with the impending demise of brick and mortar retailers is apt.
In American retail history, we have witnessed an evolution from the original cottage industry artisan, toymaker, cabinetmaker, seamstress, tailor, and street-cart pusher, and then transitioned to shopping at the corner store. Next consumers enjoyed the diversity and convenience of the department stores. But now all society’s young adults have been conditioned to seek the impersonal and mammoth Internet as their shopping venue.
Buying habits are reflective of changes in society’s paradigms. Today’s 18- to 30-year-old consumer’s first instinct is to fire up a search engine not jump in the car and go to the local store or the mall. The American teenager of just 15 years ago had perceived the mall as an altar of youth purchasing power, ear piercing, social engagement, fast-food dining and entertainment. Now that former cultural norm has been supplanted by kids clicking on a keyboard alone in their bedrooms.
Thus, propelling the question is our society better off with this dramatic change in buying habits? What have we lost culturally by ceding this part of our economy to the Internet? How can the brick and mortar retailer sustain themselves against this cultural trend?
Considering the start of the Christmas buying season now upon us, where should gift givers go to assist old Santa in his avocation?
In Early America, if one wished to provide some honed wooden toys for their children they either made them or the bought them from a local toymaker who usually worked at his home. Mrs. Whomever who you knew through the church could make you a pair of pants if you had a yard or two of fabric. And a cabinetmaker could produce a dining set for you in his barn where his saws and planes were kept. All shopping of the early Eighteen Hundreds involved personal relationships. Your family’s toymaker, seamstress, or furniture maker was part of your community and likely became your friend.
Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century storefronts replaced the home-based artisan. The corner store still maintained its personal relationships and its community standing. In the early Nineteen Hundreds, brick and mortar retailers of either downtown family owned companies or city-centered department stores emerged. The downtown retailer still nourished personal relationships and the department store became a comfortable neighborhood of merchandise that customers loved to frequent.
The key to success for the downtown “Mom and Pop” store was the business to family connection. If a retailer proved themselves to a family member inevitably they would become that family’s shop. Said family would become loyal to that company. Similarly, the department store’s success was presentation, diversity in offerings, and custom service. This dynamic was reflective of attitudes in America. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, society was family centered. So were their shopping habits. These downtown shops and favorite department stores were an extension of the feeling of family comfort and part of Americana.
Then in the second half of the 1900s a transition to suburban based malls began to supplant the commercial power of the downtown shopping areas.
The most conspicuous example of this transition here in Little Rhody is the story of downtown West Warwick, known as Arctic. From the 1930s to the 1960s, in central Rhode Island, the place to shop was Arctic! Seena’s, Maxine’s, St. Onge Clothiers, Sears, The Shoe Box, Majestic Hardware, Newberry’s, Woolworth’s, and Edwards Appliance and TV were just some of the robust retailers who were part of the social tapestry of Arctic, Rhode Island.
As the evolutional trend towards malls picked up steam in the sixties, downtown West Warwick began to falter just like downtowns all across the United States. The customer’s devotion to the neighborhood store gave way to the mall experience. And once again the way consumer consumed changed. Even in that transition, the personal interaction was lost to a great degree. No longer were customer’s families intertwined with small family stores. An entertaining environment took preference over loyalty and comfortable relationships. Malls also provided a social platform for young people to meet, which of course was not available in the downtown store format. Further on, malls were supplanted by super malls like Providence Place and Emerald Square, and by big box retail giants.
Those behemoths are now being slain by the computer. Cyber Mondays (the shopping day following Thanksgiving) is surpassing Black Friday (the shopping day following Thanksgiving) in sales. Rushing from store to store is now being replaced by a couple of hours in one’s pajamas on a couch.
So what is lost in this new shopping paradigm? First it is the shopping experience itself. The shopping excursions with my Mom into New York City, has been etched in my memory as one of the best recollections of my childhood. The sights and sounds of the season coupled with the positive holiday attitudes of fellow travelers bustling about cannot be felt while tapping on a keyboard. Some may depict the effort as a drudge, but most I believe would find the shopping experience gratifying.
Secondly, the remaining independent brick and mortar retailer not only supports his or her own families with their business they support the community. They pay property and inventory taxes to the municipalities, usually astronomically so in Rhode Island. They also support the local sports teams and charities. And when their gone, their loss of buttressing the community will not be replaced by some Internet retailer off in the cyberspace clouds.
Third, the personal service given by the independent businessperson is incomparable. He or she holds on to the old tried and true traditional notion that customers are extended family. As a result they strive to prove themselves to earn the consumer’s trust.
Without doubt the manner in which retail has been conducted has evolved over our nation’s history. However, since the Christmas season has commenced in earnest please consider this. There is an unseen value in the traditional process during the act of store shopping. The intrinsic worth of personal interactions, the joy of relating to others boosted by a sense of the season, the posteriori experience of the sights and sounds of the holiday, and the act of supporting those who support your community all add up to a greatly enhanced holiday season.
So, Season Greetings and Merry Christmas from a retailer of 38 years and a former little boy who still believes in the world of wonder!