Wednesday, April 22
Attention Shoppers: The Time Is Now 9PM and the Store Is Now Closing — Forever
And you thought department stores and shopping malls were bad off before the coronavirus hit.
As one person put it so succinctly in this New York Times piece, they're pretty much toast now.
I happened to drive by one of the largest shopping centers in the Boston area, South Shore Mall, this past weekend and was struck by the sight of the massive, empty parking lot (except for the spaces in front of the still-operating Target). This is a mall with several mid-level (Macy's, Sears) and upscale (Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor) stores that were already bereft of foot traffic even in the best of times. As I gazed from the highway high above over at the sobering vista of a sea of thousands of available parking spaces, I wondered: What exactly is the owner of this hunk of suburban real estate wreckage going to do once all the stores inside shut for good? Like other mall operators, will they convert it into a mixed-use space featuring a smattering of retail plus, perhaps, a community college outpost, maybe some play areas for children? Or like others, will it be leveled to make way for an office park or, in the best of worlds, an expansive green space where the public can once again gather together once this crisis is past us (or at least more manageable)?
I feel for the people who make a living working in these malls. I myself was one of them back when I was in high school and college, and even after graduation since my first journalism job was so low-paying that in order to cover rent I had to supplement it with a job nights and weekends at a local department store (Dillard's, to be precise). On the other hand, I acknowledge that this is just one more inescapable albeit painful example of survival of the fittest, that this kind of thing happens all the time in nature as well as in the jungle of modern life. And in business, in a capitalist society, things, of course, take on a merciless brutality all their own.
The public has spoken and online shopping is what they want. Forever and ever. That's not going to change because a virus comes or goes. I myself have been inside a supermarket all of once in the last month; instead, I'm having deliveries made from my local Whole Foods a couple of times a week. It's been expensive, and challenging to place an online order with so many others having the same idea (it once took more than an hour), but it's been worth it. They make it worth it. E-tailers like Amazon and Etsy have been getting plenty of business from our household, too. (My washable, custom-made protective masks should arrive a small business owner in Los Angeles in the next day or two, thanks to Etsy having connected us.) This is the future and it's now.
Let's face it — we really didn't need all that material stuff anyway. And we certainly didn't have to go to a mall for it. The shopping mall has always been mainly a diversion from the boredom of daily life, a modern-day town square where you could go kill some time with friends no matter the weather — and eat a soft pretzel bigger than your head while doing it. Occasionally, you'd step into Foot Locker for a pair of sneaks or head over to Bloomingdale's for a towel sale. Maybe you'd hit the cineplex with your little nephew to see the latest Spiderman. But the mall was really always destined for the same nostalgic trash heap as the drive-in movie theater, network television and every amusement park with the exception of Disney — a relic from a time when we didn't have a pile of devices to distract us, when we couldn't have every product under the sun shipped to our front door in lightning speed, and when we were not, either by necessity or by choice, bound to home.
Of course, the end of physical shopping meccas has hardly meant the death of conspicuous consumption. To wit, there's this little item of an unspeakable nature of which I was heretofore totally unaware till a friend told me about it on the phone the other day — and now, well, I gotta have it. Just imagine, scrubbed clean and thoroughly vacated, all for a hundred bucks, and free shipping to boot.
There's a metaphor in there somewhere.