Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Conspicuously Consuming (in Public and in Private)

I am not going to be a crabby old lady, complaining in the line waiting to pay for my goods. I am not. I promise. I'm going to put my mind to it and squelch the urge to bitch and moan and wonder aloud why, on the Monday before Christmas, Best Buy decided that they only needed to staff 6 of their 13 registers. The Big Cuter pointed out that being right doesn't always mean that you get to be right out loud. After all, the kid who was in charge of the line certainly wasn't the one in charge of staffing patterns.

But the experience made me consider the nature of the modern shopping experience. Accustomed as I am to instant access to customer service (live-chat on the shopping sites is my favorite e-tail feature of the last few years) and a ten click sequence from shopping cart to shipping, even one person ahead of me in a line tends to make me antsy. Un-staffed registers drive me to distraction.

Oops, used to drive me to distraction.

We were in the store to investigate the purchase of a bigger and better television, a task for which the Big Cuter is eminently qualified. While we were finding our way, answering our own questions by carefully perusing the detailed - albeit in very very small print - labels, several salespeople offered assistance. After 10 or 15 minutes of comparing clarity and refresh rates and number of HDMI inputs, we could find no one with whom to discuss stands and delivery and installation. No one. No one who was helping another customer. No one who was restocking shelves. No one at all.

As a teenager, just on the cusp of being able to go shopping by myself, I remember G'ma noting with satisfaction that you could always find a salesgirl (yes, salesgirl.... even if she was grey haired and wrinkly) in B. Altman's. I'd never considered the differences between department stores, and certainly never noticed the absence of sales help. Today, I can't imagine uttering that phrase in connection with any department store.

TommyBahama sent us a $50 gift card to entice us into the store. It worked. We dragged the Big Cuter there after lunch today. He sat in a comfy chair and played with his smart phone while TBG and I selected pretty clothes from the racks. Someone took the items I was holding and "started a dressing room" for me. When it was time to move into the trying on phase, I could find neither the clothes we'd chosen nor the woman who had absconded with them. The store's not that big...... it's still a mystery that she disappeared for as long as she did.

But more surprising to me was the fact that she had disappeared at all. We were really going to buy stuff. We were pleasant. And she was gone. I thought of G'ma and Altmans and I sighed.

TBG made the analogy between the Sears Catalog of old and today's electronic shopping. I wonder how American consumers made the transition from reading about what's available to touching and feeling the actual merchandise and now back again to buying on faith and a picture. Big box stores have fueled anonymous shopping trips - has anyone ever seen a helpful associate roaming the aisles of Costco? Training on anything other than the taking of payment is non-existent - "Does this brand run true to size?" is an unanswerable and mysterious query. Now that most e-tailers are offering free shipping there's really no reason to increase my carbon footprint by driving to the mall. It's so much less aggravating just to log on.

At least that way, if I'm bitching and moaning there's no one around to hear me.

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