My love affair with honest-to-God department stores has lingered at the terminal stage for years, but 2016 took the cake. Management at what once were the grand palaces of personal shopping just never got it — and they wonder why trade is dying off.
Their excuse: online shopping. And that, dear shoppers, is so much bunkum.
It’s lack of personal attention; not caring about the individual shopper. Try as you might, finding a department store (or reasonable facsimile thereof) willing to provide a salesperson to help you locate a specific item leads only to disbelief and frustration and yes, eventually, the Internet.
The last holiday shopping season was a classic example. Forty-five minutes in a department store just down the road and not a floor person within the distant horizon. The grumpy check-out lady’s response when asked if someone could help? “You’ll just have to wait.” For what, I hadn’t a clue.
Of course, my idea of what a department store should be, in all its glory, conjures memories of Chicago’s once-greatest: Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott; Macy’s and Gimbels of New York fame; The Bay in Toronto and Montreal; and exquisite strolls through the aisles and food halls (and always being asked whether one is being served) of Selfridges, Harrods and Debenham’s, all in London. Yes, I’m picky.
But so were those retailing geniuses who knew that having an eager force of salesfolk at the ready, pleasantly asking whether you’re being served, was among the keys to department store success.
Of course, such success depended on a person-to-person exchange, actually conversing with another individual who had knowledge of the product the shopper was seeking. Success was further assured if the individual representing the store was neatly attired, and had it in his or her mind that the job was to ensure the customer found — and bought — what they were seeking.
Such attire in a store of quality, of course, meant a suit for men and a dress for women — no shower shoes, no sweat pants and all tattoos adequately covered. For 2016 and beyond the new rules seem to apply only to those working in the jewelry or beauty products sections. Elsewhere, clothing choices appear to go by the board.
Then there’s attitude — surliness and impatience — key characteristics to fill today’s hourly wage requirements. After all, how can you, the customer — upon whom the store’s profitability depends — presume to ask an employee stocking some shelf whether they could help find a particular item?
While my personal retail experience is very limited, I had the good fortune of working part-time at Chicago’s largest bookseller during early university years. The rules were basic: dress well, be on time, be attentive to customers, try to discern their interests and help them buy a book.
Those guidelines worked, as lessons for bookselling and for life. Somewhere along the way, a successful philosophy of retail sales dependent on the interaction of customers and salespeople has slid into the gutter of indifference.
Don’t look for a return to the days of “Can I help you?” anytime soon. You’ll be lucky to find a kiosk, let alone an information desk. Some bookstores, however, remain the exceptions.
Meanwhile, for those with fond memories of department-store glory days, it will remain painfully obvious that you’re not being served.