21 December 2007:

The End of Retail Refinement  

James Surowiecki's light piece in this week's New Yorker about Christmas shopping, "A Buyer's Christmas," made me think of the early days of grand American retail, a time that was dominated by John Wanamaker. Wanamaker was famous for two principles: set prices (no haggling) and returns. Perhaps because both innovations enhanced what we would call the liquidity of the retail world, customers were more willing to part with their money. If you can compare prices in advance, you won't worry about being made a fool, and if you can return purchases that don't satisfy even if only for a store credit then the risk of making a purchase drops dramatically.

From the very start, though, Wanamaker and many of his customers were fascinated by a third aspect of retail: an atmosphere of refinement. How else to explain the presence of the world's largest pipe organ (to this day, according to Wikipedia) in the Philadelphia branch of Wanamaker's store that was known as the "Grand Depot"? Refinement, factored into the prices of the goods on offer, was paid for the customers in the end. This cannot have been a secret to anyone. Why did it take Americans until well after World War II to decide that they could live without retail refinement and that they would seek out bargains when they shopped? If you're interested in my completely unresearched explanation, then read on.

Part of the appeal, during what we might call the Wanamaker Century, was hygienic: the refinement was clean. It was, to a considerable degree, cleanliness itself: stores were well-lighted, well-ventilated, well-maintained places, where goods were stored neatly and packaged (upon purchase) with care. Merchandisers learned how to foster the illusion when it was an illusion that goods hadn't been touched until the store clerk presented them to the buyer. This concern for purity eventually ran away with the market, giving us the seriously over-packaged world of today's retail, with its mountains of paper and plastic waste. Packaging items closer to the point of manufacture than to that of sale, however, did more than simply make the cleanliness of department stores vastly less necessary. It completely wrong-footed the sales clerks, too; for now it was not always and then not often possible to let the buyer touch the goods until they'd been taken home. So much for that appealing illusion.

But anyone old enough to remember the great department stores in their last decades of glory will recall their idyllic atmosphere. No? "Idyllic" isn't the word that you would use? What if I suggested that the department stores were idyllic for everyone but you, and that you, like many of the bundles carried home by smart shoppers, were "on approval"? If you behaved yourself and acted in the right way, then you would be welcomed, and the wares of the store would laid at your feet as if you were a potentate from the Arabian Nights. If you were loud or pushy or rude or horrors! unkempt, then it was another story. You would be asked, in supercilious tones, if you could be "helped." To the exit, that is.

Shoppers, then, were complicit in the retail racket during the Wanamaker Century. Women willingly donned the most stylish hats and the whitest gloves that they could muster before venturing through the doors of the great mercantile emporia. They spoke in their most dulcet tones, concealing any and all anxieties about their own command of wherewithal. They, too, cast an illusion: that they didn't really need anything, because they were respectable women and, as such, their needs were seen to. Merchants learned to go along with this pretense. Buyer and seller alike pretended loftily that their mutual dependence did not exist.

What happened? Here's what happened: women learned not all at once, of course that they didn't need to appear to be respectable. That's not to say that they were willing to be taken for the respectable matron's opposite, the fallen woman. But there were too many respectable fallen women divorcees for "respectability" to mean anything.

Women it was noted! began to behave a great deal more naturally. In the process, they rediscovered something well known to a world of women for whom respectability, because it requires a certain personal freedom, was never an option.


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