This is, to quote a classic Christmas ditty, the most wonderful time of the year – assuming, of course, that you have not been trying to find a parking space at the shopping mall since Friday. It has now been two full days since “Black Friday,” that moment each year when retailers and consumers celebrate the real meaning of the season: An HD TV the size of a billboard. There are still First Responders out there working tirelessly to find shoppers who have disappeared into the furthest reaches of Walmart parking lots in Iowa.
And yet, in theory, bricks-and-mortar retailers are being brought to their knees by e-commerce: By the likes of amazon, zappos, and buy.com – and by the websites of such chains as Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Based, however, on the crowds that I have seen in stores this past week, the reports of the death of bricks-and-mortar retailing have been greatly exaggerated.
This time of year there are also news stories about the ways that retailers try and seduce us into spending money. One tactic? Because most people are right-handed, we turn to the right when we enter a shop. So, the retailer puts the tempting – and more expensive – new merchandise to the right. The recommended solution? March left when you walk in, thus ensuring that you will only buy the less tempting, less expensive stuff that nobody wants.
An even better solution? Have a budget and stick to it. Use common sense. Just say no to anything you have seen before at 35,000 feet in the Sky Mall catalog.
As a reader, I have a particular fondness for bookstores. I don’t read books yet on Kindles, Nooks, or my phone; I still prefer paper. Consequently, I savor the simple act of wandering aimlessly among stacks and shelves. I might find the books I was thinking about for friends or family before I arrived at the store, but I am just as likely to find books that I hadn’t considered – and would not have considered purchasing on-line, because I had never bought anything quite like them before so they never appeared as recommendations.
A perfect example of this? Last month, during the desperate chaos that marked Superstorm Sandy, my daughter came home from lower Manhattan, where she goes to college, because her dorm had been without power for three days. I met her at the bus station in Albany with a couple of paperbacks I picked up for her on the way there at the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury: “Room” by Emma Donoghue and “When She Woke” by Hillary Jordan. I would never have thought to order either book from amazon or bn.com. Make no mistake, I still buy a lot of books on-line (to be honest, I still buy a lot of everything on-line). But the thing about bookstores is that we do not simply find what we want; we find what else we want.
And I believe this is true for clothing, as well. And furniture. And, based on the back of my wife’s car, cat toys. (My wife volunteers at Homeward Bound – the Addison County Humane Society – in Middlebury, working with the cats there. As a result the back of her car looks like an aisle at the Pet Food Warehouse.)
Obviously the digital world has dramatically changed shopping. I would never have found at any store in Vermont the retro Pan Am overnight bag that I bought for my wife last month.
But there is still something satisfying about browsing – and being surprised.
One final thought: Given the profound economic hardships that so many of our neighbors are facing this winter, please be generous with the less fortunate and factor charitable giving into your holiday shopping budget. This year’s “Free Press” Giving Season charities are Warmth, the Committee on Temporary Shelter, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, and Spectrum Youth and Family Services. Helping a family have food, shelter, and heat on Christmas morning will give you a much better feeling than placing a personalized barbecue branding iron under the tree.
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Chris’s most recent novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” is a finalist for the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Award in Historical Fiction. You can vote for it here.