Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve noticed a gradual change in my shopping habits, and I have discovered that I’m not alone. In a recent article, I learned that online retailing has been growing by about 30 percent each year.
Why are more and more people attracted to online shopping? Because it has become simple. Not only are there online stores, but there are online price comparison websites and shopping portals. There are lots of choices.
At Amazon, for instance, one can purchase everything from lingerie to vacuum cleaners. Bargain prices can be found, and many stores offer free delivery to your door. Some even offer free exchange. You don’t have to spend money on gas, find a parking spot or even leave your home.
These are certainly good reasons to switch to online shopping, but they’re only part of the picture. Retailing really began with shopkeepers who would welcome in people from the neighborhood and then come to learn their customers’ needs and preferences. In the 1800s, dry goods stores morphed into department stores.
Anyone who watches public television knows that one of the most famous department stores was Selfridges, established in 1909 by American-born Harry Gordon Selfridge in London. Selfridges promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity, and its techniques were adopted by modern department stores the world over. Above all, staff members were taught to assist customers, something that became a hallmark of a good department store.
Today, in the United States, this kind of assistance has become a dim memory. On a recent shopping trip to one of the area’s better-known department stores, I spent more than 20 minutes waiting to make my purchase. I don’t blame the salespeople; there were just too few of them and they were obviously overworked and probably underpaid. Selfridge would probably turn over in his grave.
This lack of service was especially depressing since my husband and I had recently traveled to Japan. Whether it is a small shop or a mega department store, in Japan, salespeople are plentiful, helpful and ultra polite. Even purchases as small as a few dollars are meticulously gift-wrapped. In one store, I purchased three aprons that were packaged together. The saleswoman unpackaged them, carefully clipped any stray threads and then wrapped them beautifully.
While I wouldn’t expect anything like that here, it would be a step in the right direction if American department stores would hire more people and pay them a living wage.
In Japan, whenever I made a purchase, my credit card was returned to me on a small tray. At the end of the transaction, I always found myself smiling. Perhaps that’s because the salesperson was also smiling. Even if I was just browsing, salespeople welcomed me into the store and thanked me upon leaving.
Prices can be high in Japanese stores, but I for one would rather pay a bit more, enjoy the experience and know that workers are being treated fairly.
Meanwhile, here at home, I’ll continue to shop online. While some people will always have Paris, I will always have Japan, where “real” shopping is not only alive and well, but actually fun. Mr. Selfridge, you’d be proud.