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A journey into a department store time machine.

A few days ago I parked at a mall and walked into a department store. As you might have guessed, this decision was made under duress. I needed dress shoes in a hurry and, in retrospect, I was suffering from the combined effects of jetlag, sleeplessness, and that time I experimented with marijuana (1991–2004).

My immediate reaction after enterting the store and passing safely through the oppressive perfume-sample cloud, was that nothing had changed since the time I walked into the same department store — back in the days before mobile devices or even ecommerce.

Well, one thing was different: the wanton desperation of the sales people prowling the menswear section. One by one they approached me and asked if I needed help. No matter where I turned, or how many times I said I’m just browsing, I couldn’t get away. One saleswoman approached me three separate times in seven minutes. On our final encounter, she said, “Just let me know if you need any help. You look like you’re getting a little lost in the forest of choices.”

I was standing in front of a rack of plain, black socks.

The domineering (but understandable considering the empty aisles) sales pitches were depressing and irritating. They made me long for my life back online with the algorithmically-controlled advertising bots. At one point, I asked someone in the shoe department if, in exchange for all of my historical shopping, financial, and personal data, she’d pretend to let me shop in peace. No such luck.

At least online, you can optimize the advertising bots. For example, try this:

  1. Go to Amazon.
  2. Search for people in swimsuits.
  3. Go back to browsing the web.

But offline, there’s no escape from unwanted human interaction. I almost wished it was Black Friday so there at least there’d be a possibility I’d get trampled. But the sales pressure is just one part of a broader problem. The store I was in was doing nothing to compete.

So what gives? How can so many brick and mortar department stores ignore the obvious competition presented by the digital era? There was a time when I felt a little sorry for offline stores caught unprepared for the online revolution … but that feeling only lasted for the first twenty years or so.

At one point, it occurred to me that maybe the department store was going for the nostalgic vibe. But instead of wearing Pumas, drinking from a mason jar, and listening to vinyl, it’s the other kind of nostalgia — the one where you’re getting open surgery in the days before anesthesia.

There are plenty of industries that had little or no chance to respond to the digital revolution. And I get that disintermediation can be a bitch. But the rise of ecommerce was a relatively slow build. In fact, it’s still just getting going. There’s plenty of time for offline stores to make shopping in the real world something other than a real nightmare. But there’s no sign the people who run these stores are going to wake up anytime soon.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick with the bots.

Dave Pell writes NextDraft: The Day’s Most Fascinating News.

I write NextDraft, a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news.

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