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Is Shopping Dead, or Just Different?

A lot of people feel a lot of ways

04.24.17
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When American Apparel announced its closing in January, it may have felt like the end of an era, but it was hardly surprising. The brand had been mired in controversy for years. But there were other, less scandalous reasons: How we shop and where we shop is changing. Undeniably and in myriad ways. For those of us who spent our formative years scouring malls for prom dresses and who now mindlessly fill up online shopping carts, this shift has felt very literal. Shopping is an entirely different beast today than it was.

It’s hard to call this change drastic; it’s been happening for years. Still, the mass closing of stores over the past few months has been jarring. Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears have announced the shuttering of hundreds of locations and the consequent laying off of thousands. Rue21, Payless, Claire’s and Bebe have filed for bankruptcy or are close (RIP your sexy homecoming look). Neiman Marcus has said it may sell itself after abandoning its plan to IPO in January due to poor sales.

This sea change isn’t confined to the mall. In “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?,” The New York Times notes, “Along the cobblestone streets of SoHo, Chanel handbags and Arc’teryx jackets are displayed in shops like museum pieces, harking back to the height of the neighborhood’s trendiness. But rents there are softening, and the number of vacant storefronts is rising.”

According to Bloomberg, US stores are closing at a record rate. “2,880 have been announced so far this year, compared with 1,153 for this period of 2016.” It’s apparently outpacing the great recession.

While the obvious culprit is e-commerce, it seems not everyone agrees on which exact tides led retail to where it is now. In reviewing coverage everywhere from The New York Times to Business of Fashion to WWD to Bustle to Racked, I found plenty of disparate theories. Some say young people are more interested in experiences and community these days. Others say malls aren’t going away, they’re just becoming fewer and better to accommodate taste changes. Some chalk it up to the cyclical nature of business. Others reference a shift away from fast fashion. Many, of course, say shoppers have moved online — and that this movement is a one-way ticket.

Each point can be sliced a million ways, and it’s worth pointing out that dropping numbers don’t necessarily spell a mass exodus. According to Cowen research as cited by Bloomberg, “Customers [still] prefer physical stores 75 percent of the time.” And, as Racked pointed out in “The Case for the American Mall,” higher-end malls — as a luxury subset — are not dying in this climate,  but “flourishing.”

Which of those above rings truest to your experience? Over the weekend I was thinking a lot about this, actually, because I discovered this whole retail pocket of Instagram — vintage stores selling one-of-a-kind items via DM — I’d never seen before. I AM THAT, Na Nin Vintage, Courtyard_LA…I found their curated, minimal approach so charming: One special item at a time, photographed beautifully, but realistically and without fuss. It changed the way I wanted to shop and made me realize that my shopping behavior is also evolving. I go about it differently now than I did five years ago, last year…even last month. Do you feel the same way? How have your habits changed? Where, how and why do you shop?

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

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  • Ashley Steenson

    Speaking anecdotally here, but I think shoppers as a whole are becoming more ethically concerned. Thus buying secondhand offers more than the chance at a unique purchase. It’s more earth and animal friendly. Also, it eliminates the bad feeling from knowing your purchase caused another order at another factory outside of the U.S. where workers are not treated properly. I think documentaries like “The True Cost” (possibly still on Netflix) have really reached the younger generation. It’s no fun to feel shitty about something that’s supposed to be fun, which you use to express yourself.

    • Dymond Moore

      Watched that! Very eye opening!

  • American Apparel was the only place where I would buy brand new clothes. I was sold on the “no sweatshop, made in USA” spiel. Even then, I mostly shop second hand; thrift stores, buffalo exchange/beacon’s closet, etsy, and vintage shops on instagram. I was just recently thinking about how popular those vintage shops have become and I think the coolest part about buying secondhand is that you truly get to express your own style almost by default; each clothing item is “one of a kind.” Fashion isn’t fun when you’re wearing the same thing everyone else is wearing, at least, not in my opinion. The fact that it’s also better for the environment is an important bonus.

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    My shopping habits have changed, because I shop more on line, because the on-line stores often have a better selection, and with free shipping, I’m saving gas. I also like thrift stores because if you find something that still looks great, it’s probably going to hold up well, and thrift stores are giving things a new lease on life. Too much stuff ends up in land fills. When department stores were in their heyday, you could buy everything from socks to a refrigerator in one place, but times have changed. I think people may be changing their shopping habits and buying what they need as opposed to what they want.

  • Adrianna

    I’ve only ever really shopped in stores like TJMaxx and Nordstrom Rack, so naturally I transitioned to flash sale websites like Hautelook.com. My family did shop in JC Penny and Macy’s when I wore Juniors sizes. I still find Macy’s out of my price range as an adult.

    • Meg S

      Macy’s has some reasonably priced stuff if you buy their everyday values, but like everything else, they only last so long before they’re worn out. Lord & Taylor has really excellent sales several times a year, and I always find things there at good prices. If you use their credit card you get extra discounts, but that’s a personal decision.

  • For me, I think my shopping habits changed within the last few years as I got a decent paying, “adult” job and realized that the quality of my clothes is more important than fast, cheap fashion. That translates to occasionally purchasing cheaper clothes online (and cutting the store out of the equation), and going to luxury outlet malls when I need to try on the more expensive pieces I want to add to my wardrobe.

  • Cristina

    I think my habits have changed in that I now just buy something new if I need it, not because I need a new outfit for every single weekend or every new event or because something is trendy. I walked in a F21 the other day (to look at leggings) and laughed thinking, “how did I ever shop here? More importantly, how did even one butt cheek fit in any of these clothes?!” lol. I do buy better quality clothing now, so I typically wait until there is a sale online. If there’s a sale online for a retail store in my area, I’ll go to the store but sometimes even just ship to store. (sidenote, is this laziness?). I no longer buy cheap, fast fashion because I care how stuff fits now. I guess I’m just not that 22 year old anymore that could look good in anything!

  • chouette

    OHHH is it dying. Have any of us been in a Kohl’s, Macy’s, Bon Ton, or any of these places to shop? It’s a nightmare of merchandise I wouldn’t be caught dead in with an insane coupon and markdown game that I can’t get myself involved in. I design for a company that sells to these types of stores and business is frankly terrifying, but the stores are all trying to capture what they think ‘millenials’ want since we apparently have the spending money. I think they’re alienating their actual customer base of older women who aren’t so victimized by trends, while still not realizing what it is that attracts us ‘millenials’ as shoppers. If we wanted a dad hat with a cactus on it, we would have found one online, by next year we definitely won’t need that at physical retail. The trends move too fast for these big stores to keep up, but that’s probably not the merchandise they should be chasing anyway! Personal style has become so important, I hope we’re making more considerations for ourselves when we shop thus making better choices so we won’t discard so much so quickly, and there aren’t so many places to shop like this anymore. These stores that are dying are all about having better margins season-on-season, so the quality goes lower and lower. I luckily think this race to the bottom with discounting and cheap merchandise is reaching the end of it’s cycle – it really can’t get any cheaper or any poorer quality. I really hope retail can level out again and get it back to where it’s FUN to shop and you might actually find some higher-quality merchandise outside of a designer store.

    Personally, it’s gotten to where I shop, pick up stuff, really actually look at what I’m holding, put it all back, go home and shop my closet. I’ve always been a big vintage fan, it’s the best way to get really quality clothes at good prices. I have old Ralph Lauren that is probably at about a 10-cent cost per wear now and has years and years left of service in it. It fits me well, the quality is beautiful in the sewing and fabric. I can’t find anything like it in stores now and 20 years ago this would have been regular price merch at a department store! Fast fashion has killed our concept of what clothes should cost and it’s going to take macro changes to get the entire consumer base back on board, if we’re not too scattered and obtuse in our shopping habits now to EVER be on the same page. The micro stores on instagram etc, have the flexibility to be appealing. Can they be scaled to something big? I don’t know. Look at the comments on the Reformation article you posted the other day… how they’ve gone from more specialized to more mass, and alienated a lot of their initial customer base in doing so. It’s definitely a situation with more than one problem, and more than one solution. If we come out at the other end with less stores, it’s probably for the best!

  • Dymond Moore

    I have actuallu started shopping MORE fast fashion recently than in different years because there are some trends I actually care to try out (off the shoulder tops, suede,etc). That said, I’m going to do a lot of research on a product and when I DO decided to buy from fast fashion, it’s because I see that piece as an investment piece for MY personal style, not a trend. I also do the majority of shopping online now because they’ve closed many of the shops that used to be open near my home (the latest to go being Ulta) so I have to because I don’t have a car to drive to the next town over. As a result, I (again) do a TON of researc into the thing I’m gettinf, and as a result, don’t throw away as much because I’m no longer impulse shopping.
    http://www.thechicmachine.com

  • I can’t be arsed to do returns/exchanges for online stuff, so I mostly shop in stores. I’m also the kind of person that has to thoroughly inspect everything about a piece and ensure that it’s all made of the fabrics I like and stitched the way I like, so I need to REALLY trust a store before I order online. Sometimes I go into stores multiple times with different outfits to make sure I want to buy a piece. Given the fast fashion and ultimate discount appeal of all of the brands you mentioned, idgaf that they’re closing stores. That’s not a part of the market I necessarily value, and I’d like to see a better future for stores that are offering better quality anyways. ie: the everlane showroom !!!!! my new favourite thing

  • Hannak

    I would LOVE for it to be true that fast fashion really has reached its end!! I can’t really believe it just yet though, it just
    sounds too good to be true! Shopping habits are definitely changing though, for the better, I hope. In my family I have two women (my sister and sister-in-law) who stopped shopping fast fashion out of ethical reasons and exclusively buy second hand, which I think is admirable, but personally I’m not there yet. I am definitely more conscious about where I shop though and the quality of what I buy has become a decisive factor, so I shop less and wait for sales on specific items I want or buy designer pieces second hand. Won’t lie though, sometimes I still fall for the 19,99 price tag of trendy and cheaply made H&M tops… but I do get a weird feeling walking into H&M or Primark seeing all these MASSES of cheap tshirts in five different colours and piles of polyester sweaters and rows of blouses… Who is going to buy all that? Wear all that? Keep it?? The sad truth is most of it will rather sooner than later end up in a landfill somewhere polluting the environment…

    • 808kate

      That’s all I can think of when I go into fast fashion places now! A huge room of pretty plastic clothes that are going to be trash in no time.

    • Erika Hanna

      Yes it’s so true and sad 🙁 it will probably end up in a landfill!!

      I think a lot more people are going the affordable luxury route and sticking to their core basics!!!

      It’s hard to pass up a $19.99 price tag especially in a budget, but its starts somewhere so every once in a while isn’t totally bad! Then minimizing from there!

  • I do a bit of both. I prefer to buy jeans in-store because there’s really only one brand that I like, and on the off-chance I need to buy a dress for something I’d rather try it on. But for pretty much everything else it’s online. It’s glorious being able to my stuff from my bed, and it makes me happy to come home to a package. That being said, I actually work as a merchandiser in a store so I end up buying stuff I like from there because I look at it all day long, but I rarely go to other stores because I don’t feel like going to shops on my days off.

  • 808kate

    I usually buy basics that I don’t want to buy secondhand online (mostly Everlane but also Madewell and Elizabeth Suzann). Then the VAST majority of the rest of my clothes are from local secondhand or vintage shops here in Portland. The only time I really try stuff on is if I’m at Target picking up white t-shirts or if I pop into Zara in Seattle for their blazers. I pretty liberally make use of the free shipping & returns most online shops provide so I can try things on at home where I can make sure new pieces work with the other things I have, so I end up not buying stuff I won’t wear.

  • The sustainability aspect and how the workers live shit lives so we can buy and throw away a garments after af few uses really puts me off. So now I think twice before buying anything, and am working to try to limit items in my closet. Having fewer choices and more of a uniform is so easy and removes stressfull mornings of “what to wear???!!! AAARGGH!” On the online vs in-store, I go in-store mostly, to make sure stuff fits. But really dig this more personal approach on instagram, it takes the digital mass consumerism down to earth and a single personal experience.

    • Erika Hanna

      Hi Mette!

      Basics are super essential and the problem of “What to wear???!!” is why I created by fashion brand JAEST.

      I love your point on having more of a uniform and its so trueee about buying fast fashion and wearing it once then throwing it out!!! It gets me mad, so bad for the environment!!!

      My brand JAEST provides elevated basics for the fashion conscious women that provides both quality and affordability!

      We also sell some vintage and repurposed pieces!

      Check us out!

      http://www.jaeststudios.com

      Hope you have an awesome day Mette <3

  • Jen

    Shopping at a mall is no longer a pleasurable experience for a number of reasons. The area I live in is really expensive and our local mall, in addition to also being super-expensive, does NOT include free parking, even with a purchase, causing me to spend $3 just for the privilege of shopping there. So, there’s that. The mall itself is nice and has some kind of fragrance being pumped through its vents along with carpeting, but I view it as more of an expensive showroom than an actual place I would spend money.

    I have always preferred shopping at smaller boutiques with a curated/edited selection of clothes as opposed to shopping at a big box store that carries all the same clothes I’ve seen everywhere else. Or does nothing to style them other than hanging a million of the same item on a rack. I don’t know, maybe it’s a visual thing, but it ends up being unappealing to me.

    Lately, I’ve been shopping via Instagram and TJ Maxx/Marshall’s. I’m really into the treasure hunt aspect of discount retailers and some vintage Instagram retailers have stuff I can’t find elsewhere and is really one-of-a-kind.

  • Anonymous

    I actually don’t shop instore because I get a bit anxious looking at all the clothes there in front of me. It’s paradoxical because when I shop online there are so many choices but then again, I can more easily narrow my search depending on what I need or am looking for. And then, when I thrift there’s so much shitty stuff that shopping becomes fun like hunting, and there’s a lightning thrill when I find something sik.

    • Anonymous

      side note i started using sik ironically but now i use it all the time and i can’t help myself

  • Loulou

    Definitely, especially now that I stopped supporting fast fashion. Learning to become more sustainable, albeit slow, has changed my shopping habits. Sure, I still go for window shopping, but it’s easier for me to walk out of stores empty handed. It’s good.

  • Ellie

    I was just thinking about this the other day! How do you guys stay so incredibly on top of what’s going on in people’s brains…it’s fab. I miss the days of taking all my pocket money to the mall and spending it all at once on whatever I fancied. Nowadays I usually browse online for things I think I may like to wear to see what’s out there and only go to the shops to either try stuff on or to get an outfit for a specific event. I probably make better decisions but it loses the spontaneity of shopping (even though it’s technically easier than ever to buy anything!)

  • Emily

    I shop online because its easier. City centre is crowded at the weekend, and I’m tight so I hate paying for parking. (ALTHOUGH I HATE PAYING POSTAGE FOR DELIVERY TOO), its just easier to order it and literally have it delivered to my door. For me, its convenience, and I can;t be bothered to face the crowds. Shops here are 9-6, I rarely finish work before 7, and then its full of kids at the weeknd. I can shop online at any time of day. Just easier!

  • Last week my boss (=me) decided I could have a free Thursday afternoon in the nearby big city (since I am going to attend a uni course in the evening there) and this opened some new possibilities, .. well, at least a few to think about.
    How about some offline retail therapy, was my first thought. Naah, was my second. Right now, all you crave are black Stan Smiths and about 100 shirts from Redbubble. And you don’t have the means right now, said my boss, you need a new passport and a new ID card. And they are expensive. (My boss is a firm one.)
    OK, I decided, so I am going to have my photos taken and just walk around. And save some money till it’s my turn for those Stan Smiths. And a huge package of artsy stuff from Redbubble 🙂

  • Nikka Duarte

    Ok first of all yay for vintage! I own one and it’s a lot of hard work, from picking amazing pieces, to photographing them and then posting them on the website. So happy to see that you found a few!
    I recently went to the mall (first time in a while) and I couldn’t find anything I genuinely liked. I think one of the pros of e commerce is that there’s simply a huge variety, so you’re bound to find something you’re in love with. Also shopping at massive stores like F21 can be stressful, due to the lack of organization and also, sadly, lack of originality.

    • Heather Chambers

      Yes! I find large department or “flagship” stores to be overwhelming and stressful, and avoid them as much as possible. My favorite pair of pants actually comes from Forever 21, though–simply because the style fits, they always have them in stock, and so I can walk in, pay, and leave. I’m not ready for the hours of trying on in multiple stores, or the weeks of ordering online and sending back to try and find another pair that fit well–especially since they probably won’t withstand the thigh friction much longer than the F21 ones do anyways.

  • Lanatria Brackett Ellis

    I live in a very rural area so as a blogger my only option is online. When I do shop brick and mortar it’s usually thrift.I am glad to see a rise in online and small business.I know I as well as many others felt stuck by sweatshop options in the same silhouettes being offered season after season.My only sorrow comes from those mid to lower management and employees who don’t have a cushion to fall back on like many of the execs.
    http://www.caribbeancowgirl.weebly.com

  • I do the bulk of my shopping online, but only because I live – unfortunately – in Fort Wayne, IN, where my options are limited. The only place here I’ll go to an actual store is H&M a few times a year when I need to update my staples. The vintage shopping out here isn’t the best; you usually have to travel to smaller towns outside of Fort Wayne for the good stuff. I do try to shop local in the tiny boutiques we have (Fancy & Staple and The Find are recent additions), but I usually don’t buy clothes there – maybe just some jewelry, candles, a few gifts for people. When I lived in Fort Lauderdale, I definitely shopped at physical stores MUCH more, but only because I had hundreds of options – from big department stores to great vintage places, to cute little locally owned boutiques. The possibilities were endless.

  • I think it entirely depends on where you live, and what you have access to.

    I recently moved back to the Midwest from Seattle, and I can say they are two totally different environments in terms of shopping.

    In the Midwest, people are just not going to the mall anymore – they are shopping at places like Kohls, TJMaxx, and Old Navy. The quality of stores varies wildly too – Targets in my little corner of Ohio are absolutely terrible compared to the ones in Seattle. Even the older, crappier Target in Seattle is light years better than the best one here. We have always lacked access to in-person shopping options, so I assume a lot of people shop online around here too.

    In the Seattle area, they have one giant mall that everyone goes to (Southcenter Mall) that has eeeeeeeverything you could ever want. We also have better access to smaller brands, more sustainable brands, and some of the BEST thrift stores in the country (seriously, most of my wardrobe is thrifted J. Crew and Everlane shit). You can go to a Goodwill or Savers and I swear you’ll see millionaire trophy wives and broke college kids shopping side by side. They’re that good!

    I find that in Seattle, people are also very limited for space and budget (thanks to sky-high rent), so they are just more mindful of how much and how often they shop. It also doesn’t hurt Amazon is based there, so if you order something from them, you’ll get it the next day pretty much every time. Makes shopping online a lot more tempting!

    I just don’t think brick-and-mortar stores are as necessary as they used to be in lots of the country. I wish there were more in the Midwest to choose from, but I get why there aren’t.

    Jesus, I need to move back to Seattle. Just for the Target!

    • Erika Hanna

      Haha just for target!

  • gwendomouse

    I still love the high street. I love picking out things, touching them, posing with them in front of a shop floor mirror, I love buzzing around a shop like a bumblebee, being attracted by particular colours and textures that jump out at me on that particular day. I can only aford the cheap end of fashion, and there pictures on websites just aren’t reliable when it comes to fabric quality and colour. Also, I hate the hassle of receiving a parcel and sending back things that don’t fit me/are generally disappointing. I think nothing compares to browsing in an actual shop. But then I live in the UK, maybe the high street shops are still better here?

  • arthuranddaughters1

    I think the average American mall is DOA. I live in a small Pennsylvania town and own an independent women’s retail store. I design my own collection as well as featuring other Made in the USA independent designers. Our business has only grown over the last four years. I think consumers want both an authentic connection with the businesses they support AND they want all the diverse options that online shopping affords. The businesses that understand and nurture that balance will survive.
    http://www.arthuranddaughters.com

  • Anon

    I find that I’m just shopping less in general. I’ve been trying to be more conscious of what I spend and where, though I find I haven’t saved more — mainly because I’ve been doing more flying, which costs money. I have some days when I feel bored by my wardrobe but it feels better not to buy all of that.

  • v

    In recent weeks I have noticed a drastic change in my shopping habits. As a youth I loved the mall. Abercrombie & Fitch as well as Hollister were ruling thumb for looking/feeling hot and cool. In college I went through phases, or should I say different stages of being broke. Forever 21 was always good for a cheap fix for a gruesome college night out. When I moved back to NYC after high school I felt stumped. Not only was I figuring out my identity, but the large influence of social media trends, and fast fashion seemed to turn the streets of soho into one large polyester regurgitation. I worked in creating custom made, hand sewn tailored suits. That is where my first fascination with the actual build, and quality of garmentry began. But again- I had a hard time capturing that at my budget, and in my own style. $200 Reformation dress with poor sizing and sub-quality fabric to look like everyone else? No thank you. I began scouring thrift shops for unique pieces, or even just standard everyday garments that I knew invoked durability and quality, unlike a Zara piece. A few years later and I have developed a method to my quality/designer madness. I do a heavy amount of shopping online. Not only because I am confined to an office 5 days a week and do not have the head space to Saturday shop in Soho, but I find I can scour the internets for designer (within my price point) at all times; endless accessibility. I don’t usually find myself in-store shopping unless its a bit specialty- or curated– ok yes I always browse Diptyque–Totokaelo. But really I have confined my in-store habits to sample sales, where I know the cost to quality is comparable, or worth it. I recently hit up a Century 21 and was genuinely shocked by all of the designer finds. Some of these masses still got it- but boy do you have to shuffle through a lot of polyester to get there.

  • jdhammer

    The bigger brands and box stores have raced each other to the bottom. Cheaper fabrics, crappy cuts and complete inconsistency in terms of sizing and styles. I think the fact that Gap and Banana have pretty consistent styles year over year will keep them in business. People don’t want to go to so much effort every few months just to buy pants.

  • Gregory Apparel

    So many great honest and insightful comments! I recently moved from NYC to Los Angeles. My friends and met up in the Abbot Kinney area for brunch on Sunday and it was mobbed with people. Such a cute little area lined with one story shops, cute coffee shops and street art on the walls and sidewalks. Very much a scene to be seen kind of experience. Then a few months later I went to the Glendale Galleria which is close to my new home and I popped in for a few wardrobe staples. Wow, what a difference. The galleria, it’s an old mall to be sure, was dead quiet. Long stark white hallways with almost no seating, just nothing going on and I don’t just mean the lack of people. And then the Americana across the street was at least trying with a newer outdoor layout but it had this huge gimmicky trolley that actually left me feeling a little embarrassed. I mean, the mall is only as big as city block. And the poor guy with his silly uniform going in circles all day…….
    The whole experience was such a wonderful insight into the changing shopping market. I really felt like those two shopping areas were a great example of what’s working and what’s not. It’s an Instagram world we live in now. People don’t want to shop just for entertainment anymore. It needs more engagement. Those old malls are closing because of the simple fact that they’re outdated.
    I also want to point out that one of the reasons there are so many closures is the shortened time of bankruptcy protection of reorganization. It’s gone from I think, 18 months to 4 months, and this directly affects the fashion industry, an industry that works on a 6 month to year long short term bank loans. This shorten time doesn’t give a fashion company enough time to get ahead of their loans. So we will be seeing many more closures on the road ahead. Which may be a good thing. (The numbers could be wrong but I know they have shorten the time line by quite a bit)

  • Zye

    I think the main issue is that stores only appeal to people who dress quite casually. I walk into stores and nothing is new not even for average dressers. Designs are stale, online is the only place I can find anything mildly interesting. It might just be the way my clothing style has evolved but I think people with completely different styles than me can agree. Malls aren’t the exciting weekend trips that they used to be.