Retail landscape is confusing series of ups and downs

November 07, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

The shopping time of year is upon us, and I am one of those people whose emotional well-being is tied to holiday sales forecasts.

We won't have any solid numbers until sometime in January, when we are all laid low by a kind of shopping hangover.

But economists take the temperature of consumers every couple of weeks until then, and my mood swings with each new reading.

Right now, the predictions are that sales will be flat, darkening the mood of retailers and darkening my mood, too.

Consumers are cautious and cutting back, and I am feeling cautious, too. And I am cutting back.

But if the spending spikes, heralding confidence in a surging economy, you will find me upbeat as well. Perhaps even expansive.

I will be out there spending like mad, in celebration of our economic vitality.

Or not.

The truth is, I am a recovering shopaholic, driven to repent not by maxed-out credit cards, but by a shopping landscape I hardly recognize and can no longer navigate.

I try to spend, but I am too confused.

It is not that there is too much stuff to buy, although that is certainly true. It is that the stuff is for sale in all the wrong places.

My coffee shop sells books and music. My cheese shop sells linen towels. My bookstore sells coffee and desserts. My grocery store sells beach chairs.

My favorite cookware store sells power tools. My garden center sells barbecue sauce. My butcher shop sells crockery. My favorite Chinese restaurant sells hamburgers.

My carwash sells greeting cards and my mall charges by the minute for sitting in a lounge chair.

When my gas station starts selling fresh flowers or when my bank dispenses prescriptions, I will know I have fallen down the rabbit hole of retail synergy.

I am also confused by the sizes of the clothes in my favorite dress shops. They apparently have been adjusted for inflation because I am now in a size 2. And that is one of only three choices I have. Size 1, 2 or 3.

I think these sizes are actually "small, medium and large," but they are afraid to tell us.

These shops think they are catering to the vanity of the middle-aged woman and what they are actually doing is making us think we can no longer read the small print on labels.

But at least the middle-aged women shopkeepers make us feel welcome when we arrive, unlike the young things at stores like Hollisters and Abercrombie & Fitch, who ignore us as effectively as our own teenagers do.

There I am greeted with wall-sized posters of half-naked boy-men and pounding music. I am made to know that I do not belong - even to purchase a gift card. There might as well be a rope line and a bouncer checking my celebrity status.

But I am equally uncomfortable in stores like Saks, Talbots and Nordstrom, where the help is better dressed than I am on my best day. I don't have the clothes to shop for clothes in these stores.

And this is true of the grocery stores as well. My husband looked around Whole Foods and asked if there was a dress code for shopping there. I realized that there is - kind of a polished hippie look - and I don't fit in there, either.

That leaves Sam's Club and Wal-Mart. But what used to be an exercise in math - was I saving money if I purchased 100 of the same item instead of just one? - has become a political statement.

Do I want to be the kind of person who supports Wal-Mart's sweat-shop treatment of its workers and its Big Foot destruction of local retail ownership?

Your vote on Election Day may be a secret, but your shopping habits are not.

There you have it. I have quit shopping because the retail landscape has begun to resemble, for me, a Salvador Dali painting.

I no longer believe I can find the items I want in the kinds of stores where I would expect them to be sold, and I am not smart enough to guess where they are sold now.

I can't shop for clothes or groceries until I upgrade my wardrobe, and I can't do that until they change the sizes back to the double digits I recognize and have long-since resigned myself to wearing.

They say online shopping is taking off, and I am sure they are right.

You can click on Google and find anything you want.

And you can do that in your pajamas.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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