Shopping: The old way vs. the new

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2011 - 7:27 PM

I went to the Mall of America on a rainy afternoon, curious to see how the retail world was holding up. Three years into the Interminably Grinding Recession, you expect tumbleweeds. The lingerie parlors will be selling burlap sacks; the kiosks will have practical gifts, like Complete Dinner Kits that come with rabbit traps and knives fer skinnin'.

But no. It all looks shiny and prosperous and merry. Enormous silver trees stand in the atrium while an orchestra of well-fed children saws away at holiday songs. Perhaps the retail mix has adjusted to the new economic realities, and the stores that used to sell $45 bars of soap infused with panda tears have gone under, but I didn't notice.

You're rolling your eyes: Really, you went to a mall when there's online shopping?

Yes. It's handy to have everything delivered to your house. But browsing a website that stuck a sprig of holly on its logo isn't the same as wandering around a vast emporium bedecked with glorious ornaments.

You can reconnect with the basics of the season, too: One store has banners everywhere that say "Believe," which I assume is a change from their usual official policy, "Maintain an intellectual posture characterized by skepticism." You're not sure what they want you to believe in -- The resurgence of the euro? The Higgs boson particle? -- but it's a start.

There's more. Online disadvantage: no human interaction. I enjoy talking with shop clerks, who I'm sure wake every day thinking, "Maybe today will be the day a middle-aged man gets all chatty about how we're using Demi Moore in our ads just as she splits with her husband. Oh, let it be so."

Online advantage: the lack of human interaction. Store sign says: "Sale on those bottles of scented hand sanitizer that seem like good gifts but end up in the bottom of a purse, unused, until they leak, three for 10 dollars, regular $59.99 each."

As you enter, a clerk appears: "Hello, sir. Welcome. Today we have a sale on hand sanitizers, three for 10 dollars." You thank her and attempt to move on, but there is a corporate directive that All Shall Know the Details: "And we have a discount on six-ounce lotion, normally $12.99, today only $5.99 with the purchase of a regularly priced candle in seasonal scents with a matching gift of hand soap marked down from the regular price in 10-ounce and travel sizes."

They're like the human equivalent of those online ads that blow up and cover the page, and you look over the clerk's shoulder for an X you can click. The only way to escape is to pull out an air horn and blow it three times; it usually breaks their concentration, but sometimes they reset and start all over again.

Online: You can shop to your own soundtrack from your carefully curated iTunes list, so you won't be exposed against your will to, say, "The Little Drummer Boy," which is the "Bolero" of Christmas songs, or "Sleigh Ride" sung by some popular ninny who wondered, for a moment, why a picture would be like a Courier in Hives.

Also online: You can't tell what things smell like. Real life: You can show off your perfume knowledge to the bored sales clerk. Hmm -- top notes of pepper and diesel, with a finish of leather and wet ox. And the clerk nods: "Why, yes, you've nailed it exactly. You going to buy it, Adjective Boy? I'm overdue for a break."

The mall had a Salvation Army bell ringer at the entrance, holding open the door for everyone, wailing "Jingle Bells" at the top of her lungs. She had a smile that made you forget the sun's been hidden for days, because here was something better. You don't get that when you shop online.

In the future, maybe: "Thank you for your order. A sound file of a nondenominational holiday song has been sent to your e-mail. This file will only play on your computer. Enter code KF492063-IJG to activate. Federal penalties apply to uploading, distributing or otherwise using the song without permission. Happy Holidays."

For now? Online's fine for this or that, but it's not Christmas without a trip to the mall. For the people. For the gift you never would have considered before you saw it. For the ho-ho-ho-ing Santa with smeary-nosed tots on his lap. And the gentle reminders of the magic of the season: Believe!

As in: I believe I saw this for less on Amazon.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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