In the market for a bath fixture? Why just look when you can take an actual shower at the Pirch showroom in Soho and bring immersive shopping to a whole new level. Or why not book a night at New Road Residence in London: try the linens, towels, appliances, and whip up a dinner in the model kitchen before committing to your home improvement purchases. Over at the Apartment by The Line you can rifle through closets and dresser drawers stocked with pieces from labels such as Protagonist and Kaite then take the dresser itself, cash and carry. Or perhaps you’d prefer to retire to an elegant upper East side townhouse – courtesy of The Row – and check out their latest offerings nestled amongst a fantasy collection of Nakashimas and Basquiats.
As shopping online from home continues its unchecked expansion – almost $100 billion in on-line sales in the first quarter of 2016 – it seems like in-store shopping is getting homey. Beyond the physical space, note the proliferation of amenities that soften the pecuniary nature of the retail experience: at one end of the spectrum, cup holders on the handle bar of your grocery store cart; while at the high end, silver platters of chilled San Pellegrino are at the ready. And since nothing kills the domestic vibe like a wait at the check-out line, the final transaction that punctuates a purchase is currently being remodeled. In a luxury boutique your credit card is likely to be whisked away – the grubby reality of commerce happens out of sight – only to be discreetly, and somewhat apologetically, returned in a supple leather binder or zebrawood tray. In the more democratic Apple store the exchange is decentralized: just scan your purchase on your phone, then waltz out of the store unassailed. It’s like everything is yours already.
While we may, in pursuit of a bargain, suffer the cacophony of Century 21 or allow Ikea to swallow us whole and squeeze us through its labyrinthine intestine, the relationship between the big store and the luxury object is fraught. That ultra-precious handbag tends to hemorrhage aura when set in context of innumerable clones. The domestic metaphor allays the brutal impersonality of mass production and merchandising and the fantasy of exclusivity. Bella Freud, who commissioned the architect who designed her home to imagine her new boutique, claims she wanted “… to create an intimate shopping experience with an apartment like feeling, a bit like stepping into a friend’s place for a cup of tea and leaving with her favorite jumper.” The luxury of vast selection is superseded by the intrinsic value of singularity.
There was a time when bigness was in. Big meant selection. Big meant choice. Big meant entertainment. Big meant the whole world in a box. Malls touted square-footage as the metric of shopping exhilaration. Macy’s Herald Square billed itself as the “World’s Largest Store.” In the early decades of the last century shoppers entered the fabled Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia through a towering Corinthian portico to browse in a great Roman court, a fantastical Egyptian hall, and Byzantine, Empire and Art Nouveau period rooms. Products from across the globe were displayed with exhibitions of Old Master Paintings and exotic objets d’art. The grand department store was a portal to the world, the commercial twin of the great encyclopedic civic museums, where uplifting and educating the masses was serious business.
At the same time Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were delivering bigness to the rural masses through the original home shopping network: consolidated mail-order catalogues, some over 700 pages, that offered everything from buttonhooks and brassieres to motor buggies, delivered direct to their customer’s doorstep via the USPS. An early Sears catalogue cover boasting “Our Trade Reaches Around the World” featured a fair-skinned maiden, addressed envelope in hand, floating over a bucolic American farmstead astride a cornucopia spilling furniture, guns, pianos, and clothing. The mail order catalogue provided nationwide, domestic access to a previously unimaginable selection of products. Inventory was king.
By the 60s Sears alone accounted for almost 1% of the US gross national product, employed 350,000 people, and provided credit cards to over half the population. (The hippy-domestic Whole Earth Catalogue was that era’s proto-Brooklyn, DIY alternative to the super-square Sears Wish Book, the veritable bible of 100%-poly, post-war suburban American consumerism.) Fast forward to the now-familiar narrative of the exurban big box revolution. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer and QVC and Home Shopping Network deliver 24/7, in-home access to cubic zirconium, spot remover, and miracle knife sets to anyone with a television, telephone and a credit card.
And then something came along that was bigger than all of them, with the real potential to access the whole earth – and make it searchable – and everything changed. The internet made shopping the world not only a reality but an essential feature of everyday life for millions of people. Enter global shopping with a hyper-local interface: as local as your own couch. Amazon has out-bigged the biggest big box – adding 17-million square feet of warehouse space just last year – and in achieving such massive scale, fomented the expectation that anything you could possibly need is always in stock, immediately available, and just a key stroke away.
Now the even the keystroke has been decentralized. With the recent innovation of Amazon Dash Buttons – branded clickers that automatically place an order for a specific product – the home is the interface and the pantry has been outsourced. Out of Tide? Just hit the button and that familiar red and orange box will appear on your doorstep in a matter of minutes by way of a friendly, union-free, drone. As it is estimated that the average American women utilizes only a fraction of her wardrobe and wears a new purchase a handful of times, that logic of linked distribution will almost certainly spread to your closet. It may be only a matter of time before we have a Chanel Dash Button, a Calvin Dash Button. Winter clothes storage in the summer? Forget it. Out of style? Just send it back. Same with sizing. Your wardrobe will follow your climate, your body, and your mood. All that warehouse space is an extension of your space.
As our shelves and closets are censored for automatic fulfillment, and our pantries communicate directly with the public larders to keep them perpetually brimming with the bounty of American plenty, there will be ever less reason to leave the comfortable confines of our homes. The comprehensive sites such as Amazon and Zappos, and the curated ones like Net-a-Porter or Yoox provide our great data base of stuff. As product research and price comparison are relocated from physical spaces to virtual ones – its called a browser for a reason – the function of stores shifts from a site of discovery and transaction to something else…what, exactly, is at the moment hotly contested.
Bigness, at least in terms of luxury, seems to be a dwindling proposition. Discovery and selection in the physical world can never match the reach of internet with its huge-scale aggregators, branded ecommerce shops, curatorial shopping sites, and the long tail of small boutiques and Etsy home-crafters offering anything and everything. What the shop can offer, however, are things difficult to achieve on-line: an intimate relationship with things, a haptic appreciation of materiality, a personal interaction with a sympathetic helper, an experience that contextualizes objects, a place to socialize with like-minded connoisseurs, and most importantly, a respite from the avalanche of too-much stuff. Its relevant to note that the much-vaunted Apple store, which has the highest profit per-square-foot of any store in the world, essentially offers variants of four products: telephone, watch, music player, and laptop. In an ironic reversal, stores now may have to offer less to stay relevant.
If we’ve become used to, and adept at, shopping from bed, and as our homes are increasingly conjoined to distant warehouses that monitor their status, shops themselves may become extensions to the social function of our domestic space. As simple fulfillment of household commodities becomes automated and browsing, research, and cost comparison shift to be the prelude to shopping, not the raison d’être, a visit to the store may revert back to John Wanamaker’s original dream: shopping as a form of education and cultural edification. And maybe we learn best in the places that we feel most comfortable: places that feel like our own living room.
Oh, and whatever happened to Wanamaker’s? In Manhattan, the gargantuan old department store now houses a corporate headquarters…for FaceBook.