Forecaster Forum: It takes more than tradition to keep flying high at Christmas
Lots of grousing this Christmas season: no one is out shopping because the economy is in the tank, people are afraid to use their credit cards the way they once did, unemployment is too high, the Internet is stealing business from regular stores and sales tax revenue from the state, expensive gas makes people less likely to drive to the mall – and on it goes.
The signs of a poor shopping season are all around us; just look at the near-empty parking lots, discounted prices and empty buildings where stores used to be.
All this gloom and doom may miss the point, however. Sure, we're less likely to spend a lot of dough on gifts if we're out of a job, but I think there are other reasons for the slowdown. I blame it on a combination of boredom and economics.
Christmas as we know it may have run its course.
How many seasons of fighting store crowds does it take to convince shoppers there might be better ways to acquire things? I'm as big a believer in independent bookstores as anyone – over the years I've done business with a lot of them, and am as concerned as anyone at their dwindling numbers.
But this year, when it came time to buy books for family and friends, I didn't march down to an indie bookstore or even to Borders at the Maine Mall. No, I did the simple thing, which was to make my selections and purchase them (discounted with free shipping because I ordered so many) from Amazon. I'm as affected by the Great Recession as anyone, so when it came to Christmas book shopping I ordered online. In less than a week the books were here, ready to wrap up and stick under the tree.
I missed the fun of browsing in the bookstores, of course, but when I stopped in one recently, I found there wasn¹t much to look at anyway. The stock had grown so thin that nearly anything I might have wanted would have to be ordered, and in the Internet Age that was something I could do myself.
What's left of the shopping experience, in other words, may no longer be worth the trouble. In fact, it has become boring.
At the mall, take a hike through Target, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart or any other big-box joint and except for the crowds (sparse this year), things look as they have for decades. Macy's may not have as many mannequins as it used to, but the racks and racks of clothes are as full as they've ever been (already marked down, well before Christmas, lending the place an air of desperation).
If I look long enough I'll find something to wear, even a gift to buy for a loved one, but it's all very predictable and therefore, I would argue, boring. Shopping this way has become routine and no longer fun; it's been part of my life since I sat on a department store Santa's lap more than 60 years ago back in Columbus, Ohio, and it's understandable that folks are ready for change.
And change is coming. I've already mentioned the Internet, which has made deep inroads in various markets and likely accounts for many of the vacant mall parking spaces. What I haven't mentioned, and must, is innovation: the person who comes up with this year's "new new thing" – the term comes from Silicon Valley, where such things were once the lifeblood of initial public offerings – making huge fortunes for the folks who thought them up is going to be rewarded.
Don't believe me? Look at who's making money selling things this Christmas.
My candidate for best innovator this year, based on my own very limited mall shopping experience, would be Brookstone. As I walked by its store in the Maine Mall last week I heard something buzzing above me. Looking up I saw what looked like a huge wasp or one of those sparrows that get trapped inside big spaces – until I realized it was a tiny helicopter. A store employee was flying it by means of radio controls. It swooped up and then dove down; as it did the radio-pilot told me I could have one for $30 or two for $50.
Anxious to expand my Christmas experience and uninspired by all the other choices I'd seen, I bought one for each of my sons, both of whom are grown men with families. Of course, they could get along without one of these things, but the instant respite it provided from shopping boredom made me head for the back of the store and whip out my credit card. There, after making sure I knew that the radio-pilot flies the copter all day while running the cash register and doing everything else, the checkout crew told me they'd sold 800 of the things on Black Friday alone.
For an instant at least, a store had breached my Christmas boredom; my sensible, Recession-conditioned reluctance to spend money this year had been overwhelmed; now I plan to spend Christmas at one of my sons' houses flying my (his) helicopter. I'll probably crash it, but if I get in a few flights first, the day will have been memorable and of course the economy will have been stimulated. Innovation – the discovery of this year's "new new thing" – will have helped at least one store thrive in an otherwise grim retail season.
I'm not going to stop worrying about empty stores and the prospect of a lousy Christmas shopping season. We all need to be concerned about these things, because the economy depends on the buying we do at this time of year. But we need to ask what's really wrong, and why people aren't out there any more. Shopping, at least the old-fashioned kind we've been doing since department stores were invented more than a century ago, needs to change. The Internet will continue to force this change. A few more tiny helicopters can help; so can a lot of new thinking about Christmas as we've known it.
Yarmouth resident David D. Platt is former director of publications for the Island Institute. Before that, he edited the weekly Maine Times.