When the Shopping Stops

If we stop shopping, what will we do instead?

Posted Feb 03, 2009

Last night's evening news showed the brightly lit, virtually deserted cosmetics department in downtown San Francisco's Macy's store. A clerk there told the reporter that daily sales in that department are down from around $1,500 to $500. When I worked nearby ten years ago, I used to visit that store just to gaze at the dot-com-era exuberance. Back then, you could barely see the merchandise through the crowds.

Yesterday, Macy's Inc. announced 7,000 job cuts nationwide and 1,400 in San Francisco alone. It's the latest red wave in a bloodbath that's felling the entire retail industry. And it reveals that, to some extent, Americans have stopped shopping. Ten years ago, that would have been inconceivable. It's a shift of massive proportions, a mental avalanche in a consumer culture where life imitates shopping and brands are flags. You are what you buy.

How will our mindsets, spare time, and value systems reshuffle as shopping ebbs?

I shouldn't say we. I don't mean me. I've never been a shopper. When I went to Macy's, it was just to look. My friend Megan was different. She lived to shop. A straight-A postgrad, she was smart enough to know better, but nonetheless, Megan always owed thousands on her credit cards. In many ways, she was a typical American consumer. She always wanted three version in assorted colors of items she saw in movies and magazines. She collected kooky backpacks, boots and leopard-spotted stuff. She loved new things as few can, placing each purchase on the novena-studded nightstand that doubled as an altar and examining it with shaky hands, fighting off those first pangs of ennui and regret. She stroked each new thing, its other-colored duplicates lined up nearby like rebukes.

"I waaaaaanted it," she'd say defensively, her voice high-pitched and trembling, like an electric bird's.

Megan was depressed. She'd been prescribed Prozac ever since it first came on the market. She used to say that if she didn't shop as much as she did, she'd feel deprived. That was her word for it. When I suggested that she adopt free or cheap alternatives to certain luxuries (library DVDs, for instance, and coloring her hair at home instead of at salons), her eyes flared as she snapped, "I'm not into sacrifice." Megan died in 2007. I wonder what she would say now if she could see the economy collapse, and what she would do. For Americans in general, as shopping becomes less pleasant because it's less plausible, will the prevalent mood be "deprivation," to borrow Megan's word? Will the specter of "sacrifice," to borrow another, spark rage? As my own freelancing venues vanish one by one, I'm trying to adopt a pioneerish outlook: Batten the hatches. Celebrate minuscule victories. Buckle down. But I was never a spender in the first place. I'm already ahead of the game.