Every Saturday for years, unless we had something else to do—and we rarely did—my friend K and I spent the afternoon at a swanky New York department store (hint—it’s on Fifth and 57th Street and starts with B), grabbing lunch in the basement café and killing hours trying on every conceivable thing, from bikini to ball gown, jodhpur to jumpsuit, and even, very occasionally, actually buying something.
We don’t do this anymore. Now we follow the UPS tracking feature on our MacBook Airs until the glorious moment when a big brown box arrives at one of our houses (it’s more fun to order together), awaiting the arrival of this parcel with an anticipation worthy of the second coming of the Messiah.
When the great day is finally here—and it comes at this point around once a week—we fire up the coffee, have a long, delicious, try-on party and inevitably each keep one, or at most two, of, say, the 43 assorted frocks ordered.
The advantages to this revolutionary new shopping system are many: One, we no longer have to deal with an outraged salesclerk when we return 42 dresses. And two, the whole world is at our dancing fingertips—we can fetch stuff from venues with names like Concept Store Riga and Maria Store, Dubrovnik (not making these up).
No one is more surprised than me that I have taken so enthusiastically to this mode of commerce. I was, unlike Judy Garland, not born in a trunk, but more or less took my first breaths in a retail store—my parents loved shopping, and I was conversant with the seductions of Saks and the lure of Lord & Taylor before I could walk or talk.
So you’d think I would be the last person to find herself furiously phone-bidding for a mechanical toy pig on eBay—it’s a long story, but suffice to say that having only two out of three circa-1933 little pigs is just no fun—even as the pilot announces that it’s time to shut off all devices and, in his ridiculous words, “Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.” (Is he nuts? No one has actually enjoyed a flight since 1962—plus, how can I enjoy the flight when I don’t know how the auction ends?)
Of course not everyone is lusting after a mechanical hog in a sailor hat (lucky thing for me). Though the Internet has transformed the way we buy everything, from rarefied Rolexes to naughty thongs courtesy of underpants-of-the-month clubs, most people are ordering practical, mundane things like boots or bathing suits or, as our extensive research reveals, lots and lots of jeans.
Now the dreaded “Is everything OK in there?” shouted through the fitting room curtain as you struggle to pull that devilish denim up over your knees (no, not OK! I need a way bigger size!) has been replaced by a phenomenon that relies on something called “Virtual Fitting Room Technology”—contraptions with names like “Me-Ality.” This equipment employs a kind of souped-up X-ray vision that bounces off the moisture in your skin, or some such, and gives you the bad news, albeit silently, about your expanding girth. (I remember when the Prada store in SoHo first opened, offering trick mirrors that allowed you to find out more than you ever wanted to know about the back of your ensemble, not to mention your coiffure.)
I have a theory: Someday, maybe someday soon, all the stores we have come to know and love will be transformed into giant showrooms. They won’t actually sell anything. Instead of salespeople, the staff will wander around, like chic retail nurses in white coats, demonstrating just how downy the cashmere, how feather-light the satchel, but after that leaving you strictly alone. Then you’ll go home, fix yourself a hot toddy, log on and let a robot somewhere in Transylvania figure out what size to send you.
I only hope that my imaginary salons will line Madison Avenue and New Bond Street and all the other boulevards that make life worth living. And please let them have giant windows, because who wants to eat a chestnut and watch an ice skater in Rockefeller Center and then not be able to visit those holiday displays so enticing, so amusing, so poignant—those dioramas that enchant us and mark the seasons in a way that a cardboard box at the front door, for all its dubious promise, never could?