The Case for Shopping in Real Life


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Ping Zhu

When I was 6, my aunt took me shopping at Hutzler’s, the fancy department store in my hometown, Baltimore. Although it was the mid-1970s, ladies with blue-tinted hair ate sandwiches without crusts in the tearoom. And as we shopped, I wandered through what seemed like endless displays of textures, shapes, colors and smells.

I was a fearful child from a household with little money and even less attention paid to children. Hutzler’s was the highlight of that year. I have no idea what I bought, but I still remember the experience.

Hutzler’s went out of business long ago, and I live in New York City now. When I go shopping, I go to Barneys, ABC, the first floor of Saks. Can I afford to buy most of what these places offer? No. But I’m not there for the purchase, I’m there for the experience.

Perhaps I’m shallow, but I’ve always been easily moved by beautiful objects and items. When I was a child, I was obsessed with Fabergé eggs, and I cruised the local yard sales for rhinestone necklaces and scraps of velvet and lace.

A good department store floor has the same effect on me. I hear myself audibly gasp and sigh at the jewelry on display under glass countertops, and the right fabric draped in the right way over a mannequin makes my heart contract.

I try all the clasps on all the purses. I listen to the strangely satisfying clicks of compacts and lipsticks. I smell the perfumes. I finger dresses I’d need a second mortgage to buy.

Sometimes I fantasize that I’m the kind of woman who wears these things, who tosses down a credit card without thinking, who scoops up silks and chiffons and exquisite bottles of face cream, and then glides out with big bags swinging from each arm.

The fantasizing is part of the pleasure. I don’t really want to be that woman, because that would mean not being me. But a few times a year, I like to play at being her.

I’m rarely alone on these excursions. I wouldn’t want to be. My aunt and I have been close all my life, and I have no doubt the relationship was in part cemented by what became our annual trips to Hutzler’s.

When my friend’s sister died, I took her shopping for something to wear at the service; when I got pregnant, she took me shopping for maternity clothes. These afternoons of intimacy and friendship will be with me long after the clothes have become stained, threadbare and unwearable.

With online shopping, making purchases has become an algorithm-driven, frictionless experience of terrifying efficiency. Amazon allows you to restock your toilet paper by clicking a button. Net-a-Porter delivers Chloé and Balenciaga to your door.

It’s easy, it’s fast, and it’s completely devoid of any experiential pleasure.

Shopping by phone or computer has always seemed to me depressingly isolated, stripped not only of the potential for human bonding, but also reflecting our culture’s distaste for pleasure and play, its distrust of the sensual. We live in a time of instrumentalization and efficiency, where everything is faster, smoother and more goal-oriented.

We eat to get the right nutrients, vacation to be refreshed when we return to work, move our bodies to stay slim. Online retailers cater to this utilitarian drive, and we in turn forget there are other ways, that there is value in a pleasurable experience even if no item is delivered the next day.

Of course, these efficient systems make us more efficient consumers. While I won’t claim that hanging out at Barneys or ABC makes me an anti-consumerist rebel, I do feel a sneaky joy in how little I actually buy, even while benefiting so thoroughly from these palaces of consumption. If you can rid yourself of the need to own everything that pleases you, suddenly these palaces become playgrounds: facilitators of tactile delight, not just mechanisms for buying.

Certain items have caught my imagination so intensely that I’ve felt the need to see them again and again. I have often found myself saying I was going to visit a purse or a dress — there was a slouchy leather bag at the Prada store in SoHo that I was essentially dating for several months in 2011.

In this way, my relationship to shopping is similar to the way my friends visit museums: the thrill of exposure without the need to possess. Also, I get to touch and smell everything, while they only get to look.

When I think about it this way, I start to wonder if maybe it’s not that I don’t care about owning anything, but rather that I already own everything. I have always felt, as a New Yorker, that all of New York is mine.

I can walk the streets until I drop from exhaustion; pop in and out of the Met; run, sail and people-watch in Central Park; have a picnic on the Brooklyn Bridge; swim at Jones Beach; marvel at the architecture from all vantage points.

And who’s to say that Barneys and ABC aren’t also in this vast real estate portfolio of mine? In France, at the time of Louis XIV, anyone who was dressed with a modicum of decency could stroll into Versailles and lounge about the Grand Canal or watch the king dine.

So too can we New Yorkers waltz into the most glamorous, supposedly exclusive shopping havens in the world and spend hours in sensory heaven, building our friendships, and without buying anything.

There’s an old saying that if you have to ask the price of something, you can’t afford it. My advice: Don’t ask the price. You already own the experience.

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