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November 18, 2017
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Does the Retail Experience Still Excite?

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Window shopping at Simpsons department store in Toronto, Canada (Source: Wikipedia).

I haven't used a credit card in almost six months. How? It's been relatively easy, I'd say; I don't have one anymore. Consequently, I don't shop online anymore. But there was a time when it was all I needed. Cheaper sales? Check. Right to my door? Check. At home in my PJs? Check. Insert pro after pro after pro here? Check, check, check. While Carrie Bradshaw once said that shopping was her cardio, shopping has become my kryptonite.

Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I just don't have time, but I can't seem to pull it together anymore when I'm physically inside a store. Retail options for men are limited as a rule; it's a fact of life I've come to accept since my first pay cheque hustling pizza. The only place I could afford clothing, as it turned out, was at a tragic little store called Urban Behaviour in a pre-H&M era. It still exists, that UB, but not for boys like me who don't watch Jersey Shore or call friends/strangers/co-workers 'bro.' We've got a 1:5 ratio on decent stores versus women's clothing, and what we can find is a selection of basics and button-ups that make us look like one another anyway. I'm not any richer than I was at fourteen, but I've got (better) taste (I hope) and, hey, price still matters.

Although without a credit card, it's near impossible to shop online, and being in a store feels like similar punishment for being so in debt that my only recourse was to rid myself of fake money. Problem one: is it just me or does everything seem more expensive when it's not online? Two months ago, J.Crew landed in Canada to great fanfare. The local fashion community was tweeting up a storm, going crazy for the invite-only shopping event; you'd think it was the second coming of something somewhat more amazing - but nope, just classic Americana prep. And - shocker! - no men's items. Canadians have been coveting J.Crew online and across borders for years, but when it opened its first physical store in Toronto in August, the online community exploded in rage because of higher prices than what they were used to. Now that the company has Canadian-based operations, why in the world was it charging duties to north-of-the-border customers who used the newly-unveiled Canadian e-commerce website? Online shoppers are savvy, and vocal, and a veritable shitstorm ensued. According to multiple trial-and-errors by reporters and shoppers, shopping on the new J.Crew Canada website pushed purchase prices almost 50 per cent above the American counterparts, both online and in retail. Oops!

Although without a credit card, it's near impossible to shop online, and being in a store feels like similar punishment for being so in debt that my only recourse was to rid myself of fake money.

In crisis management mode, the retailer dropped its pricing scheme and offered a flat shipping rate in Canada, no duties or any extras, even though prices would continue to cash in at about 15 per cent higher. We can live with that, right? A study from BMO Capital Markets, released last April, found that Canadians pay almost 20 per cent more than Americans for shoes, clothing, electronics - basically everything -  and the Consumer's Association of Canada estimates that number to be even higher, at 30 per cent. The J.Crew debacle was just an example, and the foreign fashion establishments that have opened up on Canadian turf in the last month (New York's Intermix and Express) have made sure to steer clear of similar scandals in the name of customer cash grabs. I don't want it to matter, but online shopping gives me access to play on par with my high Canadian dollar when it's doing well (as it has been until recently). I mean, isn't that the point?

In 2009, the US Census Bureau reported that online shopping from clothing and accessories stores represented two per cent of e-commerce sales (the second highest behind motor vehicles and parts), and non-store retailers (those without a physical location, but that could still sell clothing and accessories) represented 80.3 per cent of e-commerce. During the same time, Statistics Canada reported, "Canadians used the Internet in 2009 to place orders for goods and services valued at $15.1 billion, up from $12.8 billion in 2007." This isn't going anyway anytime soon, but you already know that.

But what about the in-store experience? Are we no longer getting our shop on? Retail conversion rates (that's the number of visitors vs. the number of actual shoppers) are falling yearly at brick-and-mortar stores. Earlier this year, financial auditing and consulting firm Deloitte released a study finding that 60 per cent of shoppers were dissatisfied with the physical retail shopping experience: low stock and size levels, not enough variety. In short: the deals were harder to find, and take more time to get them. Oh, and the staff and service levels - and this is not just me - have also deteriorated like our taste for reality television. Take last week's retail run-in at Australian boutique GASP when a sales associate (or stylist, or personal shopper - whatever they're calling themselves these days) allegedly told a customer she should just get a dress because it looked good on her or that her figure wouldn't tolerate much else; the details are unclear. When the upset customer, unable to find solace in-store, wrote an email to the district manager, she was met with equal ignorance and dismissed as unfashionable and unworthy of even shopping at the store. That letter, and the drama around it, went viral and made global headlines, prompting a He said/She said between company and customer. I don't imagine such incidents are isolated, and I only expect, as retail times get tougher - or keep changing, rather - that such incidents will only continue to gain attention. In the face of a changing retail landscape, shouldn't customer service be the only remaining - and redeeming - value retail has to offer us? A recent piece in Psychology Today also touched on the changing face of consumer psychology, noting that shoppers are overcoming defeatist attitudes towards big brands and mega companies because social media outlets like Twitter make complaining and voicing opinions (more bad than good) easier than ever. No need to dial a customer service number, or wait to speak to the manager. Even letters can have instantaneous effects as emails. How did that GASP story become an international topic? Oh right…

Much like travel websites before them, retail websites are amalgamating and becoming, as Stats Can would say, hubs for research, exploration and, well, comparison. Stats Can says that in 2009, 52 per cent of Canadians went online to "window shop" and research products before purchase, up almost 10 per cent from 2007. And retailers are jumping on board, quickly. Designers Alia and Jamil Juma (a duo that has propelled their namesake unisex label, JUMA, into a global operation) told me that they had begun operating a tiny shop-in-shop with Manhattan boutique Eva New York because the owner had begun to partner with FarFetch.com, an up-and-comer shopping site that promises to "a new way to shop for fashion" from the "world's best boutiques." Basically, the site offers you the chance to browse thousands of labels from hundreds of boutiques. Lanvin from Austin, Texas? Sure! JUMA from Eva? It's possible. It's pretty amazing since not all stores buy the same stock or pieces from particular, pricier collections, or certain labels may not be available in your area altogether. Stroll on over and see if you can find it in Seattle, maybe? No matter how many boutiques you shop from at FarFetch, it's still one checkout, one delivery - right to your door. And the pricing? Not absurd. The sale section (from all the boutiques)? A dream. No credit card? No problem. Use PayPal, which you can link to your bank account.

So, here I am, on farfetch.com, about to clear out my PayPal account from a Starbucks inside a shopping mall. Oh well, what's a boy to do?


Life, etc.: The world around fashion. On a weekly basis, Paul Aguirre-Livingston takes a break from fashion writing and delivers raw and insightful musings that blend society and culture with self.

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