Can’t Touch This

22 Aug

Think about the last time you went shopping for new clothes. Did you browse racks and pick out what you wanted? Or did you sit down at a counter and have a clerk go get things for you? Unless you happen to be shopping at high end stores, your answer was probably the first option: you picked it out yourself. These days, most stores put their merchandise out so customers can browse freely. Clerks may stop and say hi, or offer to help- but they don’t help you with every little thing you do inside the store. And let’s be honest: in many stores, they don’t try to help you at all.

Just a hundred years ago the situation was markedly different. In the early 1900s, you had to ask a clerk to bring you everything you wanted to see, whether it was a hat or a can of peas. Good customer service meant that they gave you one-on-one attention with tailored advice. The customer sat while the clerk gathered goods and explained the merits of each piece. Since merchandise wasn’t out on display, the clerk was the vital link to buying. In fact, since the merchandise wasn’t visible, the customer may not have even known all the options available.

this sign always makes me laugh: love how they're trying to justify low service with the savings you receive (San Francisco)

this sign always makes me laugh even though I know it’s true (San Francisco)

But like many other things in retail, modern department stores changed merchandising. As modern department stores grew, they accommodated thousands of people per day. And to make that work, they had to change their retailing operations- it just wasn’t feasible to have one-on-one service for so many people. At the same time, consumer culture developed, and society became more interested in consuming beyond their needs. As people became more interested in conspicuous consumption, they wanted to see more merchandise. It wasn’t as fun to sit at a counter and depend on a clerk: it was much more fun to browse. Shopkeepers realized that customers actually liked touching the merchandise. They liked browsing, and seeing all the options. In fact, as customers did more of the work, sales went up. Browsing created a more immersive experience than sitting with a clerk, and bred a sense of discovery. So stores increasingly put merchandise out on the sales floor, giving customers more freedom to browse at their will.

Of course, department stores back then still weren’t as “self service” as we have it today. Now stores are almost overwhelming in the amount of merchandise you can touch, and underwhelming in terms of the service you receive. But as you look at the shift from general stores and specialized boutiques to mass retail, you see a lot of changes in how people approached merchandise and experienced it. These days, only the nicest stores bring merchandise to you- think about Tiffany’s, for example, where you have to request to see things from a case. Wouldn’t it be a very different retail experience if you had to go through that process for every single thing you wanted to buy?

**For more on how department stores helped shape society, I suggest you read Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, by Jan Whitaker. It’s a very interesting look at how retail practices and patterns affect much more than what you buy.

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