D.L. Stewart: Will department stores survive the pandemic?

Shopping is not my bag.

The only stores in which I find pleasure are supermarkets. Even there, my enjoyment thrives primarily in the deli section, where I gaze longingly at the arrays of cheeses and salamis. If there were a store that sold only cheese and salami, I’d probably go shopping three times a day.

Still, even I have concerns about the health of department stores.

Department stores have been feeling poorly for quite some time, suffering from chills brought on by the emergence of big box stores, then compounded by the fever of online shopping. But the COVID-19 virus could be fatal.

Under a recent headline, “The Death of the Department Store,” The New York Times quoted a retailing expert as saying, “The genre is toast … there are very few who are likely to survive.”

As an infrequent shopper I’ll survive their non-survival. I don’t need more “stuff.” I already have more “stuff” than I can handle. On the few times I wind up in a department store, it’s on the heels of my wife, trailing her through the makeup department, past the jewelry counters, into the handbag section and winding up, invariably, in the women’s shoes area. Where, for some reason, she asks my opinion on shoes that look, to my untrained eye, exactly like several pairs she already has at home in her closet.

But department stores have been more than just places to buy “stuff.” The most elaborate displays were in the windows of department stores. The best Santa Clauses were in department stores. For many people, department store shopping always has been looked forward to as an event. An occasion. A social affair. Women of a certain age still nostalgically recall dressing in their frocks, their pearls and their white gloves to gather for shopping and lunch at downtown department stores.

They’ve been part of all our lives, shoppers and husbands alike. Part of American culture for more than a century. Part of 67 movies. Charlie Chaplin performing his antics on a department store escalator in “The Floorwalker.” Macy’s Santa Claus sending customers to Gimbels in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Will Ferrel’s Buddy being mistaken for a Gimbels employee in “Elf.”

Traditional department stores have their limits, of course. At Saks Fifth Avenue you could buy everything from Jimmy Choo shoes to Armani suits, but nowhere in the store would you find Firestone tires. (On the other hand, when’s the last time Jimmy Choo shoes were for sale at Costco?)

Even without department stores, life — and shopping — will go on. Big boxes are less expensive anyway. Online is more convenient. Just about everything still will be available.

Except for the memories.

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