Everyone I know—and likely everyone you know—claims to do most of their holiday shopping online.
And recent retail stats bear that scenario out. The U.S. Commerce Department reported last month that e-commerce sales growth continues to outpace that of brick-and-mortar stores, with total e-commerce sales in the third quarter reaching $101.3 billion (compared to $69.7 billion in the third quarter of 2015).
But that migration—from in-store to online shopping—was not even remotely in evidence at Tysons Corner Center mall in Tyson’s Corner, Va., on Super Saturday, the retail industry’s heroic-sounding name for the Saturday before Christmas.
In fact, the center was so wall-to-wall with bodies, I felt like I was shopping inside a teeming beehive.
Basically, my fellow consumers and I had a job or two to do—and we collectively came to the conclusion that shuffling through the mall in mutating packs, muttering “excuse me” ten times a minute was the best way to get it done.
Of the thousands of products being purchased that day, probably only a handful were truly unavailable online. And the majority of items, if ordered online Saturday morning, would have been delivered to any home in the U.S. in time for Christmas. After all, these days most major brands, in an effort to keep up with Amazon, offer two-day shipping.
So why were we choosing to suffer crowds instead of clicking “Buy Now” buttons from the comfort of our sofas?
As a retail reporter and lifelong avid shopper, I have a few theories.
Complaining about mall crowds is, for most of us, somewhat disingenuous. As Americans, we love to holiday shop in a shuffling mob. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t. The internet offers an easy opt-out, and plenty of big box retailers, including Target and Wal-Mart, offer middle-of-the-night shopping hours in the days leading up to Christmas. Ever been to a Wal-Mart at 2 a.m.? I have—it’s like strolling through a Walking Dead set, sans the zombies.
Those of us born before, say, 1999 appreciate that buying Christmas gifts requires the stamina of a full-contact sport. The bustle is just as much an annual tradition, for many, as tree trimming and family infighting. And e-commerce is convenient, but it’s new. Not just-born new—but in the long continuum of consumerism, it’s a baby.
There’s no doubt that e-commerce is faster than brick-and-mortar shopping. But speed isn’t everything. The most pristine product photography in the world can’t tell you how a necklace shines under lights, how speakers sound, or how soft that teddy bear is.
Which is why the majority of online-only jewelry retailers, from Blue Nile to BaubleBar, have opened brick-and-mortar locations. “You can’t replicate the experience of seeing the jewelry in person,” clicks-and-bricks jewelry retailer Stone & Strand CEO Nadine McCarthy Kahane told me in an interview last week when discussing why the brand opened an appointment-only atelier in lower Manhattan.
Lastly, most of us enjoy at least a little time off from work over the holidays. And given the opportunity, humans are compelled to seek each other out—even when that togetherness feels a little cramped.
As omnichannel retail advances, alternative community spaces blossom, and tech-savvy Gen-Zers begin their working lives, it’s entirely possible that brick-and-mortar shopping may dwindle, even profoundly so. And certainly we will see it transform significantly over the next two decades.
But this year, at least, I’m content to handpick holiday gifts in person, rubbing shoulders (and backs and legs) with my fellow shoppers. Because where’s the thrill in easy?
(Photograph by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)