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Over Easy: Pandemic shopping forces a new view of retail needs

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 6/12/2020 9:40:39 PM
Modified: 6/12/2020 9:40:23 PM

I suspected something was up recently when I ducked into Kmart (wearing my trusty mask) to look for something. They didn’t have the summer item I was looking for, but they did have red plastic sleds and Christmas pajamas. Some shelves were bare or nearly so. An announcement came to mind: “Attention Kmart shoppers — the end is near.”

It was only a week or so later that temp workers were yawning behind “Everything Must Go!’’ Kmart signs on Route 12A. There’s your economy taking off like a rocket!

The Valley News, Facebook and the rumor mill are working overtime to keep up with closings: J.C. Penney, the Skinny Pancake, Morano Gelato, Pier 1, the Noodle Station, Lebanon Diner and more. Many local shops have been in a financially induced coma, and are reopening slowly, warily.

Meanwhile, delivery trucks zip around my West Lebanon neighborhood with online orders. Walmart and Home Depot have been so busy at times that people have to wait outside and do the social-distance line dance: adjust your mask, shuffle your feet, 6 feet apart, now promenade.

Since I don’t have any powers to predict the future of retail, I’ve been thinking about the past, which is more pleasant. When I was a young boy, in Rhode Island, there was a small Western Auto store just around the corner. It had a couple of bikes and a toy tractor or two, next to the batteries and motor oil. There may have been baseball gloves and baseballs. It seemed to be all I would ever need.

We went clothes shopping in dignified downtown stores with display windows adorned with mannequins dressed in finery. A big department store, the Outlet, filled page after page of the afternoon newspaper with ads. The malls killed the Outlet, and now online shopping is doing them in.

On a late winter day at Steeplegate Mall in Concord, liquidators were selling off shelving in Sears and I think I saw virtual tumbleweeds rolling through the almost-empty food court. Where was the aroma of baked pretzels, pizza slices and General Tso’s chicken? You can’t get that online!

Closer to home, I think of stores of the past and feel a little pang, because they bring me back to another time. I used to like how shoes and boots were displayed at Hirsch’s in Lebanon, and Colodny’s Surprise Department store in White River Junction made me smile. It was like stepping into the 1950s in the 1980s. When our kids were little, we took them into the Woolworths in Lebanon and visited the goldfish and parakeets, the Upper Valley zoo.

Through the years they were replaced by chain stores which, in the nature of things, are in a continuous state of replacing each other. Although the economy was allegedly booming before the coronavirus, I didn’t trust it. When the most vibrant store in the Upper Valley seemed to be the new Listen thrift store, what does that say? Not that I’m knocking my swell $6 L.L. Bean shorts.

I am not much of a shopper. My needs are simple and after age 60 you realize that happiness is not for sale — although at half-price you might be tempted to give it a try. So many things are cheaply made, and all that’s plastic is not gold. You don’t really own them; you are just borrowing them for a while until you schlep them to the dump.

But still I feel an urge — a primal drive — to gaze at the bounty retailers array before us. I admire ride-on lawnmowers, well-made shirts (increasingly rare), brawny air conditioners, $150 sneakers, and giant TVs that seem like wonders of the world compared with the little black-and-white screens from which I once streamed Popeye and the Three Stooges (it was a simpler, stupider time).

I am not a representative consumer, I am sure. I do worry about local jobs and shops and favor them when I can.

But one lesson of recent months, when the distinction between needs and wants has become so clear, is that there are fewer needs than anticipated. Once I had sufficient food, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, what more could I desire? More shelving for my new hoarding hobby?

The retailers are counting on consumers to return to their acquisitive ways as soon as the coast is clear, but I wonder.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.




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