Down At The Mall, The Shopping Spree is Over

Sara Robinson

There’s an e-mail making the rounds this week:

STORE CLOSINGS AND LAYOFFS:

By the end of Dec. 2008 as announced Circuit City Filed Bankruptcy, they promised to keep all stores open for the holiday season, but afterwards, they plan on closing 155 stores nationwide.

Ann Taylor closing 117 stores nationwide. A company spokeswoman said the company hasn’t revealed which stores will be shuttered. It will let the stores that will close this fiscal year know over the next month

Eddie Bauer to close more stores. Eddie Bauer has already closed 27 shops in the first quarter and plans to close up to two more outlet stores by the end of the year.

Cache closing stores. Women’s retailer Cache announced that it is closing 20 to 23 stores this year.

Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and Catherines closing 150 stores nationwide. The owner of retailers Lane Bryant , Fashion Bug, Catherines Plus Sizes will close about 150 underperforming stores this year. The company hasn’t provided a list of specific store closures and can’t say ! when it will offer that info, spokeswoman Brooke Perry said today.

Talbots, J. Jill closing stores. About a month ago, Talbots announced that it will be shuttering all 78 of its kids and men ‘s stores. Now the company says it will close another 22 underperforming stores. The 22 stores will be a mix of Talbots women’s and J Jill, another chain it owns. The closures will occur this fiscal year, according to a company press release.

The e-mail goes on to list another couple dozen popular retail chains that are either already going under, or are closing stores. Being naturally suspicious of anything that arrives in the form of e-spam, I consulted Snopes. They’ve checked out every claim in the e-mail — and found it substantially true.

So this is what it looks like — the end of the Great American postwar shopping spree. Snopes takes pains to point out that for most of the listed retailers, closing a few dozen underperforming stores out of the many hundreds they own is simply sound business — a small contraction in response to the larger economic contraction going on around the country, and way of battening down their hatches to better weather the coming storm.

But it’s also a harbinger of things to come. Americans simply don’t have that kind of money to throw around any more. The next several years are going to see more big-chain bankruptcies as more of us learn to live with less, and as the country begins to resurrect the kind of survival skills and attitudes that got our great-grandparents through the last Depression.

As the old saying of the time went: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. It’s hard for most Americans to imagine owning just a few changes of clothes and a couple pairs of shoes, or driving the same car until it falls apart, or investing the effort to fix things up so you can get more use out of them rather than running out to buy new ones.

But most of our grandparents spend the 15 years between 1930 and 1945 living just that way. My grandmother treated all her possessions with loving care, because nice things were so hard to come by and she wanted them to last. My mother remembers that her shoes never fit her as a child, because wartime rationing limited her to two new pairs of brown oxfords per year. Her folks bought them too big, to allow for growth; but before very long, they were much too small. A former mother-in-law, the last of seven Idaho farm girls, never owned a brand-new stitch of clothing until she was married. Even her wedding dress was a hand-me-down from her sisters. That’s how everybody got by then — and we may be headed back that way again. (I’ve already foresworn the mall for eBay.)

But it’s not just about buying less stuff. We’re also about to re-learn quite a few self-sufficiency skills that we were able to farm out to others when times were better — a development that may also redefine our sense of what’s “cool.” Going forward, “cool” may necessarily be less a matter of who’s wearing the newest stuff from Abercrombie (if you’re under 21) or Nordy’s (if you’re not) — and more about how competent you are at gardening, fixing cars or computers, sewing, cooking, or being handy around the house. People who have useful skills — and who have invested in good tools — are going to survive the coming crunch in much better style than people who don’t have either. For the next while, wealth is going to be less about what you own, and more about how clever you are at creating the basics of a good life on a vanishingly small budget.

Living smaller may also mean living more closely together. Right now, it’s hard for young adults to find the resources to fledge; and Americans over 50 are watching their pensions, 401Ks, and home values evaporate — along with any hope of a comfortable retirement. The last time around, people coped with this by selling off their separate homes, and bringing kids, aunts, uncles, and grandparents back together under one roof for the sake of mutual survival. This time, we might expect to see not just families reuniting, but unrelated people buying up foreclosed mini-mansions and making homes together. And perhaps this is the moment aging Boomers will resurrect the commune as a retirement option. Weirder things have happened.

If people aren’t out at the mall any more, where are they? In the 30s and 40s, they started clubs — gardening clubs, card clubs, auto clubs, dog-training clubs, civic and political clubs — most of which were aimed at helping people expand their support networks and make their own low-cost fun. Restaurants were expensive, so people had parties at home. As we move through the next few years, it’s possible we’ll see an updated version of that trend, as people get online to plan meetups, get into local politics, create community gardens, and pool their resources to acquire new skills or find cheaper ways to pursue their passions.

The odds aren’t good for any of us, but they’re a whole lot better if we can face them together. Still, none of these trends bode well for retailers, precisely because all these strategies arrange things so that more people can get more use from any given purchase; and more services are done at home.

The malls and big box stores are still going to be there, at least for a while. (Though a lean Christmas season may well trigger another wave of bankruptcies and store closings starting in January and rolling through the spring.) On the other hand, Wal-Mart will probably survive in fine style as it increasingly becomes the only place Americans can afford to shop.

It’s a scary time — but not all of it will be bad. America’s become (quite literally) fat, lazy, and isolated, outsourcing everything to the rest of the world and expecting they’d continue to take care of us. Worse: we’ve developed an overweening sense of entitlement about that. Nothing in the world has mattered much at all to us, as long as we could spend Saturdays wandering the mall. Making our lifestyles lean and green is going to be a hell of a challenge — but we’ve risen to it before, and I’d like to think we’re still up to it now. It won’t be easy; but we may be surprised at some of the unexpected satisfactions we’ll discover along the way.

Great big tip o’ the hat to Pam Spaulding at Pam’s House Blend.

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