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Scenes from a Mall, 2017

“Scenes from a Mall” was a 1991 Bette Midler-Woody Allen movie. Would “The Divine One” recognize it today?

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I went to the mall the other day.

I know, that’s not earth-shattering. Except that I don’t go to the mall very much at all these days. The assumption is that not many other people do, either.

So here were some observations:

The mall was not empty. I expected it would be. It wasn’t bustling, but why would it be before noon on a Friday in March?

Today’s mall department stores are hard to shop. The anchor store in this mall is a Dillard’s. It was clean, well-lit, smelled nice and had its share of shoppers in the aisles. But, for me, the men’s department was unfathomable.

I was in search of the sweater tables. What decade was I living in? There was the Polo Ralph Lauren section. The Roundtree & York section. The Murano section. The Michael Kors section. The Nautica section.

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I assumed there were sweaters in there somewhere. Wrong.

An associate explained the last of the sweaters had gone two weeks earlier. The seasonal merchandise turns are happening more and more quickly. Today’s retail cannot afford a lot of unsold stuff. “Go online,” he suggested.

In Brooks Bros., it’s still 1965. This store was as nice as I remember them, with well-organized displays and useful signage – no hunting for sweaters. Their styles are pleasantly classic. And plenty of ready help.

Outside in the mall – H&M to the left, Hollister to the right, Hot Topic across the way – there’s a different kind of thing going on.

But Brooks Bros. acts as if the revolution never happened. And I’m talking predominantly about price. Brooks was expensive 50 years ago, and it’s expensive today. As if that same Mad Man wants that same gray-flannel suit and striped tie.

However, a revolution did hit Brooks Bros. – a digital one. The merchandise on display was fairly thin. And there’s apparently no back-of-the-house. When I inquired about a different style, the very professional sales associate took me over to the desk. Where she would once have called another store or checked her inventory records, she simply went onto the same Brooks Bros. web site I had consulted that morning.

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What’s the difference between her ordering it and my ordering it? “You save shipping,” she smiled. She’d heard that question before.

So I ordered my sweater – and also a Madras-print button-down shirt like the ones I’d worn under my V-neck sweaters in college. Viva, Brooks Bros.!

Leaving the mall. Because I came in through Dillard’s, I went back out through Dillard’s. Except through a different one of their all-look-alike doors. And into an area of a parking lot I’d never seen before.

As I prowled through the lot, looking for my car, I remembered something I hated about malls. My knees hated the malls, too.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.

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