The Call of the Mall: Disconnected
My mom and dad took advantage of the rare good weather yesterday to drive to my house and from there I drove them to the next town west of here, which is a heavy-traffic exurbia collectively known as The Mall. It has one big mall (used to have two), and many shopping centers with chain stores, all along a 6-lane highway, a very common American landscape. My mother is a tall lady, taller than me, and there is a limited number of shops with clothing long enough for her, one of them being J.C. Penney. She has shopped the one closest to home, which is smaller than the big one at The Mall, so she was hoping to find “something new” that she could not find at the others, especially since Penney’s has discontinued their catalog operation.
Dad just likes getting out of the house and making my mother happy. They also like to get me by myself on occasion (I am an only child) to talk about everything under the sun, because, well, I know what they mean. These occasions are getting fewer and farther between because they’re getting old and finding good days is getting harder. On their good days, however, they run circles around me, and yesterday was a very good day indeed. Since I stopped recreational shopping, I haven’t covered that many acres of stores in a long, long time
We got to Penney’s and started to navigate the massive women’s clothing department, which I estimate to be at least 60,000 square feet. The whole 2-story store is over 150,000 square feet, and women’s clothing covers almost one entire floor, less the jewelry and shoes and the Sephora shop. The aisles are not wide, as this is an older store, so the clothing racks are very close together. It really does look like an unbroken sea of clothes from some angles. Anyway, my mom headed for the section with the brands and styles she likes best (no Bisou Bisou for her!) and began going through the racks.
My parents are very generous and always encourage me to “pick something out for yourself.” I was open to replacing a couple of things in my wardrobe, providing I found something that was truly suitable, meaning it had to fit, flatter, be versatile, and practical. But rack after rack (and I am talking a lot of racks) had nothing but scratchy sweaters, depressing colors, shabby adornments, and designs that were cropped at the waist, a look that few women over 40 can pull off. It was no wonder that they hadn’t sold, even at $3.99, marked down from $29.99 or more. Mom went to try on a pair of slacks and I looked around at other areas, but it was much the same thing.
I thought to myself, where is all of this stuff going when the Spring merchandise arrives?
A little research showed that there are over 1,100 Penney’s stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. So in round figures there is over 6.6 million square feet of women’s clothing that isn’t getting purchased this month, just at this one chain store. Much of it has been discounted as low as it can go. So where from there? What economic engine made the fabric, designed the clothes, made the clothes, shipped the clothes, priced the clothes, marketed the clothes, and stocked the clothes? What engine is going to dispose of them?
Further research showed that unsold merchandise is sent to outlets and sold via places like Overstock.com. Others are sent directly to charities like the Salvation Army. Some things are sent to be turned into rags or “repulped,” which means the fabric is broken down by a chemical or cooking process, then recreated as yarn or fabric. This means that some cotton items may actually be made from cotton fabric in turn woven from recycled cotton pulp. Of course, quite a bit of unsold clothing does end up in landfills. This is especially true of designer labels, in order to protect the value of the brand. I was unable to find out just what proportion of landfill fodder is new, unpurchased clothing.
Mom didn’t buy the slacks, the only pair she could find long enough, because one pants leg turned out to be over an inch shorter than the other. She did buy a shirt she liked. We went from Penney’s to Kohl’s, where we saw more racks of unsold discounted items. Mom considered another blouse until I blurted out that it looked like wallpaper and we both couldn’t stop laughing. We left without purchasing anything, then we went to lunch. It was a two-hour lunch at which I indulged in a chef’s salad and we talked about the aforementioned everything under the sun.
On the way home we stopped at T. J. Maxx, a place that often gets the overstock from higher-end department stores, but the story was the same there. I got the sense that the stores and their designers have stopped trying, that it’s all about the manufacturing engine, disconnected from what us actual humans really need and want.
It was nice to get out for a day with my parents. It made me think back to all the times we’d just go shopping for fun when I was growing up, and never really thought anything of it. They got a big kick out of it. Somehow they found more energy today and they went to a big warehouse store not far from where they live, and then out for lunch with some good friends. Ya gotta love ’em.
Seriously, though, it was a bit of shock in seeing those stores for the first time after a couple of years of no shopping at The Mall. I can’t help but shudder at all the time, resources, and pollution tied into the sheer excess of goods there, multiplied by all The Malls in the country and around the world. It left me more committed than ever to buy only what I need, locally when possible, and the very best I can afford.