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Archive for Friday, December 7, 2001

Off-line shopping has appeal

December 7, 2001

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A box the size of a schnauzer arrived from the Direct Marketing Assn. I was nervous about opening the behemoth mostly because, at the start of the anthrax scare, I suggested the time was right for tossing bulk mail with impunity.

This caused one gentleman in the direct-mail business to send a caustic e-mail warning that I was about to throw the economy of the entire region, if not the nation, into despair. I responded that if people depend on me for their financial advice, then the economy is in even worse trouble than he imagines. The same reply went to the students of Haverford (Pa.) High School's advanced-placement macroeconomics class, whose correspondence, I should point out, was much better crafted.

Since it's wiser to face our demons than to push them back in the closet, as that great philosophical disquisition "Monsters, Inc." instructs, I decided to go ahead and open the box, which weighed in at 19 pounds and cost the GDP of Ecuador to ship. Inside were 50 catalogs, hawking everything from drapes to subwoofers to steak.

Here's the scary part: I already get every single one sent to my home.

I exaggerate. I get all save Back in the Saddle (I haven't ridden a horse since age 8), Waterfront Living (doesn't apply, unless you count driving over the Schuylkill), Dancing Dragon (yep, a whole catalog of them), and The Black Dog, sent by a restaurant on Martha's Vineyard (an island I haven't visited since riding a horse at age 8).

Is it my imagination, or do people travel to Martha's Vineyard solely to purchase T-shirts from The Black Dog, making it the upper-class version of Wall Drug in I-forget-which-Dakota? Perhaps there is no Martha's Vineyard and The Black Dog isn't even a tavern, simply a concept to sell a logo emblazoned on everything from squall jackets to bibs.

The other 46 catalogs are stacked high on the hall table, though perusing them makes me exceedingly anxious about the nation's fiscal health.

The truth is that I spend no more than $200 a year shopping by mail, while direct-mailers appear to spend easily that much trying to extract it from my shallow pockets.

I like to talk to real people in real places, not voices on the phone. I like to touch goods, not just glance at them on the printed page. I like to smell the coffee and see the steak. And I'm wise to the powers of PhotoShop, how it can transform ground round into filet.

Catalog shopping is like mall driving: looks easy, but it's not. Everything depends on the goods getting shipped, which wasn't the case with Aunt Sookie's birthday bracelet. Her birthday was in October. We're still waiting.

The marketplace is the aorta of human contact. Little comedies and exquisite dramas, occasional tragedies and outsize characters enliven it every day. No wonder Shakespeare was partial to it. We take to our beds with the cell and some wish books and we've lost that, extracted ourselves from the mix, and Main Street or Walnut Street or Germantown Avenue grows a little weaker.

I got as hot and bothered as the next person when the Internet arrived. I imagined shopping in only a T-shirt at 3 a.m., caving in to suppressed desires. Why, it seemed positively licentious. And it is true that someone in my household has become one of Amazon.com's favorite abusers, and CDs appear on our doorstep as frequently as, well, those poor catalogs piled on the hall table.

But the buzz from Internet shopping faded quickly, a couple of initial dates that failed to turn into an enduring relationship. I don't like giving that much personal information to a machine. Frequently, it takes as much time to place an order online as it does to stroll to the store. And I don't care what the resolution of your monitor is, sweaters look better in real life. Meat, too.

My holiday shopping will be spent among the living, people with faces, and, now and then, smiles, who will place Aunt Sookie's bracelet in a box and mail it when they say they will. If I truly crave that Black Dog T-shirt, I'll travel to Martha's Vineyard and the restaurant sometime to purchase it in person. Provided they both exist.

Karen Heller's e-mail address is kheller@phillynews.com.

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