Remember When You Couldn’t Buy Things Online?

When I send my mental archivist for some good ol’ Christmas memories from my childhood, she brings me back not caroling or egg nog or chestnuts warming on a hot plate that we picked up from QVC for three easy payments of $19.95, but rather images of long lines at Macy’s and Sears and a store called “A&S,” which I think stood for Aimless & Shameless.

My mother would drag my brother and I throughout the mall for the annual drag-a-thon, lugging a 30-gallon paper shopping bag with twisted rope handles that held our winter coats.  All that shopping, and the only shopping bag I remember is the bag with the coats.

And even more than waiting in line, I remember the carpets of those legendary department stores, beige and not too rough when you lay your face upon it, being mindful of the fallen staples and people walking around with sugar plum fairies and God knows what else dancing in their heads.  For following your mother around while she did her Christmas shopping was exhausting, particularly when we were not being energized by our usual line-up of televised cartoons and sit-coms.

One of the perks of being a kid is that you can lay down on the carpet of a department store and no one calls the security guard.  But it’s only department stores that seem to share this understanding.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art…not so much.

But waiting in long mega-lines that wrap around Saturn is, of course, part of my memories of shopping in physical stores with my physical legs and physical wallet.  I remember arriving at Macy’s one time with the intention of getting only a gift-card.  It was late afternoon and the tension level was at least a Code Orange.  I asked a security guard where the gift cards were, and he pointed to the register.  The gift cards were indeed at the register, and leading up to the register was one of the aforementioned mega-lines.  I asked the same security guard if it was really okay that I just step in front of all these people who had been waiting not-so-patiently, and he again pointed at the register, which I interpreted as a “yes.”

So I walked up to the register and grabbed a card, and started to address the cashier, and the man at the front of the line, holding four very large shopping bags bursting at the seams, said something to me that I cannot print here.

“No, it’s okay,” I said, waiving him off, “I’m just getting a gift card.”

When I got out the hospital I decided that it was perhaps time to do my shopping online.

My early forays into online consumerism were not success stories.  I ordered a black faux-leather swivel desk chair so I could pretend I was Dr. Evil.  But they sent me a burgundy chair instead.  I’m doubt you’ve tried it, but it is very hard to look evil in a burgundy chair.  So  I called up the online merchant and they said to put the chair outside my apartment and that it would be picked-up and replaced with the chair I ordered.

I did what they said and they sent me a new chair.  Unfortunately, the new chair was burgundy, too, and they had forgotten to pick up the old one.  So now I had had two burgundy chairs in my apartment, neither one of which I could use.  It looked like I was running a furniture store.

I’ve become much more adept and sophisticated since then.  Last year, I ordered for my wife a digital camera.  I typed in “digital camera” and the search engine returned so many results that I had to order more RAM for my computer to hold all the results.  Luckily for me, that too was available online.

When I was finally able to view the results I saw that I didn’t know very much about digital cameras.  Before I started my online search, I had thought that the only choice I had to make was the color.  Apparently the color is the last choice you have to make.

The choices come in layers.  First, what kind of a camera did I want?  There was a “Point & Shoot,” a “Compact System,” and a “Digital SLR.”  I looked around for a “Takes Pictures” kind of digital camera but I guess they had that one on backorder.

The second layer of choice is whether you want a standard, long-zoom, touch-screen, or waterproof camera.  I was hoping to find one that could be dropped from the viewing gallery of any of the world’s great museums and still work…but again that option was not listed.

Then the third and, at least for me and my eyeballs, final layer of choices were the specifications.  Megapixels, optical zoom, digital zoom, auto flash.  There was even something called “burst shooting” which I had thought was available only with machine guns.

I downloaded all of the specifications of the different cameras into a spreadsheet and compared them.  For days and nights I pored over the spreadsheets like an economist, trying to find the digital camera that would give my beloved the most Pareto-efficient picture possible along with a cute carrying case.  Most of the data fit neatly into linear models, except for the option that allowed a photograph to be directly uploaded to Facebook without exercise of judgment.

Soon it was December 20, the last day for guaranteed Christmas Eve delivery while still getting the Super Savings shipping discount.  My hands were shaking too much to type so I called up the store directly.  And when I was I asked what I wanted to buy, I said, “A digital camera.”

“Oh, great, sir.  We have plenty of those.  What kind of digital camera would you like?”

This was it.  The moment of truth.  The moment when I put to use the superior knowledge that could be gained only from online shopping.  I took a deep breath.

“Um, a pink one,” I said.

Happy Online Shopping, Everyone!

22 thoughts on “Remember When You Couldn’t Buy Things Online?

  1. OH my…I’ve thought a lot about how much shopping has changed over the years. Remember when you got gift CERTIFICATES, instead of cards?

    I grew up out in the middle of nowhere so my mom did a bunch of catalog shopping. We had a stack of catalogs 2 or 3 feet high in our house all the time.

  2. I do remember the gift certificates. I had one to Eddie Bauer that I carried around for so many years that the store shifted its gift-technology from certificates to cards. I was in a panic that the store would not accept the certificate, hovering somewhere around papyrus, but they honored it just the same. I don’t remember what I bought with it. Probably a shirt I don’t wear.
    We never did much catalog shopping in my house, my parents preferring to suffer through the crowded malls, but catalog shopping sounds like something that deserves its own post. I bet there are tons of funny stories about the wrong thing getting delivered.
    Thanks for stopping by, Annie!

  3. You use spreadsheets! Sigh.. I’m a table woman myself, which likely sounds IYKWIMish but wasn’t meant to be.

    I love shopping online because I despise shopping. When I go into stores and see people’s carts heaping with non-essentials/non-consumables, I get angry. It doesn’t make sense… Clearly I have issues. But I avoid confronting them when I order stuff from Amazon.

    Great post!

  4. LOL…loved this! My parents and I were just talking about the differences of online shopping and how my mom felt there was “no Christmas spirit in the shopping mall, just weird techno music” ….that’s my mom. Online is so convenient, but I do miss getting out and about and elbowing people who are trying to take the last gift card…

    1. Thank you. I think your mom’s line could be the first line of a funny book: “There was no Christmas spirit in the shopping mall, but only weird techno music.” It’s good that you see the beauty in shopping amidst the mobs.

  5. It’s true that online shopping has changed the Christmas atmosphere, but I have to say it was a Godsend when the kids were toddlers. Saved me the nightmare of taking them with me to get their gifts. Thanks for an awesome post. 🙂

  6. You’re welcome, Piper. Glad you liked it. I think it’s a tough choice we have to face in the modern age: do we sacrifice tradition to embrace the time- and cost-cutting technologies? It’s hard to justify driving, parking, carrying, and waiting in line when it could be eliminated by sitting at my computer, just like I’m doing now. Maybe iTunes offers some department store Christmas music that I could play while shopping online, and I could ask my wife to elbow me rudely once in a while to simulate an irate Christmas shopper. Actually, I probably wouldn’t even have to ask.

  7. One of my favorite childhood memories, Saturdays in a small town.
    My buddy and I would go to the barber shop, get a 15 cent (16oz bottle) Pepsi and have our hair cut. After that we’d walk uptown and hang around most of the day. There was the Woolworths with the huge candy-by-the-pound counter, a hobby shop, drug store soda fountains and pawn shops.
    The “Penny Arcade” and it’s pinball machines would soak up most of our allowance. Every kid had his dog follow him everywhere. There were no strangers. Everything was local.
    I’m still stuck in those days. Hell, I don’t even own a cell phone.

    1. I remember all that, too, except for the haircut part. Being a girl, and all. While I don’t think I’m stuck there, a part of me keeps wondering when all of this modern insanity will pass and things will make sense to me again.

      1. The modern insanity never passes, Piper. It just gets replaced by even more modern insanity, like uber-modern insanity. Then people start wishing for the days of the old modern insanity.

  8. You don’t own a cell phone? I thought my father was the only one.
    The only time I ever get an experience like your nice childhood memory is when we make a special trip to one of the towns on the north shore of Long Island, where they have these candy shops and vintage stores. Except instead of soda being 15 cents it’s like $2.95, and you can’t get anything else for under $7. And parking is a pain in the neck. But there’s always a nice used book store where I can buy a book I’ve always wanted to read but won’t get around to.
    Thanks for sharing your story. I love hearing about those days when town life was simpler.

  9. I just subscribed to your blog and have been paging through back entries, reading them at random. This one in particular was epic. The next time I go to IKEA I’m going to locate a burgundy faux-leather swivel desk chair and attempt to perch upon while looking EVIL (as opposed to simply officious). Such an awesome post.

    1. I think that is one of the best comments I’ve ever gotten. Thank you for taking the time to flip through the ol’ archives. I appreciate the compliment and hope you’ll come back again soon, perhaps from a comfortable yet modestly priced desk chair.

  10. Ok, I just discovered you and I love your writing style. I think you have all the makings of a great book, here. “Remember When…?” (maybe a more detailed title, but you get the point) Nothing to do with your post, exactly, but I remember a few years ago when it just hit me out of the blue that I could not remember the last time anyone had to wind a watch. How old was I when I last had to ‘wind a watch’? How quaint! I will be reading your posts with great enjoyment! ( The Sears Catalog ruled the household. We never actually ordered from it but what a great booster seat for dinner time!)

    1. I think you are my favorite person in the world right now. I am trying to interest an agent in turning these posts into a book. I even pitched the idea at the Writer’s Digest Conference a few weeks ago. But I starting to think that perhaps no one would be interested in a collection, since novels seem to be what everyone wants. So your comment is coming at just the right time – thank you! I am encouraged.

      I can’t remember the last time I heard of someone winding a watch. I don’t wear a watch owing to a mild allergy to nickel, and a general aversion to accessories that can get hooked on sweater cuffs and the like. But that could definitely be the makings of a post.

  11. Thank you, and thank you very much for visiting my site. People never tire of being cheered up and laughing! I imagine the writers of “Chicken Soup”, with all its variations, were told the same types of things. “Novels are what sell right now”, but as always, the ones who break away from the crowds and expectations are the ones who make all the difference. Soldier on, and forget the naysayers, who more than likely are stymied by their lack of humor and vision.

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