Wanamaker’s, the Wish Book, and the Web

One of the rituals of my childhood was the annual Christmastime trip to the Wanamaker’s department store in Center City Philadelphia. My mom, my sister, and I would take the bus to the el (that’s the elevated train line for you nonurbanites) to 13th and Market streets. We’d head straight to the Wanamaker’s “grand court” to join the throngs watching the holiday light show, an extravaganza of light bulbs and organ music.

While attending the eTail conference in Philly a few weeks ago, I stayed in a hotel a block from Wanamaker’s, which is now — after having become a Hecht’s and then a Lord & Taylor — a Macy’s. New Yorkers, of course, have their own holiday memories of the Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan. But if you’re a Philadelphian, you can’t help but suffer a tremor of disappointment at seeing the Macy’s logo on the facade of what will always be the Wanamaker’s building.

Another ritual of my childhood was the marking up of the Sears catalog. Whenever we received the new Sears Wish Book or Big Book, my sister and I would get our pens, sprawl out on the living room carpet, and mark what we wanted with our initials. First we would mark what we wanted for Hanukkah or our birthdays. Then, as weeks went by, we’d get more sophisticated. Using different-colored pens, we’d mark what we would buy if we were teenagers, if we were grown-ups, if we had all the money in the world…

These two rituals, for me, illustrate why e-commerce sites will never completely replace stores and catalogs.

Now, I love shopping online, for the same reasons that Jean-Paul “Hell is other people” Sartre would have loved it. You can compare products, hunt for deals, and even order clothing in your true size (as opposed to the size that you tell people you wear) while wearing your pajamas and without having to exchange a single insincere pleasantry with a stranger.

But for all the talk of enhancing the online customer experience with zoom-in photography and streaming video and of giving Web shoppers the convenience and speed they need in this accelerated day and age, shopping online is a solitary business. And sometimes even Sartre wanted to be with other people.

Sure, features such as “e-mail to a friend,” “post a review,” and real-time chat try to create a more communal experience. And sure, thanks to IM and even that old-fangled communication tool, the telephone, you can converse with a friend in a different city, state, or country while both of you browse the same Website.

But it’s not the same, just as the movie version of a book isn’t the same as the book itself. It’s not that one is necessarily better than the other. but each is different. And that’s the beauty of multichannel, as opposed to unichannel, marketing. The multichannel merchant can say, Vive la différence! and make the most of each medium’s advantages.

That way, the brand can reap the loyalty of the customer who sometimes doesn’t get a chance to stock up on towels and lingerie until 2 a.m., when everyone else in the family is the sleep — and who sometimes enjoys nestling with her seven-year-old daughter at the end of the day as they leaf through the latest catalogs and mark up what they want.

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