On Physical Retail

By on 5 February, 2018 in Kate and Stephen, Municipal business, Shopping with 1 Comment

We needed to go to the mall. There are some things you can shop online for, and we do more than our share. In an era where you can get everything from Star Wars-branded Cheezits to a crowbar online, why even leave your house? Turns out, even if you are profoundly lazy, there’s some stuff that it’s best to buy in person.

For our Sunday, our shopping list involved prescription sunglasses. The previous pair had been crushed under the wheel of an SUV in Midtown Atlanta (best not to ask), and we needed a replacement. Although one of us has had a good experience buying glasses online, that was only after a considerable ordeal in trying to get a pupillary distance measurement from her eye doctor. It turns out that optometrists, particularly those with glasses shops inside their practice, are not that keen on giving out PD measurements, as they know that you’ll use those to buy glasses online. Which is crazy, if you think about it – your PD measurement is just like the numbers on your prescription, and they’re happy to hand you that. And they’re really just your own medical records, which you ought to (in theory) be entitled to.

In any case, the only reason that buying glasses online really worked was because it was another pair just like the ones that got stepped on (yes, eyeglasses have a rough life in our household). Otherwise, if you’re not replacing frames with an identical model, it’s hard to tell the difference between how various options, even ones that look similar on the screen, look on your actual face. Sure, there are tools that let you upload a picture of yourself and “model” different frames, but it’s never quite the same – especially for a decision that impacts how you’re seen every waking moment, if you’re a full-time glasses wearer.

So, seeking that ineffable in-person retail experience, we went to LensCrafters out at the mall to see about some new sunglasses. The mall on Sunday can be a little deserted, especially on a day when there’s a Super Bowl looming. But there was still a knot of folks milling around, including an especially dedicated lady who was walking the contours of the mall like her life depended on it. Thankfully, we had a prescription on file – they can be kind of jerks if your prescription isn’t current – and after we settled on a pair of stylish but practical frames, our transaction was complete.

Since we were out and about, we wanted to see what the mall had to offer. And we had some additional shopping to do. We considered Eastdale’s forlorn storefronts, full of second-tier retail catering to tweens and footwear enthusiasts, mixed in with novelty gift shops. We checked in on P & J’s Treats and More, last seen in our installment about taking the bus. They have increased their assortment of chips and snacks, but still sell a pretty weird selection of comic books, priced seemingly at random. We saw a new addition to the rows of kiosks surrounding the Ice Palace – the 9D Simulator. We wondered at what other new dimensions might be discovered by this novel kiosk device, but did not pay the price of admission.


We did eat lunch. We got food court veggie burgers at Flames, no relation to the now-closed downtown restaurant on Montgomery Street. They were pretty good. We were amazed at the sheer number of places where you can buy wings or hot dogs in the largely off-brand food court. Maybe there’s a premium placed on cheap items for sale in a world where the mall doubles as a weekday dumping ground for teens from around the state on their annual mandatory field trips to museums and to see the Legislature in action.

And we went to Belk to get some clothes. We were after sweatpants or lounging around the house wear, and we wanted to actually touch the merchandise before we bought it. Even though this is kind of an old economy thing, it still has purchase. Though the employees at Belk treat each transaction as an entirely new and puzzling thing to be jousted at with all of the tools in their arsenal, we still actually had a good experience and feel good about the shopping opportunities available to us. We did not go into the weird “clearance” Dillard’s, though we’ve been before. It feels like a fire sale at the end of the world, but they have good prices on shoes.

It’s fashionable to hate on the mall. And it’s sure a weird place, what with its animatronic talking tree. But it’s also a place where you can get the things that you need in a single errand. And shopping online has a tremendous carbon footprint. And even setting aside the not-insignificant matter of the local tax base, if we give up on physical retail, we give up on the experience of actually touching the things you buy. The tactile element was enjoyable and helpful, and we’re looking forward to actually making a return trip to Eastdale next week once the prescription lenses are ready.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Josh Yates says:

    I enjoy the sunglass vendor near the ice rink. Two pair for $20 + tax. That’s cheaper than online, plus I can try the glasses on before committing to a purchase. There are some items that are difficult to buy off the internet.

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