Amazon.com has made headlines with its apparent interest in purchasing some or all of JCPenny’s assets on the cheap, particularly the bankrupt company’s real estate holdings. Scores of vacant shopping malls across America offer similar opportunities, and most observers see this as a quick, inexpensive way for Amazon to amass more distribution centers for deliveries to customers.
But the idea has also been floated that Amazon might develop a pick-up option for its customers, blending a little bit of the dying mall model with the modern standard of a cutting-edge, logistical powerhouse. The idea of a warehouse a customer could call on for in-person, retail purchases brought to mind a fond shopping memory from childhood (and other than visits to Toys “R” Us, there aren’t many of those).
In the late 70s and early 80s, there were three catalogs a New York kid needed to consult before compiling a final, official Wish List for Santa: the Sears Wish Book, the JCPenny Christmas Book, and the Service Merchandise Catalog.
The Sears Wish Book, in particular, was a kid’s dream, a massive tome filled with pages of toys displayed in various scenes against elaborate backdrops. JCPenny’s catalog was a step down in size and ambition, but together these two provided the tools to reference, and cross-reference, nearly any toy in existence.
(I took a brief trip down memory lane at the site christmas.musetechnical.com, where scanned copies of these catalogs, dating back to 1940, can be browsed. Early editions of the catalogs are fascinating historical documents; how else might a person born in the 21st century ever know of the wonders of “Jamarette” pajamas that have been “Sanforized” and feature “Nosegay” print trim? Or the two pages of Sears-approved laxatives like “Gran” and “Hinkle Pills,” along with “Jayne’s Vermifuge,” a liquid that eliminates “large round worms” in your child? The catalog describes “large round worms” as a possible cause of irritability, fidgeting, and nose-picking in children. Another possible cause? Childhood.)
Although it did sometimes fill in a rare gap in the Sears and JCPenny toy offerings, Service Merchandise was less about making a list for Santa, and more about the experience of buying a catalog item in person. As I recall, one browsed the showroom, wrote down the item numbers desired on an order form, paid at the register, and then waited for the show to begin.
Granted, it wasn’t much of a show by today’s standards, but for a kid in the early 80s, it was the height of excitement to wait at the counter and watch as a small, airport-style conveyor belt rolled out people’s orders from some mysterious back room. A factory, a warehouse, the local branch of Santa’s workshop…who knew what they were doing back there? And could a mall converted to an Amazon warehouse/retail combo recreate that experience?
Amazon may not be looking to borrow strategies from the now-defunct Service Merchandise, but what if the idea were reversed? Instead of goods being directed to the customer by conveyor belt, customers could hop onto a conveyor belt and ride to whatever department they chose, where their selected items would be waiting for them.
Borrowing again from airport imagery (and The Jetsons), imagine moving sidewalks that weave throughout different showroom areas, at slow, medium, or fast speeds. For those who want to get their exercise in, there are also lanes that continuously move backwards, treadmill-style, requiring you to expend some calories before you spend your dollars.
For all its flashy rides and roller coasters, The Mall of America in Minnesota hasn’t quite managed to integrate its indoor attractions into the shopping experience. It’s a problem I’ve solved in my future ideal Amazon megastore, however—customers can step off (or dive off, from the faster-moving belts) at any showroom exit, but for more fun and easier buying, each visitor has a long-range laser scanner pistol to aim and shoot at the bar codes of whatever items catch their fancy. Think quick, and hit the mark before your chance is gone—and watch for “flash sale” targets that pop up briefly before disappearing; if you’re really fast, you can earn up to 10% off your order.
The arcade aspect will appeal to competitive types, as the number of hits and misses is tallied and posted throughout the arena—I mean, store. Don’t get twitchy with your trigger finger, though—”impulse buys” are subject to a 5% restocking fee.
Go-Karts include a required pit stop at the automotive showroom. An indoor bobsled ride ends at the winter clothing department, and converts in summer to a water slide that spits you out into a bathing suit display.
Visit the special Game Show Area, where, in a nod to the early 80s incarnation of TV’s Wheel of Fortune, you can buy a pre-loaded gift card for any amount, then watch as robotic spokesmodels and a composite hologram “host” introduce an array of overpriced items. The 30-second timer starts, and you can finally live your Game Show dream by saying out loud, “I’d like to buy the ceramic pig for $112.” Spend down to zero, like a kid cashing in tickets at Chuck E. Cheese, with our own assortment of inexpensive stickers, pencils, erasers, and candy.
It’s not all about making money, though, and Amazon.com has never fully embraced its opportunity to raise awareness of its namesake river’s fragile ecology. Instead of simple and elegantly staged indoor showrooms, bring the rainforest to customers, a la Rainforest Cafe. But in place of the restaurant chain’s animatronic animals and fake vegetation, a joint venture with Six Flags Safari or a nearby zoo could deliver the real thing. Most malls have high ceilings (“canopies”) and fountains (“watering holes”) that could house toucans, monkeys, sloths, and other Amazonian creatures. Sign a lengthy waiver and zipline over the anaconda’s water habitat. Drop a biodegradable beanbag into the hole on the island target, and $5 will be donated to the Amazon Conservation Association.
The American Dream Mall in East Rutherford boasts an impressive shopping distraction with its indoor ski slope, but by implementing my very modest and eminently practical recommendations, Amazon (or some other company) could make the actual act of shopping fun, for me and a lot of other people who currently see it as a chore. Catalog shopping is quaint, and online shopping is convenient, but maybe it’s time for some new adjectives to enter the mix of consumer options. Bold, bizarre, exciting…maybe even a little dangerous?
If it all comes to fruition, I may find myself stringing together a certain sequence of words for the first time: “Honey, can we go shopping?”