I had to fight the crowds today to get one last gift for which we waited to late to order online. So I dutifully trudged to NorthPark Center — my favorite mall in the entire North Texas region, if I must select one — this morning and hoped that getting there early would make it easy to find a parking space.
I clearly wasn’t thinking that whole plan through.
I did find a parking space, but behind the mall. It wasn’t too bad, but I was surprised at just how busy and crowded the mall was on a weekday morning, even if it was 5 days till Christmas. I didn’t see a lot of kids either, so it wasn’t about school letting out early for the holidays — just a lot of people across the Metroplex who collectively decided that now would be a great time to get some shopping done.
I only had one thing to purchase, and that was a tube of L’Occitane’s lavender hand cream. I made my way to the little shop near the interior entrance to Neiman Marcus and found it mostly empty but redolent of the sweet mixture of flowers and herbs of which the shop is known. I’ve never found it to ever be busy, even on this, the busiest shopping season of the year, which I always thought was a bit odd considering our mad obsession with all things French. Maybe it’s the fact that a small tube of hand cream can set one back about $25, when one can get something similar at Target for half that? In our up-and-down economy, I can see why that might be a bit of a turnoff, although that doesn’t explain the crowds at Origins and Sephora.
Nonetheless, I still enjoyed my brief time there. Since we’re in the thick of the holiday shopping marathon, the shop had lots of beautifully packaged “gift sets,” from mini travel kits to lavish deluxe “collections” priced in the three figures. I sort of wished that I had people on my list for whom I could scoop up all these delightful and fragrant French beauty and grooming kits, but I had exactly one gift for one person in mind.
When I finally made my way towards the register at the back of the store to make my purchase, I was ready to just pay and leave, but that’s when I was reminded again of why, sometimes, making that small investment of time and effort in doing actual shopping at a real brick-and-mortar store can transform a mere transaction into an experience.
Now, here’s the thing: I used to love Christmas shopping. When I was in college and finally had my own car and a part-time job that paid a decent wage, I couldn’t wait for winter finals to be over so that I could make the pilgrimage to the local mall in our city and shop for my loved ones. Back then, it really was an event — I loved every second of it, even the crowds and the long lines.
I’m not sure what happened, though, but sometime in the last few years, Christmas shopping has become less of a pleasurable activity and more of a chore. So much so that I now do 90% of my Christmas shopping online and avoid the mall as much as possible.
It doesn’t help that that “local mall in our city” has since deteriorated quite a bit to the point where it seems little more than an air-conditioned, indoor flea market. JC Penney left awhile back, a sad-looking Burlington Coat Factory struggles to survive, and the fancy old Dillard’s that served as its strongest anchor is now a depressing, badly lit clearance outlet of that once-proud department store. Even the Barnes & Noble finally surrendered and packed up last Christmas. In its place is something called Shoppers World, which I hope to god I’ll never need to enter.
In other words, it’s not even a shadow of its former self. That former self is a ghost that likely isn’t even interested in haunting this bleak building. Yes, it’s that bad.
Today’s brief foray into the L’Occitane store at NorthPark Center (a good 45-minute drive today, given all the holiday traffic) for that $22 tube of hand cream reminded me again — if only for a brief moment — why shopping at a physical store can be a genuine pleasure. When it is, even the smoothest online transaction can’t quite compare.
First of all, the sales associate (isn’t that what they’re called nowadays?) seemed truly happy to be there and effortlessly engaged in a casual chat that seemed downright…well…neighborly. She seemed in no rush to finish my purchase so that she could, say, get back to texting on her phone or fiddling around with inventory in the back, but rather appeared to really enjoy doing her job. Can you imagine that?
Once she’d finished ringing up my purchase, she asked me if I wanted a gift box, and I’m sure I must’ve looked at her in surprise. Really? For one tube of hand cream? Since the hand cream already came in a box, it wasn’t really necessary, but oh what the hell, why not.
I was slightly awestruck watching her carefully wrap my little box of hand cream in red tissue paper, gently place it into a charming little box, and then put the whole thing in a lovely paper bag in a cheery design. And the final step? A little sample packet of their shea butter hand cream.
Okay, so perhaps I’ve just become so used to lackluster service that even the smallest gestures are magnified in importance, but I’m still impressed. It reminded me of when I lived in Japan in my early twenties and discovered that shopkeepers there considered every purchase, no matter how small or “insignificant,” to be important and deserving of careful and deliberate presentation. (Hence the stories of $100 melons wrapped in doilies and packaged in sturdy gift boxes.) People cared about objects and considered them almost like works of art deserving of a proper “frame.” It was an eye-opener for the jaded American in me who was used to things being unceremoniously dumped into a plastic bag and handed to me with the perfunctory, “Have a nice day!” If that much.
In Japan every purchase is a ceremony, so their meticulous and gorgeous packaging of even the most mundane of items is a reflection of that.
I walked out of the L’Occitane store, through the mall and back into my car feeling a little lighter on my feet and a faint melody of a Christmas carol in my head. I still only bought that one little tube of hand cream and nothing else, but suddenly the 45-minute drive, the crowds, and even the light rain that had begun to fall as I exited the shiny glass doors of Neiman Marcus seemed worth the effort. In a world where Christmas has become not much more than a marathon of tiresome chores and obligations, it was a brief but memorable reminder that meaning can be found in the smallest of detail, and that the effort to create beauty and grace in even the most prosaic of everyday events is a ceremony worthy of attention and appreciation.