“What do you think of this?” My daughter held something up. If I squinted I could detect the outline of a shirt, dimly lit from behind.
“Wait a second,” I said, “my eyes need to adjust.” My rods and cones hadn't adapted yet to the near darkness of the store.
We had just walked into Hollister at the mall. It was 95 degrees out, but I knew to bring a sweater, which I quickly slipped into as the arctic frost greeted us with a firm shake. If that didn’t wake you, their signature fragrance blasted out from the a.c. ducts (my theory) and you’re immediately hit with a gagging level of fragrance. I zipped up to my chin and hugged myself to keep any body warmth inside my sweater−hoping to create a terrarium. The sudden drop in air temperature shocked my nervous system, even my hair−long dead−was shivering. Two minutes in and I was already miserable.
I trailed my daughter and tried to stay close on her heels for fear of losing her. Not that she’s a toddler and prone to wandering off, but I was afraid she’d disappear into the darkness, an atmosphere unique to stores like Hollister and Abercrombie−with lighting that makes the Adams Family dungeon look downright cheery.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young girl with long hair in tight jeans standing next to a table of sweaters. The sweaters looked like heaven. If she weren’t standing there I'd have dived onto the table and wiggled underneath them. Who would have seen me?
The girl said something to me but I couldn’t hear her. "I'm sorry, what was that?" I called out. Of course I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts in my own head. The music pulsated and throbbed against every surface of the store, including my chicken skin flesh.
“Excuse me?” I said. Again she mouthed something. It was one syllable. Starting with an “h” possibly? Help? Could she be asking me for help? She wasn’t moving, maybe she was frozen.
I took a step closer.
“I said, Hi!” she said, this time throwing up a hand to wave hello. Just then I wondered if employee training at Hollister included signing. Trust me, that skill would not be a wasted here.
“Oh, hi.” This shopping experience was already taking too much effort.
My daughter had grabbed a few things and headed to the dressing room.
The first pair of jeans did not fit so well. My daughter is thin, but the jeans were thinner. She sent me out to get the next size. I stood at the jeans table and fingered through a stack with stickers that said, 00, 0, 1, 3, 3R, 5. I thought about my thin fourteen-year-old daughter in the dressing room in the size 3−she wouldn’t be able to bend over and tie her shoes if her life depended on it. What must the 00 look like? And whose idea was it to call that size a 00? Could a 00 possibly find that flattering?
I turned to the Super Skinny salesgirl and mouthed my next question like I was in a foreign country speaking to someone who did not share my first language. “What’s the diff-er-ence be-tween a 3 and a 3-R?” (I held up three fingers.)
“Nothing,” she said, “they’re both the same.” Both the same? If they were both the same, why would they be labeled differently? Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to print one label instead of two if there were no difference in the size? I wanted to ask her that. I knew it would just frustrate me. Did I really need to go into Merchandising 101 with the salesgirl?
My daughter loved the way the 5s fit. They were bright pink and very cute. She could really use a pair of denim ones. We returned to the jeans table. There were no “blue” jeans on the table. Just an array of bright colors. I turned to see if the salesgirl was still in her spot. Yes. She was still there. My daughter approached her this time asking if there were any blue jeans in the same cut as the others.
The girl said, “What we have is all we have.”
My daughter turned to me with a look that said everything, “We’re on our own, Mom.”
I took out a pair of glasses from my handbag, opened my cellphone for some light and grabbed a pair of 5s from the wall. Then my daughter and I felt our way to the cashier, paid, and bolted for the door, while colliding with another customer and getting accosted by a palm tree.
I didn’t go to business school, but I’m pretty sure that one of the basic signs of a successful store is its ability to keep customers in the shopping environment for as long as possible. Not to have them racing out for the light of day, the warmth of the outdoors, the quiet of their own thoughts and wheezing from fragrance inhalation. Happy shopping!