During my daily check-ins by phone and text with Lady Jane, so that she’s fully aware of the shenanigans in which I’m involved, recently I texted her my intention to go to the mall to buy a pair of outer shorts and pack of undershorts. While surely not urgent news, I do tend to share such banalities for reasons I can’t quite explain.
At any rate, in her return text, she said something both brief and humorous, as in, “Good luck.” However, after I got done chuckling, I realized when it comes to buying clothing, especially unementionables, guys really do need some luck.
I can see my fellow tribesmen nodding out there right now. Years ago, in our boyhood years, underwear purchases were easy because moms instinctively knew just the right pack of Fruit of the Loom tighty-whities to take to the register. At the risk of traversing some boundaries of good taste, let me just say that, over time, certain anatomical changes combined with the forces of gravity make finding underwear that combines support with comfort more challenging for guys.
Jane’s good luck wish was appropriate because you can’t try them on in one of those little closet-size rooms with the paper-thin walls and little benches. And, second, once purchased, if test-driven, you can’t really take them back.
Using the vernacular of another generation, every time I think of department stores and those little changing rooms, I think of my father’s birthplace back east in Lynn, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. During my time knocking around The Hub as an adult on vacation, I’ve found myself in the below-street-level Filene’s Basement, the venerable high-end goods department store known for its mark-down system.
Now, I’m not sure if any changing rooms were there, but each time I was in the department store while on vacation back east, I saw crowds of women throwing off what they arrived wearing and trying on blouses in the middle of the aisles.
Recalls native Bostonian and my across-the-street pal Brad Kelley, “The aisles were mayhem on Monday morning because all the markdowns came from the above floors, and people were fighting and changing out in the open. It wasn’t unusual for items that would go for $300 to be marked down to 39 bucks, and there that dress would be on the floor with people stepping on it to get to another clothes rack.”
However, my visit in search of some short outer pants and comfortable undergarments at the Lima Mall showed the exact opposite of the mayhem Kelley wistfully remembers back in his hometown. It hardly resembled the mall I remember when I worked as a teen-aged shoe salesman in my first shirt-and-tie job at Butler Shoes overlooking a fountain now sadly long gone.
On that mid-week after-supper shopping excursion, there were very few people in the wide corridors and even fewer people in the stores. Of course, due to this blasted virus, some entrances were locked, including in J.C. Penney the entry doors to the west that ends with anchor-store Macy’s. So, I stopped in the men’s department at J.C. Penney for my outer and undershorts. As for the outers, I had a pair of khaki cargoes in mind. While I’m not sure I’ve ever had a need for those two extra lower-thigh pockets, I like to be prepared!
As I looked around, I saw several indicators as to how much trouble malls and traditional department stores have brewing, the result of more and more online shopping options that have forced so many once-profitable chains to downsize by closing stores.
No one was at the register in the men’s department, nor did I see anyone working anywhere even remotely close. Seeing largely picked-over tables of cargo shorts with none in my preferred color and size, I went in search of a sales clerk to ask if there was any in the back. I finally found a clerk in shoes. She told me that, with limited shipments, primarily because of the virus, what I saw out was it.
With my internal clock ticking when it comes to how much time I’ll spend shopping, to which I’m guessing a lot of guys can relate, and following a commitment my gender has, which is that we don’t leave empty-handed on our rare trips to the mall, I settled for a couple less pockets on the outer shorts and a pack of Fruit of the Looms that didn’t even remotely resemble what my mother used to pick out.
The undies looked stretchy enough from what I could see through the cellophane packaging that promised “breathable micromesh,” which seemed something that may just enhance my life, so I was off to check out.
Arriving home and ripping open the pack to see what breathable micromesh looked like up close, I had to laugh, thinking of Jane’s good luck wish, when I flipped the underwear over front to back. They had no fly! My first thought was when did THAT happen? My second was my mother would be appalled.
And on a more serious note, as for the sustainability and viability of those once-profitable department stores of yore, well, it appears they’ll need better luck than I had, combined with some pretty sharp marketing minds, to stave off extinction.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest.