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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: shopping

experiential retail

(1990’s | businese | “something extra for the customer”)

When Lovely Liz from Queens is unfamiliar with an expression, it must be assumed to be generally unfamiliar, so I will define “experiential retail” in simple terms. It’s when the store gives the customer stuff to do besides shop. I’ve only started noticing the phrase in the last few years, but it arose among theorists of selling by the late nineties, though it doesn’t seem to have become ordinary until at least a decade after that. The giant keyboard at FAO Schwarz (installed in 1982, sez Wikipedia) is an example of the phenomenon before there was a word for it; the famed toy store was an early exponent.

The innovation of FAO Schwarz and its followers lay in taking the kind of service that had been available only to the rich and placing it within reach of the middle class. In the old days, only rich people got to shop in stores with fake waterfalls or what have you. (According to Shopping Center World in May 2000, a Nike store offered “celebrity athlete appearances, a motion simulator ride, viewing/listening stations, and a Ticketmaster outlet, along with other intangibles such as its “Stay-in-School” program.” Other oft-cited early exemplars: the Warner Bros. Studio store, the Disney Store, American Girl stores.) An oversize synthesizer you can play tunes on with your feet? Maybe in an exclusive store for people with real money, but no middle-class kid had a shot at such a thing before FAO Schwarz took the plunge. Give the customers something that will cause them to buy more this trip and come back more often. Of course, if nobody wants your stock, all the experiences in the world won’t help.

The most common mode of experiential retail is amusement, normally bearing at least a tenuous relationship to the merchandise. It’s mostly about offering shoppers self-indulgence — though self-improvement is sometimes touted. In the early days it could be as simple as a few television screens; games and other activities were popular ways of livening up the shopping experience. A store like Build-a-Bear turned the product into an activity, giving children and their parents a chance to customize a stuffed animal. The emphasis fell on big, gaudy displays intended to impress as well as influence, and when there was money behind them, the displays could get pretty impressive.

The late nineties was when on-line shopping started to make itself felt. (There had been many ways to buy stuff without leaving home before the internet came along, of course.) Experiential retail was one response; brick-and-mortar stores had to distinguish themselves from their on-line competitors, partly in order to justify higher prices. A fine example of a new term arising in direct connection with a development in the culture.

Twenty years later, as the great middle-class department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney are dying, experiential retail looks like a desperation tactic that failed to stem the on-line tide. The old dinosaurs were probably doomed anyway, but being forced to spend more money to lure shoppers who were spending less and less couldn’t have helped their bottom lines. It makes people like me sad to see those anchors of my suburban youth go. The market has no sentiment, but the little consumers who fuel it do, and the market must make room for our quirks if it wants our money.


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food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.

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brick and mortar

(2000’s | businese? computerese? | “with a fixed address”)

I was surprised to learn that “bricks and mortar” is, or at least was, heard as often as “brick and mortar.” The former may come from England, and my ear tells me loud and clear that “brick and mortar” is much more common. But both forms come up often enough to be taken seriously. American Heritage rules it a hyphenated adjective, but it doesn’t seem to be hyphenated very often in the corpora, and it can also be used as a noun. There’s no doubt it is predominantly an attributive adjective. I can imagine someone using it as the complement of a copula (“The store is brick and mortar”), but I’d notice if I actually heard it. A related expression, which I never encountered until I got to wondering about “brick and mortar,” is “click(s) and mortar.” That describes a business that operates both on-line and in physical locations (“bricks and clicks” is another variation). Anyway, the opposite of “brick and mortar” doesn’t have to be “on-line,” however likely most of us are to think of that first. It could be through a mail-order catalogue or even the old stand-by, door-to-door sales, which were antiquated by my childhood and which require a building somewhere, anyway, even if it’s not used for direct customer service. But so do on-line businesses. You can’t leave all those high-powered servers out in the rain.

Indulge me as I drag in one other related term, “showrooming,” which they say is mushrooming. (But one writer says “reverse showrooming” is more common.) It denotes the practice of examining a product in a store, then buying it on-line. I encountered this word only a few years ago, but it has surely leaped the gap between specialized vocabulary and everyday language. It’s almost always used as a gerund. Showrooming is a form of freeloading — you’re using the retailer’s facilities without paying for them. And if all there is to shopping is convenience and saving money, most of the time you can do better on-line, although the Internet ain’t perfect, either.

“Brick and mortar” is older than I thought, and I was probably wrong about its lineage, too. I had assumed it came out of computerese, but it turns up earlier in marketing lingo and earlier still in that surprisingly fecund source of new expressions, American Banker (cf. “firewall,” “takeaway,” “best practices“). The first examples in LexisNexis date from the early eighties, and they’re in articles about changes in banking that make ATM’s and telephone banking more profitable than maintaining branches with parking lots and bullet-proof glass. I can’t rule out the possibility that the bankers got the term from primal computer geeks, but I don’t want to give the geeks too much credit. The New York Times soon provided a sterling example from the wide world of shopping (or “teleshopping” — there’s a neologism that didn’t catch on) in April 1984, and the expression slipped into consumer lingo. It was possible to buy on-line even then, but mail-order catalogues were more the rule. The computer industry was nascent, and very few people had figured out how to make it pay reliably (which, come to think of it, is still true).

Before remote shopping was dreamed of, “brick(s) and mortar” referred to housing; it could also refer to the value of a house (as in: don’t tie up all your capital in bricks and mortar). offers the following: “Originally, a firm’s investment buildings housing its offices, warehouses, and other facilities.” “The brick and mortar business” was occasionally used in the American press as a set phrase to refer to the building industry.

One impetus for this post was the announcement that Amazon, scourge of brick-and-mortar stores, is about to open one on W. 34 Street in Manhattan. Surely the second coming is at hand! Is this a case of “it takes one to know one” or “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”? Actually, it will be more of a take-out joint than a three-star shopping experience; the Wall Street Journal reports that it is designed to give impatient New Yorkers a way to go pick up their Amazon orders rather than waiting for the poky old Postal Service to shlep it to their door. It will be what they call a “fulfillment center” — doesn’t that sound like a health resort for new agers? One more temple to the gods of consumerism. Apparently Amazon is lowering expectations by calling it an experiment rather than a shift in policy. Wouldn’t it be funny if Amazon became a card-carrying hod carrier?

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big box store

(1990’s | journalese?, businese?)

“Big box store” succeeded “superstore” (late seventies) and “megastore” (mid-eighties). The superstore was copied from the French hypermarché, where you could pick up a box of cereal, a television set, a new blender, some nice flowers for the wife, AND pay your electric bill, all in one trip to the grocery store. “Supermarket” already meant something else, and while “hypermarket” has gained some currency in the business press it has never caught on elsewhere. A megastore — the term was popularized by Virgin Records, most likely — didn’t boast the same variety of goods, but it still promised a wide selection within a narrow range. As early as 2001, a Maryland Department of Planning document listed “superstore,” “megastore,” and “big box store” as expressions that meant the same thing.

A big-box store — it seems to appear hyphenated or as two separate words about equally often — could be either a superstore or a megastore. It has to do with the size of the emporium (big) and shape (boxy). If you find that explanation too boring, maybe it referred originally to the crates from which one pulled items to place in one’s outsize, unmaneuverable shopping cart. In the classic suburban incarnation, it’s a mammoth one-story building with little in the way of decor or ambience but rich in utilitarian charm. (It pains me to report that Home Depot on W. 23rd Street in Manhattan has two stories. In the city, those boxes have to be stackable.) When the term came into vogue in the nineties, it referred at first to warehouse-type stores where one buys in bulk (Sam’s Club, Costco), and the fact that they looked like warehouses was part of the point. Home Depot took advantage of the same esthetic standards — the concrete floors and pallets sagging under bricks inspired trust in the home handyman. Best Buy or Bed Bath and Beyond had to work a little harder for their customers. Wal-Mart lies somewhere in between. Big box stores back in those days were often part of a “power center,” which could be either a mall or shopping center, only on steroids. (“Shopping center” was what we called a “strip mall” in suburban Baltimore, ca. 1975.) Today, the big box store embraces a wider field, including things like Target (which is basically a cheap department store), Pier 1, T.J. Maxx, Sports Authority (any of which might have been considered megastores in 1990). There is a move afoot to conflate the term “big box store” with “anchor tenant.” Any big, popular chain store rates the term, except perhaps a traditional department store like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. In 2006, a Chicago law defined big box stores as those “that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and are part of companies grossing more than $1 billion annually.” Merchandise and ambience no longer matter — only sheer size.

Like all forms of overgrown retail, big box stores have always had vociferous opponents, and a backlash soon formed, with the job savers lining up against the bargain hunters. The urge to find a bargain has driven American shoppers for a long time, and big box stores can certainly undersell their competition. But in modern times, there’s more to it than just finding a soul-satisfying discount. Shopping has become in itself an act of worship. I remember the first time I walked into a Bed Bath and Beyond and realized that such emporia are our cathedrals. Huge, high-ceilinged buildings filled with row upon row and shelf upon shelf of gleaming goods. The opulence, the vastness, the hush, the concentrations of shoppers comparing similar bedsheets, say, each creating a catechism out of cotton and microfiber, queen-size and king-size, 300 and 600 thread count. Mammon was the first American idol.

Not to get all nostalgic, but when I was a boy, you could still go to the dime store, which had similar stock to that of dollar stores nowadays (or the fussily named ninety-nine cent stores). Yes, we had big supermarkets, but they didn’t try to multitask. We didn’t have as many discount stores then, except in the form of outlet stores — factory seconds! We didn’t need them. Enough places stocked enough cheap merchandise that there was no need for special stores set aside for non-millionaires. Everything about retail has skewed higher since the seventies, even at the low end.

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(1990’s | teenagese (African-American)? | “around the clock,” “always on or up,” “constantly,” “non-stop”)

I had assumed that this expression came out of stodgy corporatese, shortly after (perhaps even before) the ubiquity of ATM’s and all-night shopping or possibly the tech support call center, but now I think it’s more likely that it arose in African-American youth culture, especially rap. The earliest instance I found in LexisNexis, from 1993, came up in a glossary of rap terms printed in the Straits Times of Singapore. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, and it may have appeared earlier, but African-Americans do seem to have been early adopters. Actually, the first allusion may date from 1986: an all-black band named 24-7 Spyz. They were “known for mixing soul, funk, reggae, and R&B with heavy metal and hardcore punk” (Wikipedia), so they weren’t rappers. It’s not clear to me that “24-7” meant the same thing in the band name as it does now, but if it did it was ahead of its time. Hardly anyone uses the hyphen any more; the virgule has become standard, as if it were a fraction, but it isn’t. (I was bedeviled as a child by this brain-teaser: Where do you commonly see the fraction 24/31? The answer? On a calendar.) Fact is, the hyphen makes more sense, but history will not be denied.

Before our use of the expression crept into the language in the early nineties, you found numerous examples of this sequence of numbers, particularly in football scores and stock quotes, representing America’s favorite spectator sports. That made it more difficult than usual to figure out when this term really began to appear. By 2000, “24/7” was widely understood in hipper circles, and it didn’t generally require a gloss by then. Whether out of African-American culture or not, this is a phrase that bubbled up from below, definitely not forced down our throats by corporate headquarters or celebrity central. Early uses of the expression were typically ordinary people talking about their lives, not executives bragging about all-night grocery stores. Now the expression may be used metaphorically to indicate something closer to “full-time,” rather than “available at any moment, day or night, including holidays (as in “24/7/365”). Like many new terms, it has become less rigorous over time. Exclusively an adverb at first, its part of speech has drifted so that now it can serve almost as easily as an adjective.

There’s no doubt that commercial forces have latched onto “24/7,” which sounds like a descendant of 7-Eleven (the name dates back to 1946). America’s favorite convenience store was named for its sixteen-hour day, and the first 7-Eleven stayed open all night in 1963. Before then, the only places open all night were hospitals, cheap restaurants, and a few factories that employed multiple shifts. The idea that you should be able to order a hamburger or buy milk at any hour barely existed outside of major cities. You closed the store at a decent hour and went home to your family. Nobody worked on national holidays. And hardly anyone was expected to be reachable at any time. The pager and the cell phone made us subject to summonses from the office at all hours; the funny thing was, hardly anyone seemed to mind.

It’s tempting for everyone on the political spectrum to see such changes as due to declines in some moral value or another, but I’m more inclined to blame this one on the curse of capitalism. In its purest form, the curse of capitalism says, “If one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder. If one guy stays open late, everyone has to stay open late.” Etc. We always look at competition from the point of view of the consumer — and to be sure, competition benefits customers, at least up to a point (having too many choices becomes confusing and onerous). But from the other point of view, competition places every producer at the mercy of every other. Thousands of eyes on the main chance, endlessly scheming, out to make a buck and the rest of ‘em be damned. Every time one person or firm comes up with a profitable innovation — of any kind — everyone else has to match it, if not surpass it (this is particularly true if stockholders are involved). The exception would be an innovation that reduces the expenditure of time or capital, but even a true labor-saving device just opens up more time for work of other kinds. It doesn’t matter who first had the idea to staff a 24-hour hotline to help you fix your computer. If you want to start or stay in business, you have to offer it now.

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