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Shopping the American Way

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POSTED: December 1, 2010 9:17 a.m.

By Lesley Francis

With retailers experiencing their busiest time of year in the run up to Christmas, I have been thinking about the differences between the American and English shopping experience.
My first confusion was all the talk of “Black Friday” which as every American knows refers to the day after Thanksgiving and officially starts the Christmas shopping season. I was interested to hear that the day’s name originated in Philadelphia in 1966, when the police department, cab and bus drivers described this Friday as a “black” experience because of all the massive traffic jams and overcrowded sidewalks (by the way did you know that we call sidewalks “pavements” in England?).
Apparently the use of the term spread throughout the 1970s and 1980s and now Black Friday is used to indicate when retailers turn a profit or go “into the black” for the year. I was encouraged to read that 2010s Black Friday has seen a 2.2 percent increase in customer numbers and a slight increase in actual spending – which gives us all hope for the economy.
I am still rather overwhelmed by America’s passion for shopping but impressed by the levels of customer service and selection of goods. Black Friday seems to encapsulate all that is American about shopping – the frenzied excitement, the manic advertising, the overnight openings and the mega discounts.
The malls seem to be a way of life for many Americans, and I was fascinated to learn that a European, Austrian architect Victor Gruen, invented the modern shopping mall in the 1950s and ‘60s. He fled Nazi Austria in 1938 to realize his dream in the U.S. of indoor spaces that business, leisure, family outings and shopping could all merge in a pleasant environment similar to European parks.
However, later in his life, he became so disillusioned with what the mall had become – its total focus on shopping and not much more than sprawling, ugly boxes on the outside – that he returned to the land of his birth and disowned other shopping malls. He believed that they had corrupted the ideals behind his own invention.
Although we have some mall, or shopping centers as we call them in England, they are outnumbered by the high street, or Main Street, shopping experience, which is anything but car or parking friendly. Sadly, in the 21st century many high streets in British towns have become a uniform pattern of the same chain stores; the independent shops have been losing out, especially as the economy has become more challenging.
One of the reasons I love Richmond Hill is the independent retailers and charming stores, which I find an antidote to the rather hypnotizing experience of entering the mall – and that is without trying to remember where I parked my car many, many hours later.
The amazing grocery stores you enjoy in the U.S. have also been a huge revelation to me, but that is another column…
God bless America!

Francis moved from London to Richmond Hill in 2009. She can be reached at lesley@francis.com or via www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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