From strolling around the mall to scrolling through the internet, a look back on how online shopping has overtaken our lives
Before Ne t- a - P o r t e r revolutionized shopping, we, in far-flung countries underserved by the Barneys and Bergdorf-Goodmans of this world, not to mention the everyday reliables such as Gap and Banana Republic, had to make do with annual international trips, asking other people to buy us stuff when they went abroad, and ordering through catalogues. When I lived in Guam in the late ’90s and was thus condemned to live life under the dictatorship of dial-up, the retail options in the home of what was then the world’s largest K-Mart were severely limited. Yes, there was an abundance of duty-free shopping, not to mention Japanese tourists in eternal pursuit of all things Chanel, but apart from accessories and high jewelry, splurging on cashmere and wool when the stores were stocked with fall and winter fashions made little sense, as did designer fashion, on the whole, considering that the dress code on the island was tropical and casual all year round. But thank goodness for catalogues, which allowed one to shop from home, avoiding the desultory trudging to the largely uninspiring shops. Neiman-Marcus and Williams-Sonoma became my best friends; it was so easy to call the order hotline and order away. In time, I managed to accumulate a stack of catalogues that competed with Vanity Fair for space beside my bed. The Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue was always the most-awaited. Some of the gift ideas were just so extravagant, so fantastical, so out-of-this-world—a $125,000 gem-encrusted mermaid’s tail, anyone?—that it became, for me at least, a form of holiday theater. And then, in 2000, Net-a-Porter happened, and runway quite literally translated to reality with the click of a mouse. It was a boutique and a magazine in one, with beautiful clothes beautifully edited, photographed, and merchandised. It made luxury internet shopping chic, possible, and desirable. Sometimes, it also made it cheaper, especially when one lived in a country where designer clothing was available but retailing at prices anywhere from 30 to 100 per cent more than it would overseas. Net-a-Porter may have started—and elevated—the luxury internet shopping phenomenon, paving the way for Shopbop, Farfetch, My Theresa, Luisa Via Roma, and Moda Operandi, not to mention less luxurious ones such as Yoox, the Italian online store that eventually prompted the exit of Net-a-Porter founder Nathalie Massenet from her own company. And, just as in a physical store you have remainders at the end of a season, online, you could trawl for discounted designer clothing on sites such as The Outnet, which, incidentally, started out as a Net-a-Porter offshoot. Internet shopping is, admittedly, one dimensional, and online retailers know that. To make up for it, the better ones provide excellent customer service, offering information on cut and size and fit and even the longevity of a particular trend. And when your order arrives, there is a sense of theatre: underneath that DHL packaging is a sleek black box wrapped in an elegant bow, its contents sheathed in layers of fine tissue. Yes, the dress is beautiful, the fabric is divine, the color so, so very you. But does it fit? And if it doesn’t, should you send it back or resell it through one of the many Facebook sales sites proliferating? Clearly, there’s an entire online retail ecosystem out there.
“Internet shopping is, admittedly, one dimensional, and online retailers know that.”