Dig­i­tal Times

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.”

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