Coronavirus (COVID-19) Health and Safety Guide
ASERT has compiled resources for those with autism and those who care for people with autism relating to the current COVID-19 outbreak.
Initially, I planned to write about why I hope retail stores and malls do not completely close. For years, people have discussed the possibility of physical stores closing as more people shop online. The pandemic then made this prediction more real than ever as some stores were mandated to close temporarily, more people shopped from home, and multiple retail chains went bankrupt. A large number of businesses have permanently closed during the pandemic while others simply reduced the number of physical locations they offer. While there are definitely times when online shopping is useful, there are certain valuable qualities found only when shopping in physical stores.
The process of buying certain types of items is much more difficult when done virtually. For example, shopping online for clothing does not provide the chance to try them on before buying the way you usually can in a physical store. Buying clothes online, shipping them back if they do not fit, and then trying again with another item is a much more time consuming and less environmentally friendly process (due to all the packaging and extra shipping) than grabbing a few items in a physical store, trying them on, and only buying ones that fit well. I often have trouble finding clothes that fit, so I would likely be shipping a lot of items back if I shopped for clothes online.
While shopping for clothes in person provides the opportunity to try them on, I was reminded the other day of some reasons retail stores can also be very frustrating. I needed to find more business casual clothes to wear to work and spent hours walking around a local mall only to leave with nothing. Most stores there did not carry business casual clothes at all. Of both the stores that did and those that did not, many were very unorganized. I would walk around an entire store and possibly find one button shirt or more formal pants surrounded by completely different styles. These clothes were hard to spot unless I looked around the store closely. There was one store with signs designating which type of clothes could be found in each of its sections, but I then realized the clothes did not match the signs when I walked closer. I was also reminded of how terribly inconsistent sizing is, with clothes marked as the same size varying greatly from each other. The prices also varied widely, with at least one store I entered having some items that were close to a hundred dollars sitting in the middle of items priced closer to twenty each. If these stores had been better organized by style, price, color, size, sleeve length, pants length, etc., it would have made shopping a much easier experience and would have made it more likely for me to actually buy something instead of leaving frustrated and unlikely to return soon. Most stores were organized in ways that forced me to keep walking around to try to find what I needed, if not also manually go through a rack of clothes one by one. The other day was not the only time I have run into these issues when shopping for clothes. Even shopping for an everyday item like jeans can be challenging, with some stores treating it as a seasonal item, the varying waist and leg styles that make sizing even harder to rely on, and other issues on top of the ones faced across types of clothing. It is all the more harder when looking for a less common clothing item, like steel-toed work boots.
Tech is also a shopping category I find somewhat easier to do in person, though still has room for improvement. Before buying my last phone, I did a lot of research online and then decided to test out the models I was considering most in-store. I am glad I did since some models with excellent specs and features simply did not fit in my hand well. I want an item I am going to regularly use like a phone to have a good user experience for me personally, and that is something that requires testing it in person. Digital cameras are also hard to buy online. I need to be able to practice taking photos or videos with it in-store to make sure it doesn’t hurt to have it in my hand, to make sure it is not too heavy to keep steady, to make sure I can access certain buttons quickly while using it, to get a sense of the image quality, etc. I really appreciated when a local camera shop went as far as not only allowing me to test mics by plugging them into my mirrorless camera but also let me record some audio and listen to it back on my computer prior to buying. It really helped me figure out the best mic for me to use with my gear and ultimately led to me making a purchase there. I had tried to research mics online, but reviewers had such differing opinions on the same mics and left me very unsure of what to buy until I had a chance to try the devices myself. When I bought a smart TV online, I ended up going to check it out in a store anyway afterward. After attempting to set up the TV, the colors did not look right and I was not sure if there was something I was doing wrong with the settings or if something was wrong with the TV itself. I, therefore, went to see how the models in the store looked, got some advice from one of the staff there, and found there was another setting I simply needed to adjust. I had spent a long time researching how to fix it online beforehand, but I really needed to see one in store to know what it was capable of looking like.
One issue, though, when shopping for tech is not every item I want to try out may be available in store. I have noticed multiple major retailers have devoted more space to displaying TVs, leaving less room for items like cameras. I was looking for a new printer recently and there were almost none in the stores I checked. I had a similar issue when shopping for sneakers. It took traveling all the way to King of Prussia to find my latest pair of sneakers after the Nike store near me closed and other more local retailers started devoting space to higher-end fashion sneakers instead of running ones. Sometimes, items carried in a store also cannot be tried out before buying, reducing the difference between purchasing online or in person.
An improvement I would like to see in retail stores is for staff to be more knowledgeable about the products they sell. I have had multiple times recently where I asked where a certain item is located only for the staff to not know. I have also gotten incorrect information multiple times about product specs and such from staff, though this can happen when shopping online as well. It is amazing how many customer service staff over the phone and online know little about the products their company offers, though physical stores add the frustration of not always knowing how to navigate them only for the staff to not know either. Although, there is the equivalent when I need tech support to help navigate a website only for the staff to not be familiar enough with that feature of the site. As someone who has worked in retail myself, I know this lack of necessary knowledge is often not at all the fault of the staff members and more so due to the overall culture of retail work. One of the main reasons staff tend to be less familiar with their own stores and products is due to the high turnover rate in retail. These jobs often have very low pay and poor working conditions, leading employees to seek other jobs if they have the ability to and only take retail jobs temporarily out of a need for income. Sometimes, stores only hire seasonally or temporarily, regardless of how long an employee wants to stay. With the pandemic, some stores have just started to reopen and newly hired staff within them might not yet know the layout. Stores also often do not provide enough training to staff or it is given at a very slow pace, meaning new employees are left somewhat on their own to learn the layout of a store and such. An employee also might only work in one section of a store, so if a customer asks about an item located in another department, the employee would not know where to find it. These are only some of the reasons for the lack of knowledge employees may have of their own store.
There are a few more benefits retail stores already contain, as frustrating and in need of improvement as they might be. Sometimes, I need an item faster than it can ship, and being able to get it more immediately in-store is useful. Individually shipping items people buy online also tend to be worse for the environment due to the extra packaging and trucks on the road to make those deliveries to a greater number of locations. I also feel like I have less trust in having items shipped than I used to after multiple bad experiences. One time, an item I bought online that arrived in a cardboard box was left in the pouring rain and I had to return it due to water damage. Another time, a textbook I needed in time to use for a college class got lost in shipping after all the online buying options were already not estimated to arrive until after the start of class due to pandemic-related shipping delays. Unfortunately, the textbooks I need are not always available in a physical store, though that online buying experience overall was very stressful. I also bought a part for my vacuum recently online that should have fit according to the specs on Amazon, but what arrived did not. This could have happened in a physical store as well since this part was in a sealed bag and could not be tested before buying, but it is also much harder to return it when buying online instead of from a store I can drive the item back over to right away. Additionally, I have noticed some online sellers do not allow free returns, if they allow returns at all, and do not always make this policy clear before buying. These experiences with online shopping further push me to shop in physical stores when possible.
Retail stores can also simply provide a space to be in. Malls can provide an indoor space to walk around in order to not be home all the time, especially when the weather is not nice enough to do something outdoors. It can be a place to escape if there is stress at home or to reward myself after a rough day at work instead of heading home. One time before I had my car, I was having a really bad day at a new internship and decided to take the bus to the movie theater instead of home. I felt so much better afterward. Retail stores, restaurants, and movie theaters also provide a public space to meet with a potential date or newer friend you do not yet feel comfortable inviting over to your house. We need public spaces like this to get to know people safely or for when our house is simply not available for a social gathering at the moment for whatever reason. This is especially true if you live with family or roommates. Even for people I already know closely, these spaces can provide an activity to do together and a place to form lasting memories. As a kid, my grandmother would often take me to the mall and movie theater. They were easy places for us to go to get out of the house, have space to walk around, and something to keep me occupied. This mall has such personal significance to me and it is sad to see it is mostly empty now. As an adult, I still often went there before the pandemic with friends, family, etc, because it was an easy destination when we could not think of something else to do. We would also go there because it had a larger theater than others in the area, meaning a movie we wanted to see was most likely to be playing there. While movies are getting easier and easier to stream from home, the movie theater can be an easy place to invite someone to when trying to decide a way to get together. That mall not only holds value when I need to shop for clothes, but it is also valuable socially. I am very concerned that it and other local malls will close as they become more and more empty. Not only have many of the stores that were already there closed, but some that had made plans pre-pandemic to open there canceled their plans. Forgetting the memories already made at these locations, there is also unfortunately not that many other indoor places to go nearby despite brainstorming multiple times with people. We are surrounded by local shops, shopping centers, and malls mixed in amongst houses in Philadelphia. Even Center City is mostly restaurants and stores if you subtract doctor offices and museums. There are few alternative venues like bowling alleys or roller skating rinks left since many have closed over the years. If the retail stores and restaurants close, the only gathering spaces around here that will be left are houses and parks, unless something new is created.
Sure, retail stores are far from perfect. Sometimes, you really need to go to the bathroom while at the mall, and all the ones there are filthy. Maybe the stores themselves look neglected. I was very disappointed when I finally got a chance to visit a movie theater since the start of the pandemic only for the seat to be dirty and one of the lights not to fully dim until a few minutes into the movie, leaving glare on the screen. There have also been supply chain issues during the pandemic, leading to items being out of stock and sometimes leave entire shelves completely empty. These issues can be improved, though. Retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other physical locations provide experiences and value that cannot be replicated virtually. Online shopping also has plenty of room for improvement itself. I really hope the pandemic is not the final straw for retail spaces, as much as some are predicting it to be.