shopping

When Clothes Shopping Became Cool

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The Kids R Us in the Nassau Mall in Levittown, NY.  Image from siteride on Flickr.

Based on the commercials from the decade, I wonder if today’s youth is under the impression that the 1980s were just one protracted neon-lit dance number.  There are several commercials from the era that were obviously a product of an advertising executive’s viewing a six hour block of Staying Alive, Xanadu, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun while hoovering cocaine because it’s the only way that anyone would think that kids singing and dancing their way through thirty seconds of television like they were auditioning for Starlight Express was cool.  And ridiculous as that protracted sentence sounds, so many of us fell for it, even to the point where we would willingly go shopping for clothes.

 

Now, hitting the mall for clothes at some trendy store may have been a rite of passage for teenagers in the 1980s, but when you’re a kid, clothes shopping can be agony.  I am not going to go through all of the details of what I was put through as a child except to say that I still only trust one person enough to accompany me when it comes to buying clothes, and that is my wife.  Otherwise, I go clothes shopping completely by myself or not at all.  But for a brief period in the 1980s, this wasn’t the case and that’s because Kids R Us opened up across from the Toys R Us in Bay Shore.

Existing from 1983 until it eventually went defunct in 2004, Kids R Us was the Toys R Us corporation’s foray into children’s clothing retail.  This, according to a New York Times article I found from 1983, was already a very competitive market and Toys R Us was taking a big risk, especially since they were going up against huge department stores like Macy’s.  From what I could tell, it worked at first because they were able to undercut their competition by offering some popular brand names at lower prices, and they made the stores themselves attractive to kids.  The NYT describes one of the original Kids R Us stores in Paramus, New Jersey, as “a place that seemed to blend the essential elements of an upscale children’s clothing outlet and a suburban theme park.”

And that much was true–the color scheme of the store was bright with kid-friendly “cool” colors, there were at least a couple of distraction stations where you could play games or look in funhouse mirrors so that you forgot for a moment that you were there to try on clothes and had gotten sucked into those awesome dance numbers on the commercials:

When you watch this, you can see that it’s vibrant.  Moreover, if you listen to it, it sounds like so many of the other commercials of the 1980s–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the “Kids R Us” song from this commercial is the same tune as the “Coke Is It!” ads from around the same time.  This one even has a similar start to the one that I looked at a number of years ago in that it begins with set design.  But then … then … THEN … it gets SO FREAKIN’ COOL.

These images are everything that was awesome about the 1980s:  killer sax solos, wearing leotards 24-7 and Sha-Na-Na cosplay.  People, these clothes weren’t your siblings’ or older neighbor’s hand-me-downs.  Oh no.  These were the clothes that you knew were going to make you be seen on the first day of school–that is, until you actually wore them to school and realized that you looked like a total moron.

Popped Collar Kid

Unless, of course, you are this kid.  I mean, he pops his collar and doesn’t even need to ski the K-12.  He just is.  And I really don’t need to say much more than that.  This, guys, is the impossible benchmark of cool that you will never achieve.  Not back in 1985; not in 2018.

Weep for your lack.

Group Shot

Anyway, the commercial goes on to show more kids dancing and showing off the clothes–there’s even a couple of dressed-up nerdy-looking kids in there because there was always one parent who was always on the lookout for a new place to buy slacks–and we get to the big finale.  Said big finale?  A freeze-frame jumping group shot, the type that leads us kids to believe that shopping at Kids R Us will be this fun, this exciting, and that we will want our parents to bring us there right away.  The reality, of course, was that we would walk into the store while catching a glance of Toys R Us and would spend the next hour wondering why we weren’t getting any toys.  It was all a cruel joke perpetrated by the lies of Corporate America and our parents, who for at least a few years found clothes shopping to be a little easier.

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When I Was a Toys R Us Kid

There is a saying that is cliche by now:  “You can’t go home again.”  Entire songs have been written based on this premise; hell, there’s an entire genre of movie that seems to center around the idea.  And to be honest, even though the phrase is a cliche, it has a ring of truth to it–which really is the case with every cliche–and I guess it’s the raison d’etre of nostalgia.

I personally haven’t had a lot of “you can’t go home again” moments in my adult life.  For the most part, I’m not as blind to the trappings of nostalgia and can even say that I very often go in to rewatching an old movie or TV series skeptical about whether or not it holds up after 20-30 years.  But the one time I did have a moment like that was when I stepped into a Toys R Us.

Anyone over the age of 30 probably clicked on that video and went “Oh yeah, I remember this commercial.”  I grabbed this specific one off of YouTube on purpose because this commercial, which first aired in 1982, was run and rerun endlessly throughout the decade and featured three kids who would grow up to become notable actors and actresses:  Jaleel White (who played Urkel), Jenny Lewis (lead singer of Rilo Kiley), and Lindsay Price (who would be a regular on the later seasons of Beverly Hills 90210).  In fact, that series of commercials was so famous that the now grown-up kids (except for Urkel) shot another one in the mid-’90s:

And having a Toys R Us near you was a big deal back in the 1980s because they weren’t as ubiquitous as, say, Target or Walmart stores are today.  Sayville eventually got its own Toys R Us (though it was technically in Holbrook at the Sun Vet Mall) in the 1990s, but when I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents had to haul it about twenty minutes west to Bay Shore to go there, which meant that a trip to the store was a special trip and not just a part of some weekly shopping routine.

I’m pretty sure that store is still standing, but it has undergone the change that so many Toys R Us stores have undergone in recent decades:  it is now two stores in one–a Toys R Us and a Babies R Us.  This is the case with my local store, in Charlottesville, and when Brett was a baby, Amanda and I made a number of trips to the Babies R Us store.  Occasionally, we would venture into the Toys R Us side of things and I have to say that I never got over the feeling of disappointment that I had upon seeing how much smaller Toys R Us was compared to the one in my memories.

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Most Toys R Us Stores look like this nowadays.

Oh sure, nothing is as big as you remember it being when you were a kid–hell, parts of Disney World seemed smaller to me when I was an adult compared to my childhood memories–but the reality versus my memory of walking into a Toys R Us was a disappointment because this was a store that my sister and I practically worshiped as kids, to the point where I had most the layout of the store memorized to the point where I can still picture it.

Think I’m kidding?  I drew the map below (on graph paper) from memory:

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You’ll notice that according to the map I drew, most of what I remember clearly was on the left side of the store, and that’s because things like action figures and playsets were separated according to whether or not they were “for boys” and “for girls.”  I don’t remember if the “boys” area was blue and the “girls” area was pink, to be honest–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the colors were neutral–but I do have to say that when I posted a picture of this map a few months ago to Twitter, someone tweeted at me, disappointed that the genders were separated in a toy store.  Now, I’m the last person to reinforce traditional gender roles, but I have to say that … well, this was a toy store in the Eighties and not my own creation; and if you think of it, the way the toys were separated by gender probably had more to do with moving the actual merchandise than upholding gender norms.  You could put She-Ra next to He-Man and she may have sold just as well; however, put a random “girl with a horse” doll next to G.I. Joe instead of next to She-Ra and Barbie and that toy will get overlooked.

Anyway, exploration into the sexual politics of Toys R Us in 1986 when viewed by Twitter in 2016 over,  because even looking at this map a few months after I drew it (and then finally got around to writing this post), I can still vividly picture the aisles themselves, and what pictures I have found of the interiors at old Toys R Us stores on sites like Plaid Stallions shows that my memories aren’t too far off.  When you walked into the store, you were greeted by seasonal things and party favors, and I remember this was the case for a number of similar toy stores of the era, such as Play World or Child World.  This is where you got your tablecloths, napkins, cups, and whatever cheap crap that your mom was going to put in a favor bag for kids to take home–not all parents caught on to the idea of buying a few Marvel three-packs and calling it a day, which is still one of the better party favor ideas I’ve ever experienced (even if I did wind up with an issue of Secret Wars II).  There’s a note here that said I once saw something related to Return of the Jedi in this aisle, which isn’t hard to believe because Return of the Jedi merchandise was everywhere back in the early 1980s, but I specifically remember seeing the ROTJ storybook in hardcover and kicking myself for getting the softcover version through the Scholastic book club.  Not because the hardcover was cooler or anything, but because I had the storybooks for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in hardcover and would have liked to have been consistent there.

Yes, even at the age of seven, I was anal-retentive about format.

Anyway, I don’t think I ever spent much time in the party favors section because the better stuff was just beyond the bathroom.  And yes, I knew where the bathroom was because I was that kid who always needed to go to the bathroom, so I always knew where the bathroom was.  Hell, I still do.

But after the bathroom was this corridor of board games and video games, with an enormous, seemingly never-ending wall of board games on your left and an alleyway of video games on your right.  The board games wall is significant in its vastness as well as the fact that I remember that Toys R Us carried every single edition of Trivial Pursuit that was on the category card that came with the game, even the versions that you were pretty sure actually didn’t exist or were available in some mythical toy store that carried every obscure thing and was located in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

Same with the video games, which had one of the more odd purchasing procedures, one that was more like a trip to the video store than it was to to the toy store.  The actual games weren’t on display; instead, there were cards with the covers from the video game boxes and tickets attached to each of the cards.  If the game was in stock, you would take a ticket and bring it to the register, where you would pay for it, and then you would go to another counter where an employee–who was behind glass–would go and get the video game for you.

I’m pretty sure that this was a shoplifting prevention tactic in the days before the scanner would be set off if you tried to leave the store without paying for the video game, and they did have high potential for shoplifting because the cost of the average video game was incredibly high (so high, in fact, that the New York State attorney general filed a lawsuit against game companies and won).

Of course, not every single video game was actually in stock, and Toys R Us certainly had its fair share of peg warmer video games, so if gramma was looking for the copy of Dragon Warrior III that you wanted, she could pick up Home Alone for $19.95 when Dragon Warrior III was sold out (and honestly, Dragon Warrior III was always sold out).

Speaking of pegwarmers, the two or three aisle of action figures were the heart of any journey through Toys R Us for me back in the 1980s.  Of course, as the decade went on, the “spotlight” toys changed, but the setup was always the same–there was an endcap full of action figures and an aisle of vehicles and playsets.  If I was with my mom or dad and was allowed to get one action figure (vehicles were for Christmas and birthday lists), the decision was usually easy because I had memorized which figures I had and which figures I wanted; however, nothing compares to the soul-crushing paralysis that came when you walked into Toys R Us with your $20-$30 worth of birthday money and were allowed to get whatever toy you wanted.  Because that meant a vehicle was a possible purchase or you could get multiple action figures, and if you didn’t come into the store with a plan, you took longer to make a purchasing decision than the average jury takes to reach a verdict in a murder trial.  That sounds pithy, but it was a major decision because you had to think of how much you were going to play with the toy and whether or not it would affect your standings in some sort of unofficial toy arms race that you were having with your friends.

Further complicating this decision was the Aisle of Forgotten Toys, which was where Toys R Us stocked all of the second-rate and more obscure toy lines, such as Remco’s Warlord figures and the line of Dungeons and Dragons figures that came out in 1983-1984, or my favorite “Did anyone buy these” toy line, which was the here-and-gone-in-a-flash-now-costing-an-arm-and-a-leg-on-eBay Matchbox Robotech line.  I had the same desire to look at all of those toys back then as I do grabbing random war, romance, or horror comics from 50-cent bins today.  And I suppose if I had some foresight back in 1986 or so, I would have bought more than one of those figures so that I could keep it mint in its packaging and make a few bucks now … but as with everything in that regard, I had absolutely foresight and those toys were lost to various purges.

I stopped visiting Toys R Us sometime in junior high, around the time when the NES was phasing out and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be getting an upgrade to my video game system.  But those times spent in the aisles of my childhood had lasting effects, from that feeling of paralysis when given money to spend on CDs to watching my son go through the same purchase paralysis with his own birthday money (accompanied by my own attempts to steer him away from purchasing worthless crap he’ll play with once and then let collect dust).  Which brings up another cliche … “The more things change …”

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An old-school Toys R Us store in Bloomington, Indiana.  Image taken from Flickr.

 

We Wrote the Book on Savings

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The cover of the fall 1991-1992 Consumers catalog. The company stayed in business until the mid-1990s, although my local store was gone by then.

I think that I am at the point in my life where I don’t get upset if I go to the store and something is out of stock.  Oh sure, it’s a minor inconvenience and the solution usually leads to me getting in the car and driving to another, similar store down the road.  But when you are a kid, this is a hard lesson to learn.  You don’t have a car and you don’t know much about the stores in your area beyond what you have seen whenever your parents have taken you, so showing up to TSS only to find out that the action figure you wanted was completely sold out can be absolutely devastating, even if it provides you with much-needed lessons about how you’re not always able to get what you want instantly.  Now, I’m sure that if you ask a number of people in my generation how they learned this lesson, they’ll tell you a variation on the same story–they wanted a toy, they asked mom or dad to take them to the store to get it, it wasn’t there.  Or they may say one word:  “Consumers.”

Consumers was a catalog-based store that was founded in Canada as Consumers Distributing in 1957 and expanded over the course of a couple of decades, adding stores and then buying out other, similar retail outlets, something that helped them to pop up with more frequency during the 1980s.  The idea behind the store was similar to its main competitor, Service Merchandise:  the company published a catalog and then anyone who wanted to buy something from the catalog would head to the local retail outlet–usually at a mall–and pick it up.

That is, if they actually had anything.

The G.I. Joe page of a 1980s Consumers catalog. Photo courtesy of YoJoe.com

The arrival of the Consumers catalog twice a year was an event.  My friends and I would grab it out of the mail and skip right to the toys and games section.  Open before us was a display of everything we ever wanted, from G.I. Joe figures and vehicles to every Nintendo game that we’d ever seen advertised anywhere.  Plus, the prices were much better than what you would get at Toys R Us–not that Toys R Us was overpriced or anything, but any time you can say, “Hey Mom!  The Legend of Zelda is only $45 and not $60!  Can we get it?” you have a better shot at getting what you wanted.

That is, if your parents were completely gullible, which mine were not, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  Unfortunately for those who actually got this ploy to work, going to Consumers was usually a bust because they would head to the store, find the item on display, give the cashier a ticket and most of the time discover that said item was currently out of stock.  According to the Wikipedia page on the store, this led to the company creating what was then an innovative inventory checking system, where they were able to look up the item you wanted on the inventory of every store in the area, which is something that we take for granted in today’s retail world.

But the prevailing perception was that most of the merchandise at Consumers was non-existent and as much as the company tried to change that, I don’t think it really helped.  It also didn’t help that the Consumers store in the Sayville area was in the Sun Vet Mall, a mall that was closer than any of the malls in the area but was clearly third-tier, especially when compared to the South Shore Mall and Smith Haven Mall, which had big-name department stores.  Sure, Sun Vet had The Gap, which was convenient when I was in junior high and high school, but its anchors were a Rickel Home Center and a PathMark, so it didn’t exactly scream “Galleria” if you know what I mean.

The Consumers store was located in the corner of the mall near the Gap and McCrory, both of which have since left, and whereas the other malls always were bustling, Sun Vet always seemed half dead and while the mall’s pizzeria was excellent and Sun Vet Coin and Stamp always was good for a few back issues, you only went there if you absolutely had to or if you were like me and my friend Jeremy, who would ride there on our bikes when we were teenagers simply because we had very little else to do.  Whereas Service Merchandise would be a huge store that was part of a brand new shopping center down the road, Consumers was shoved into that corner and while the first few catalogs would get people there, the store was pretty dead within a year or two, especially as we’d taken to dragging our parents back to Toys R Us or anywhere else where we knew that would have what we wanted in stock.

So in a way, it was a learning experience about being more strategic in begging for toys and other stuff as well as being more patient, and perhaps that is why so many of us are more intelligent these days about where we shop.

Just ‘Round the Corner!

If you watch enough television where I live–Charlottesville, Virginia–you will probably see commercials for no less than four furniture stores.  There’s Kane Furniture (with a kicky cool-jazz-with-flute jingle: “At Kaaaaaaaaane furniture, you’ll have a home fashioned just for you”), Under the Roof (which is a montage of modern-looking furniture set to a ragin’ drum solo), Grand Furniture, and Schewels (who always is having a sale.  They had a Friday the 13th sale last month).  I swear they advertise more than car dealerships these days, although it is understandable because in a recession, buying furniture is one of the last purchases on a person’s mind.

The unfortunate thing about all this is that with the exception of Schewels’ Crazy Eddie-like tendencies (“WE’RE GIVING EVERYONE CREDIT!  WE’RE GIVING EVERYONE EMPLOYEE PRICES!  FOR GOD’S SAKE COME IN AND BUY AN ENDTABLE!”), the furniture store commercials in Charlottesville are kind of boring.  It’s like … yeah, there’s a couch with giant arms wider than most morbidly obese people.  Oh, and a glass table with a marble column for a pedestal just in case someone from New Jersey might shop here.  And a denim loveseat.  I’m so excited.

But hey, I consider myself spoiled when it comes to local television furniture store commercials (yes, you can be spoiled in this regard) because I grew up on Long Island and our local TV spots were nothing short of epic.

While I am sure that there were more stores advertising on television, when I think back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, I think of two stores:  Coronet and Room Plus

Coronet was a family owned baby furniture store located in Old Westbury, and probably did good business for quite a while when I was younger because those were the days before the baby superstores.  In fact, nowadays, I’m pretty sure that if you do not register yourself at Babies R Us or Buy Buy Baby, you get a visit from Child Protective Services.

Anyway, the commercials mostly starred the two owners–a couple of brothers with mustaches who looked like your uncle or older cousin–and they’d usually be doing some sort of gag while their mother (“The Coronet Mother”) did the pitch.  For instance, The Coronet Mother pitches with her two boys in cribs behind her:

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Domesticated Animals

The front page of Target.com, where you can get all of our essentials for going to college.

I think I have lost count of the number of times my wife and I have been walking around Target, looked at all of the “dorm gear” that’s on sale and said, “I wish they would have had this when we went to college.”  I mean, every single time, without fail, as we wheel the cart past the school supplies or toward the granola bars and spot a mini-fridge or stackable storage containers or three-pack of Old Spice body wash, we scrunch our noses and remark how good kids these days have it.

Too bad the economy is so fucked that they won’t have jobs when they graduate.  BWAH-HA-HA!!!

Okay, that was rude and probably uncalled for.  But I have to admit that I’m kinda jealous that everything the kids in my area who are attending college need (and then some) can be found at Target of all places.  I didn’t have the convenience of a Target when I was heading off to Loyola back in the summer of 1995; instead, Sayville had a K-Mart that was so hectic and disorganized that I once nearly had a panic attack when I stepped inside.  And I’m not the type who is prone to panic attacks.

I don’t know, I just find it kind of both genius and funny that Target and other stores like it have latched on to going away to college and turned it into a shopping season of sorts, the kind of thing that you throw in to the back-to-school sales on July 5 and take down the day after Labor Day because the Halloween candy needs to be shelved.  If they did this fifteen years ago, I completely missed it, as I had to deal with schlepping out to Linens and Things on Sunrise Highway in Patchogue about a week and a half before I headed to Baltimore.  They could have been running a sale, but I was completely oblivious to it and I don’t remember seeing commercials about outfitting me with a laptop and all sorts of wireless wonder so that my life was complete in the dorm.

Then again, it was 1995 and my graduation present was a Packard Bell desktop PC with a 2400 baud modem and HP Laser Jet 4L printer, which took up half of my parents’ car and my friends were all carrying beepers around in their pockets.  So … yeah.

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