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TED TALLEY: Scents of a woman

Perfumes a reminder from the past by Ted Talley | May 13, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Some weeks ago I found myself in Belk's Department Store in Rogers when Mother's Day merchandising and signage were in full array.

An aside: I pause to consider that previous phrase. How easily from speaking tongue or typing fingers do the words "merchandising and signage" spring forth. Would it be so if I were dispatching from any burg but Bentonville, the capital of mass retailing -- and is "signage" even a real word? It is, per Merriam-Webster online, "a sign or a system of signs."

Further, the dictionary suggested Google Ngram Viewer, a new find for me, which provided a graph of frequency in usage of the word "signage." The graphic shows first and minuscule use around 1950, peaking noticeably at 2009 and then beginning a decline. It's an undeniable retail link. The timeline of the word follows lockstep with the increase in Walmart physical store locations, then a downward trend as online shopping increases and pop-ups, not signage, prevail. The dynamic connection is obvious. If you think otherwise, then I'm that meme man sitting at the card table in the public square with his sign "Change my mind."

My original mission to Belk's was to return a pair of chino slacks to the men's department. I had ordered two pair on sale from their web site, which is how, I suppose, one supports traditional brick-and-mortar retail in the plagued era. I had erred and clicked one in pleats, which are the nemesis of all men but those young and slender, a status that escaped me in the early '80s. Dropping by the store for the exchange was seamless. The replacement flat-front pair from store stock was discounted further; an extra four bucks credited to my account plus instant gratification meant a happy customer. From that perspective this new hybrid retailing, even as covid vaccinations trend upwards, appears to be our new norm.

Walmart, Dollar General and our regional Harp's are a different matter in my view. It is indeed easy to order online from those stores and have your stuff loaded into the trunk, a service in place well before covid. But I still find the need to go inside a large box once in a while. Having been reared since toddlerhood in street-level retailing, I enjoy the tactile experience even if mask-filtered and sanitized. Inside it appears the same numbers of employees are busy, though some have become, in effect, our personal shoppers.

Ironically, our flux capacitor has launched us back to the future. Prior to 1916, when Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store opened in Memphis, one presented a shopping list to the shopkeeper. Then employees ran hither and yon assembling the order. Today, that process is Instacart. Back even further, we are virtually shopping as in 1896 and the first Sears Roebuck catalog, though we no longer anticipate the Wells-Fargo wagon "coming down the street" as in Broadway's "The Music Man." UPS and FedEx pull up instead.

Departing Belk's, it was impossible to avoid the glistening, scent-filled cosmetics department as is the case with any traditional department store. Larger-than-life Julia Roberts hyped Lancôme while that Dior woman bathed in a golden sea of J'adore parfum. If this product category's up-front real estate doesn't scream high margin, then the give-away promotions should. I paused, the only customer amidst six shiny display cases, and my eyes began to water not from the glaring mirrored backdrops or an allergic reaction to all the frou-frou juice, but of bittersweet memories shopping with my late wife Linda. She delighted in those promotional assemblages tagged as "purchase with purchase" or "free with purchase." Once at Dillard's she bagged a year's supply of Princess Borghese lotions and potions, in a train case no less. Seeing her sample one tester after another at the store counter, continuing at home at her own vanity, made me smile. Do men do this with drill bits or fishing lures?

By now the Father's Day signage has popped up with muscular spokes-bods beckoning wives to share the transformative powers of Davidoff, Chanel and Lanvin with their men. Why do those shirtless gents appear in such pain? Excess lactic acid post workout? For a real-world dad cologne, I'd concoct a whiff of Kingsford charcoal with hints of Boudreaux's diaper rash paste.

I left the fragrances before damp eyes became full melancholy. Driving past the Malco cinema next door, my spirits were lifted as I saw movie posters being installed. I'd forgotten -- theaters are open again. Another promising, positive sign of the times.

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