Heaven forfend that one should decompress thusly by meeting a friend for lunch and shopping in person; one New York woman reported regularly shopping with a friend during the workday via IM, both furiously cutting and pasting various items’ Gilt Groupe links and sending to the other for approval.
“The amount of mums I’ve had coming up to me and saying ‘Omigod, I bought all your stuff off Gilt!’” marveled socialite and children’s clothing designer Lucy Sykes Rellie. (Ms. Rellie said that ignorance of the Internet unfortunately prevented her from shopping frequently on Gilt herself, but her husband, Euan, sometimes helps her buy Steven Alan shirts or Peter Som jackets on the site.)
Real sample sales remain popular in New York, too—the Rag & Bone and Diane von Furstenberg ones weren’t suffering for lack of customers in December, and Barneys’ legendary Warehouse Sale is currently raging at their co-op location on 18th Street—but many women, constrained by time and a new sense of recession propriety, would rather wage anonymous Internet warfare with their sisters over a Marc by Marc Jacobs jacket than gratuitously take the afternoon off work, strip down to their underwear and be seen fighting for it.
Of course, e-commerce on the whole was not impervious to last year’s grim retail atmosphere. Such sales declined 3% in the fourth quarter of 2008 from the year before—the first decline since 2001—according to ComScore, which tracks consumer internet behavior, but the apparel and accessories category still managed a 4% gain on the year. Meanwhile, e-commerce continued to increase as a percentage of total sales, according to estimates in a report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
And such figures do not adequately capture the emotion, the personal frenzy and heartbreak, the catch and release, that is the dedicated e-shopper’s game. Ms. Craig of BagSnob thinks it has nothing to do with the recession at all; she equated online shopping to a more efficient delivery system for the same high, kind of like shooting a drug rather than smoking it. “I think people just like the convenience of shopping anonymously at midnight when the kids are asleep, or if they’ve had a hard day at work,” she said. “Say she’s a single girl, she comes home, she’s tired, she just gets online and gets that thrill.”
She expressed no guilt over Gilt—only the agony of defeat. “I lost out on an Alexander McQueen beautiful ballerina white tulle dress with butterflies all over it!” she said. “It was like a $12,000 dress for $3,000. And I put it in my basket and then I started looking around and I forgot—well I didn’t forget, but it was just a little past the 10-minute limit—and it was gone.”
Indeed, the barrage of new sites and daily emails has some shoppers floundering to compete.
“Even though the sales are so wonderful, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it,” said Ms. Boncompagni. “I just don’t know where to start!” Her recent purchases had been limited to cashmere on J. Crew’s Web site—a standby since she knows how everything fits her—and a little black Adam + Eve sweater from the brand’s own e-commerce site.
Ms. Rellie pointed out that the morally unassailable rush of finding a great designer bargain online is somewhat misplaced. “I’m very pro shopping full price, as it’s very good for the economy,” she said benevolently. “I’m not going to get my ‘Wow’ piece off Gilt. I’m going to save up all my money and go into Barneys and buy that Givenchy bag or Christian Louboutin shoe.”
Ms. Cernek, of Glamour, agreed that there is an experiential aspect to actual shopping that cannot be captured online, regardless of the bargains. “To use an oft-pointed-to reference,” she said. “The idea of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s going to Tiffany’s to kind of soak in the experience, even though she’s not leaving with anything … I don’t think that will fade.”