Features, Retail Insights

Six Hours in The Dark Heart of Retail

  • Thing One I learned:
    The Vessel is an empty, once-is-more-than-enough gesture.
  • Thing Two I Learned:
    There is no future of retail, as in shopping in well-merchandised stores, without algorithmic assistance.
  • Thing Three I Learned:
    A shopping experience inspired by and aspiring toward the aesthetics and feeling of an international departures terminal evokes discordant anxiety.
  • Thing Four I Learned:
    The fury evoked by income inequality is aggressively metastasizing at Hudson Yards.
  • Thing Five I Learned:
    Even if Hudson Yards were to be an amazing success beyond tourists, it holds no learning for retail writ large.
  • Thing Six I Learned:
    No New Yorker need ever come here. Certainly not twice. Except for The Shed.
  • Thing Seven I Learned:
    Hey Neiman Marcus, it’s important to let customers know where you are once they’re in the mall.

Field Trip

Fresh on the heels of such amazing press for Hudson Yards, the philanthropic millions donated, the government billions invested, the cultural fortunes spent, the lavish launch and the “millionaire’s playground” moniker, a great Manhattan-savvy friend, Serra Yavuz, and I visited, fully one week after the opening, to ensure the shakeout cruise was complete and the world within this world could be judged on its merits, not with an asterisk. Surely the prices were not yet discounted, so value must be delivered. We committed to spend six hours in what revealed itself to be the sad dark heart of 21st-century commerce.

  • Lessons One and Two:
    Perhaps the first clue of disconnect was the requirement to book passage two weeks in advance on the “Vessel,” that pinecone-shaped, seven-story schlepp offering commanding views of, well, yes, New Jersey. Or, perhaps it was the next day’s emailed invitation from Neiman-Marcus’s savvy algorithm, offering me a “special InCircle members-only shopping celebration, featuring beats by DJ Kiss, personalization opportunities, bites, beverages, and more with a special performance by Kelly Rowland.”

But, no. The first clue was really when I attempted to RSVP to the Vessel as required and found the site led, yes, nowhere. And the second clue was when Serra and I traipsed all the way up that Vessel to discover the “no there, there” landscape. Upon our moribund elevator descent, we noticed free tickets proffered at an adjacent desk, just for the asking, no two-week wait required. That elevator, by the way, holds six people max and is verifiably the slowest in the world. Designed originally for the wheelchair-bound, it has been pressed into service for those who, unlike us, are not FitBit infatuated.

  • Lesson Three:
    We move onto the shopping center. The moment we enter, I begin to worry that I’ll miss my flight. Where is Gate 53? Serra reminds me, we’re not in an international airport. No indeed. We’re in a place precisely like it, with a seven-floor Vessel looming adjacent meant somehow to ground us that we’re in Manhattan. But, we’re not. We’re in international departures, anywhere else in the world.
  • Lesson Four:
    The clues, however, continued at a brisk pace. The “Restaurant Collection (spare me) at Hudson Yards,” includes a spot called “Queensyard,” showcasing a wee bit of Queen Elizabeth II memorabilia, or what purports to be. We were motioned in for drinks by a bored hostess, motioning towards the bar area and telling us, “Sit anywhere you want in the center.” With that guidance, we searched out a table and sat for 15 minutes before the patrons in the adjacent table told us they’d gone to the bar to order their own beverages, suggesting helpfully, “We don’t think there’s table service.” However, when Serra rose and attempted to order directly, she was informed we were meant to sit tight until the waitress arrived. That was another 10 minutes away.

I suggested we might go to The Shed, where we were to see Norma Jean Baker of Troy, starring the glorious in anything Renee Fleming, later than night. Serra explained that was not an option. The Shed’s drink area was not yet open. Thus, we persevered.

One-half hour after our arrival a young woman arrived (I hesitate to suggest she was a fully-formed member of a professional waitstaff, but she was performing as such at the moment). We ordered. She left. Another five minutes pass and she returned to tell us, “the bartender is working on your drinks now” with such a rush of excitement it almost seemed important. Upon reflection, however, it was just odd. She breezed by again to deliver food to another table and we called to her. No avail. Then again. Finally, she returned, and we expressed our irritation. Her comment: Sooor-reee.

That’s when it began to dawn on me. The palpable adversarial environment must be the logical consequence of working for minimum wage and tips in a “millionaire’s playground.” Particularly when serving what seemed obviously to be a tourist trade. Particularly when serving what seemed obviously to be a “never coming back, one-time only” audience. Serra who, as I say is very knowledgeable about Manhattan and its dining stars, asked if the fellow she knew to be manager of Queensyard was on duty that night.

“Yes.”

“Could you ask him to stop by our table?”

“Sure.” With the big “whatever” shoulder-shrugged.

A few minutes later, the fellow’s understudy arrives, and so does my friend’s Ketel One martini. My drink, I am told, is no longer in stock. Let us pause to reflect: The place has been open one week. How likely is it that the $13 Irish Whiskey is unavailable, but the $20 ones are? Does anyone but me even drink Irish Whiskey? Who runs out of Irish Whiskey at all, much less in a week? But I digress. The understudy, complete with French accent, apologies profusely. Totally unacceptable. Please come back and give us another chance. My drink still does not appear. We are 45 minutes into the debacle.

I say we are wildly unlikely to return. He fixes a penetrating gaze on me, as if to infuse me with the earnestness of his concern. As if by sheer dint of will he might eradicate the careless ineptitude of the world he’s managing. My drink finally arrives. He leaves.

He then proffers a large goblet filled with olives. Quite ugly, if you can imagine it. An hors d’oeuvres on the menu. As he turns to leave, he sniffs, “Your drinks are on me.” Exit stage right.

  • Lesson Five:
    Suffice it to say, we are now nearing two and a half hours into our adventure and we’ve yet to see one person carrying a bag from one of the shops. There are people milling around and ascending escalators, perhaps shopping, but definitely not buying. All the cues and clues ratchet up to the same realization: What can we glean here that will help the larger idea of retail? Nada. Will a mall in Peoria erect a bridge to nowhere like the Vessel? Will the local and state governments invest in a subway to rush customers to the mall? Will Neiman Marcus’s algorithm disappoint Peoria, too? Will tourists go flock to this celebration of consumerism?. I suspect not.
  • Lesson Six:
    We head to The Shed. Fabulous performances, of course. Amazing really. Riveting. But a weird seating arrangement. Maybe temporary? Still a work-in-progress? In any event, a real New Yorker audience, fascinating critiques overheard as we exited. If Hudson Yards has a chance to perform any role other than Tourist Mecca, it is because of The Shed. Then, onto our reservation at the Hudson Yards Grill. Serviceable hamburgers. Serviceable drinks. Nothing more or less than anywhere else in an international airport. Might be Denver. Or O’Hare. Perhaps London. Even Istanbul. My friend has been to a mall in Istanbul and the comparison is complete. z
    ” Back to Lesson Five:
    It all begins to make sense. We are in a world of travelers; people who will make this pilgrimage when they visit New York. We are New Yorkers, and just as we’ve seen the view from the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center and fondly, sadly recall Cellars in the Sky at the old World Trade Center, just as we’ve been to the Statue of Liberty and taken the Circle Line once, this is a destination without a purpose.
  • Onto Lesson Seven:
    We note again and again throughout our Odyssey that Neiman Marcus has its name emblazoned on the massive windows overlooking the Vessel courtyard, but once inside, the name, of course, appears backward. Once you’re there to shop, it’s SUCRAM-NAMIEN. This is, of course, the visual doppelganger of the whole space. Meant to seduce us in, and then deliver the mirror image of retail experience. It is tragic.

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