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Rack of clothing in a shop with people in the distance Photo: Miguel Pereira/Getty Images

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What It’s Like to Shop When You Can’t Shop in a Store

It’s a lot more complicated than simply going online.

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My family used to make a joking comparison to an early 2000s department store TV commercial. Two kids (my brother and me) are dragging their mom (our mom) out of a store advertising sale after sale after sale.

“But the sales!” the mom character protests, with one arm in each child’s grip.

My mom, a suburban homemaker, would spend many mall-bound afternoons or evenings buckling us into the minivan. At the register, the swipe of a credit card was her source of power. The mall was where my mom could people-watch, survey choices, and claim a pair of earrings as a sense of self.

My mom is now one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not leave home. She was diagnosed in her early 40s with multiple sclerosis. As of last year, she doesn’t speak or eat. Dressing her in a soft cotton dress, slit down the back for ease, is a one- or two-person task. Her closet is full of chain belts and clutches and sandals that feel like relics, not only of department store shopping but of her ability to be seen.

“Style is both a strength and a vulnerability,” wrote Rina Nkulu in Real Life Mag about internet fashion forums. “When you leave the house, you have no choice but to be seen; getting dressed is a way of making a pitch for yourself.” Dressing for an audience is an entitlement, an opportunity to present yourself to the world. The decay of that ability can be painful to experience, and to watch.

I can measure a progressive disease like my mom’s by her shopping. In an earlier stage, the shopping cart was like a walker — a stabilizing force to browse aisles. Once she stopped driving, the boxes from QVC and HSN started piling up — another Slinky Brand dress, easier to slip on while the body shakes uncontrollably from tremors. At the current stage, aesthetics would seem to not matter. But as her only daughter, I feel responsible for the nuanced stuff, like lip balm or shampooed hair, that only we in the household would fully understand.

Getting out there, out of my home, to shop is something I can do easily. If I need something last-minute? Sure, I’ll hop in the car or walk down the street. If I’m online, my greatest headache is an obnoxious number of open tabs. But for people like my mom, the experience of shopping can be not only a chore but a reminder that the world — its public transportation, its polling stations, its stores — and even the internet isn’t always built for people like you. Still, though it comes with its own set of problems, e-commerce is starting to help make shopping more inclusive, as are certain new technologies.

For Abigail Lanier, 26, web design can present a problem while shopping online. Lanier, a production assistant who lives in Brooklyn, is blind. Shopping online is possible for her with a screen reader, or a software program that reads aloud text on a computer or smartphone. If a website is not coded properly for a screen reader, Lanier isn’t always certain she can get what she came for. Floating windows can give her headaches; colors can be recited as strings of numbers; captions or descriptions of a product might not be available.

“A lot of times, web developers don’t think of accessibility when they are building products,” Lanier says. “It takes people like me complaining about it.”

Detailed product descriptions are also helpful, as are customer reviews. Browsing a website like ModCloth is a delight because of the copy, which might note (in a voicey tone) a piece’s pattern and cut.

“It’s like a short story that goes along with their product,” Lanier says. “And I love that as someone with a visual impairment.”

Another online element that can be helpful is outfit pairing suggestions on some stores’ websites; it helps to save time and tab overload. “It feels more like a shopping experience,” says Vicki Landers, 49, an activist who has a mental and physical disability and lives in Philadelphia. Landers often shops online at Old Navy, Target, H&M, Forever 21, and Macy’s. “I think [suggestions] are great especially for people who can’t get out into the stores. I can see things that go together without having to sift through so many pages of different pieces.”

Offline, the shopping experience can be unpredictable, though some stores are offering new services. Several people I spoke with said that handicapped-accessible fitting rooms are often unavailable, either used for storage or occupied by parents with children. Other barriers, like stairs or tight and narrow stores, make online shopping more appealing, even if the physical store experience is missed.

“It’s very defeating not being able to get out and go into the stores. For most women that I know, retail therapy is a great thing,” says Landers, who’s previously worked in retail. “And I find that I lost all of that when I started shopping online.”

One of Vix Jensen’s favorite stores, American Eagle, started testing an app last year that would beam remote shoppers into the store, where an associate will walk from rack to rack. Jensen, 25, is a writer and activist with cerebral palsy living in Los Angeles, and she’s excited about the new app. “That suddenly allows me to be in my own at home and really feel like I’m walking through American Eagle with a store clerk who’s helping me out,” she says.

If you do want to physically go to a store, some, including J.Crew, allow you to book a complimentary in-store appointment ahead of time. Instead of wondering how you’ll feel that day or whether a store associate will be available to help, this feature removes the questions, and the awkwardness that comes with asking someone to do something for a stranger.

“I don’t know if they’ve implemented [the appointments] for people like me, or people who have a ton of money and don’t know what to buy,” Lanier says. “It’s really helpful because there’s just no question asked. I don’t have to explain why I need their help, and they know all of their products really well.”

The last time I went shopping with my mom was the summer of 2014. I was 20 years old, slipping in and out of a T.J. Maxx dressing room, trying on clothes for an internship in New York. Outside the fitting room, she found a seat: a godsend. For my birthday that July, she mailed the last couple of packages — including a long black dress, for walking around the city, she figured — from Alloy. I’ve kept all those clothes because they remind me of that time: when shopping and dressing was easier, and when my mom was stronger.


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