The bleak hope of the day-after-Christmas sale

After a month of sales, can prices really get slashed even more?

The mall never celebrates Christmas directly, only the white space around it. A tree goes up at the end of November, ushering in the pre-Christmas sales that begin with Black Friday and don’t let up until Christmas Eve. On Christmas itself, the mall is usually closed. Out of this fold in American spacetime, the new after-Christmas sales are re-spawned. Shoppers emerge from their celebration bunkers, dragging their bags of gifts to return. Such was the scene the day after Christmas at the Roosevelt Field Mall in East Garden City, New York.

The parking garage was reasonably crowded. Could it be a sign that the economy was healthy? That consumer confidence was up? I don’t know. A sale is a double-edged kind of hope — not quite faith in the strength of tomorrow, but maybe a chance to beat the house today. As far as I know, there are two kinds of sales. Fake sales lure you into a store with one or two discounted items, hoping a full-price thing will catch your eye. Real sales lure you in all the same, then send you away with a bunch of cheap stuff, clearing out space for new products to sell.

On the day after Christmas, the shopper’s main question is whether the sales will be real. After so many sales, would stores slash prices further? Inside the mall, the window displays were designed to respond with a flirtatious, “Maybe!” The fantasy of the day after Christmas takes place in the bargain basement, an imaginary space beyond the fourth wall where objects must be sold, posthaste. Quick, there is no time for window dressing! Get the products out on the floor!

At New York & Company, a non-glossy poster announced new “Last Chance Clearance” prices. At Madewell, a tattered canvas flag declared the “Big Deal End of Season Sale.” At J.Crew, butcher paper — still on the roll! — ushered in “The Main Event.” Here was a business-to-business aesthetic, gussied up for the sake of the consumer — the backroom by way of the window display. It promised a wholesaler’s pricing, or did it? You’d have to come inside to find out.

Inside Bath & Body Works, Christmas-scented soaps and candles overflowed red cardboard boxes. The setup evoked a back-alley deal, but also a full recycling bin. With Christmas once again a year away, stocking stuffers look suspiciously like trash; for just one day, on December 26, Winter Candy Apple and Gingerbread Swirl eclipse the noxious smell of garbage. At American Eagle, a water-filled phone case proclaimed SQUAD GOALS, as Santa-shaped sequins floated by on their sleighs. Nearby, sexy Christmas boxers sold themselves for 60 percent off. Who was left to buy these products? Where would they end up if nobody did? All across the mall, the fruit was rotting on the tree.

The shoe store Journeys took an optimistic tack, decreeing the day a “Treat Yo Self” sale. Was Christmas morning a big disappointment? Why not ensure that you get yours? This sale embodied its own kind of bleakness — that of hollow consumer empowerment, of corporate pleas for relevance, of family members too unfamiliar to pick out the right pair of shoes. Two stores down, I found my own salvation. There, Long Island Catholic Supply was running a small, unadvertised sale on Christmas ornaments. The rest of the store remained full price, assured of its longevity, despite a lack of shoppers.

At the end of the day, I spent about $200 — on jeans from Macy’s, on socks from Dick’s, on HeatTech long-john pants from Uniqlo. The cashiers all wished me a belated “Happy Holidays,” betraying the nonsense meaning of the phrase but also the hollowness of retail without it. Now that Christmastime had passed, what could I say to excuse the whole production? For next week, at least, I would have, “Happy New Year!” After that, until Valentine’s Day, I’d just be buying stuff for no reason.

Over by the exit to the mall, two young women were packing away the Christmas village display. Their coats were piled on Santa’s chair. They sat at the base of the Christmas tree, winding a giant pile of cords.

“What are you doing?” I asked stupidly.

“We’re packing up the Christmas tree.”

“Have you done this before?”

“We do it every day after Christmas.”

And with that, I wished them a “Happy New Year,” and made my way back to the parking garage.