Dan Rodricks

Ordering online has many benefits; sometimes waiting in line does, too

Waiting in line to shop on Black Friday has remained an American tradition, even as more shoppers turn to online ordering.

I realized something over the last few days, in a way I had not before: If you order everything online, whether a new bathrobe or a corned beef sandwich — and the temptation to do that is probably greater than ever — you put the random at risk. You miss things that only happen in the real world: Chance encounters with celebrities or old friends, conversations with pleasant strangers, the sights and sounds and aromas of the human race.

You miss the big stuff and the little stuff.


If you drive everywhere and never take the bus, you miss outbreaks of debate among fellow travelers and great opportunities for eavesdropping. If you never buy a ticket to the theater or symphony, you miss art at its moment of creation. You can wait for movies to be live-streamed to your 72-inch LED TV with HDR, but if you missed “Wonder Woman” on the 40-foot screen at the historic Senator Theater, that goes down as a loss, an opportunity that might never come again.

So I went shopping at 7 a.m. on Black Friday because I figured I should have that experience while I still can. Every Thanksgiving, we make a fuss about holiday sales and the fierce hordes of savvy shoppers who go out in the wee hours to take advantage of them. But with the demise of some major retailers, the closing of stores and the growth of online shopping, how much longer will we see mobs of people racing into stores on Black Friday?


So I went to Macy’s in Towson to see what this American tradition looks like. I saw plenty of wide-awake, purposeful shoppers, but nothing you would call a mob. If there was bustle, it was bustle on the level you might find at late-morning on a Saturday. I saw no one fighting over sweaters.

I bumped into a rack of Ralph Lauren bathrobes and surrendered to the temptation to buy one at 25 percent off.

My brief visit to Macy’s would have been uneventful but for the woman in front of me at the register. She was dressed in red yoga pants and a red sweatshirt, and her earrings were replicas of Christmas presents — inch-and-a-half cubes in holiday wrapping that dangled about two inches from each ear. I could not take my eyes off the earrings.

The woman seemed happy and energetic. I took her to be one of those Black Friday shoppers you hear about — a scrupulous reader of advertising supplements, fully informed about the best buys, excited for the adventure, frugal but generous with gifts. She’s probably somebody’s favorite aunt.

Being a digital consumer has undeniable benefits, but if you do it too much, you miss out on life’s little amusements. And you risk missing out on big ones, too. In my case, I missed an encounter with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.

On Wednesday, I was pressed for time and needed four sandwiches from Attman’s on Lombard Street at 11:15 am. The usual routine is to step into the aromatic deli, squeeze past customers waiting to pay for their orders, take a spot at the end of the long line at the service counter, wait your turn to tell one of the sandwich-makers what you want, wait longer for it to be realized and maybe, if you’re lucky — and not glued to messages on your smartphone — strike up a conversation with the person ahead of you. Attman’s has a kibitz room, but a lot of kibitzing takes place while you’re standing in line. It’s one of the best things about the place.

But, this time, I ordered online. When I went to Attman’s for my order, it was waiting for me: Four corned-beef-rye-mustard sandwiches, two orders of slaw and four well-done pickles packed in a white plastic bag by the register. The line of customers waiting for lunch was long, but I was in and out of the deli in five minutes.

What’s not to like about that, right?


Ogden, who is now 44 years old and still 6-foot-9, the former left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, towered over all the other customers waiting in line. As I turned to leave, I realized that, had I ordered lunch the old-fashioned way, I might have had the pleasure of a 10-minute kibitz with one of the best Ravens ever.

Hey, you can’t have it all. You can’t order online and still expect spontaneous conversations with celebrities or pleasant strangers in line at Attman’s. If you just grab-and-go a cyber-ordered sandwich, you’ll never experience the jocular repartee that has marked the ritual at the deli since immigrants Harry and Ida Attman opened the place in 1915.

Of course, you know this. We all know it. And yet, the temptation to buy everything online is stronger than ever. So I say buyer beware: Too deep into digital, and we won’t know what we’re missing.