You Can Find Everything in Center City

One consumer’s take on the Philadelphia shopping experience.

What distinguishes the corner of 16th and Chestnut from the corner of any major American city? Truthfully, not much. Swap a CVS for a Walgreens. Add a Wendy’s. Take out a Starbucks. Now get rid of that traditional landmark over there, and you could be standing in the heart of any downtown metropolis. So how do we measure up when it comes to Center City chain stores? We did a little undercover shopping over the summer to see.

SEPHORA

1714 Chestnut Street
Visited: 2 p.m. on a Monday
Initial impression: Big and bustling

People you might see shopping there: Women—a diverse crowd with common motives—just trying to look pretty and get some time in front of the mirror.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: After losing my favorite lipstick in a haze of Center City happy hour drinks a few weeks ago, I decided this was the time to find a new one. A sales girl offered her assistance, racing around the store to find something that matched the one I had lost. She pulled a few options, and I picked the one I liked best. Unfortunately, when I tried it on at home later, the shade either looked different or wasn’t the one from the store. When I returned days later, I saw the girl who helped me but neither of us acknowledged each other nor the four lipsticks poking out from the palm of my hand. Luckily, the exchange was easy.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: Unlikely. Sephora has a massive selection of high-end beauty products, including makeup, hair products and nail care. There is definitely a fair range of prices between brands, but if you’re looking for drugstore cosmetics, you’re out of luck.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: I didn’t dread it the second time—maybe because I was getting new lipstick—but I’m leery of having someone help me anytime soon.

TRADER JOE’S

2121 Market Street
Visited: 3 p.m. on a Monday
Initial impression: Note: Walk around back to enter. Once in the store, I found it clean and well-organized, though tinier than what you would expect from a typical grocery store and with an unusual amount of wood decor. (Read on.)

People you might see shopping there: A typical customer would probably fall somewhere between granola and your average sustainability-minded urban dweller. I also noticed a fair amount of parents with young children and some University City students.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: Honest. I asked a salesperson if the bread was really baked fresh and if so, was it done on the premises? She walked over to the bread section with me and assured me that all but two loaves were baked fresh off-site and then brought in by a local baker each morning. She then proceeded to point out the two anomalies while admitting, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: Probably not. For the most part, they stock the shelves with their house brand. So if you’re shopping here, you’re probably aware most of your cart is filled with Trader Joe’s products.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: They had samples of coffee and spinach salad with quinoa and a “house” vinaigrette. It was really tasty.

BARNES & NOBLE

1805 Walnut Street
Visited: 12:45 p.m. on a Monday
Initial impression: Weirdly quiet, cold, and a little cluttered on the first floor.

People you might see shopping there: As I rode the escalator to the second floor, I passed a lot of young people leaving the café area with a Starbucks gripped tightly in hand. Also at the café were working professionals, grabbing a bite to eat over lunch. To be fair, the café perches above Rittenhouse Square and boasts pretty views if you can snag a table by the window. On the third floor, I encountered many older customers reading in the designated lounge area, which was really just a bunch of those generic metal chairs with the orange cushions, shoved into a corner. My favorite customer was the woman taking photographs from needlework books on her iPhone so she didn’t have to purchase them. The best part is we were in the silent lounge area, so you could hear the shutter sound going off with every click.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: In an attempt to bridge the gap between my enthusiasm for wine and how much I actually know about the subject, I inquired about a book a friend recommended, “Thirsty Work.” They didn’t have it, so the employee asked if I wanted to order it instead.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: I would like to think they didn’t have the book I asked for because it’s uncommon. Unfortunately, I overheard quite a few people who found themselves in the same position as me, including the girl in front of me who asked for Virgin Suicides.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: Indifferent. Aside from the maze of bookshelves and Nook stands on the first floor, it was OK. But if I needed to purchase a book, I’d probably do so from the comfort of my home.

RADIOSHACK

1616 Chestnut Street
Visited: 1:30 p.m. on a Monday
Initial impression: Who shops here? (See next line.)

People you might see shopping there: Maybe no one. I’m pretty sure the store was empty when I walked in. After perusing all two and a half aisles for some time, I noticed an older black woman had come in with phone troubles. To my surprise, I also noticed that a trendy gay couple—whom I had just spotted at Barnes & Noble—had come in. I’m still not sure what they were doing there, but one of them could really pull off a Fedora.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: “Can you point me towards the speakers?” For how many young employees there were, they were very knowledgeable about the products. The guy proceeded to ask me what I was looking for exactly, pointing out where they held computer speakers, television speakers and surround-sound systems.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: It depends. Aside from the usual nerd-alert gadgets, I noticed products like headphones, cell phones, televisions, cameras and even TV mounts. And while they weren’t extensively stocked, I thought they had a good variety of electronics.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: I’m open to it, but maybe I should bring a friend.

WEST ELM

1330 Chestnut Street
Visited: 2 p.m. on a Thursday
Initial impression: Eclectic and airy.

People you might see shopping there: Women and the occasional couple or two. The store wasn’t too crowded when I went, though it seemed like people were floating quietly in and out.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: I asked her if they sold duvets. She said they did and pointed out where the bedding wrapped around the back wall. Everybody resumed floating.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: The store was well-stocked and large, so assuming you were looking for something specific you would probably be able to find it. However, like any large furniture retailer, I think you’ll always find a larger selection online.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: Nice atmosphere for window shopping.

STARBUCKS

1301 Chestnut Street
Visited: 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday
Initial impression: “Oh, this Starbucks is like the one in …”

People you might see shopping there: Everyone with a computer. And their mother. Out of almost 15 people—alone, pairs, small gatherings—everyone except for a table of three girls was plugged in. The customers ranged from college aged kids to old men in suits. Since it’s connected to Macy’s, I expected more shoppers, but not so.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: I asked her how many ounces were in a short? (For those of you who are wondering, it’s 8 oz.) I thanked her, she smiled and I left.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: Doubt it. It’s Starbucks! Now, likelihood of the next store having what you need and you paying less for it? A little more likely.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: The store had a nice ambience and the line wasn’t too long. If I were looking for a Starbucks, I wouldn’t hesitate to consider this one.

STEVE MADDEN

1723 Walnut Street
Visited: Noon on a Monday
Initial impression: Neat layout, but could do without Rihanna bumping at dangerously high decibel levels—for both my ears and my sanity.

People you might see shopping there: Expect to see mostly women with some begrudging husbands and boyfriends thrown into the mix. My key people-watching moment came from observing a mother of a one- or two-year-old who was trying on numerous pairs of four-inch heels and knee-high boots. After minutes of staring at herself in the mirror, she would ask the sales girl which shoes she liked because she “just couldn’t decide.” Hey, I get it—the Mother of the Year award is a big deal—it demands new shoes.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: “Can I try this pair on in a seven?” I felt like no sooner had I asked the salesperson that he was out with my shoes. He was pleasant towards me and attentive to the other shoppers that also needed assistance. My favorite part about him was that he knew the words to all the songs and wasn’t shy about singing them. He belted out “All my Single Ladies” particularly well, I only wish they would have turned down the music a bit so I could have heard his singing better.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: Unlikely, since the shoes they carry are similar to any trendy Center City shop. While that could lead you to buy a cheaper version you saw somewhere else, I would think if you’ve sought out Steve Madden specifically, then you must be shopping with a purpose. They also carry both men’s and women’s shoes in this store, albeit more women’s than men’s, so if you were looking at something online, there’s the possibility it may not be in the store.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: Why not? The store was well organized and the employees were helpful. I guess I can live with a little loud music in the name of shoes.

MACY’S

1300 Market Street
Visited: 3 p.m. on a Thursday
Initial impression: “This building never stops being beautiful.”

People you might see shopping there: Okay, this time I really mean it, everyone and their mother.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: I asked where I could find the fragrances. The employee directed me towards them. It was cordial.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: Have you seen that place? Three floors of shopping! Good luck getting out.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: Personally, I think it’s a bit overwhelming for browsing. But when I’ve gone for something specific in the past, I’ve usually lucked out. No reason not to try again.

WALGREENS

901 Market Street
Visited: 4 p.m. on a Thursday
Initial impression: “I’m not sure what kind of pharmacy they’re running here, but I’m pretty sure there is more food and candy here than medicine.”

People you might see shopping there: Mostly middle-aged people and older.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: In my time there, there was always a steady flow of customers with only two people on the register and one at the pharmacy. I never had the opportunity to interrupt with a question.

Likelihood of having to check the next store for what you need: If you expect to find a regular pharmacy, you might end up at another store. The vitamin section was tiny and many bottles were missing. There was a small row dedicated to both cosmetics and medicine. But if you’ve got the munchies, you’ve come to the right place.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: When it comes to pharmacies, I know I can do better.

MODELL’S

934 Market Street
Visited: 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday
Initial impression: Its location, The Gallery, unfortunately didn’t do much for my first impression of the store. Outside of the mall, it smelled like urine, and the store had trash on the floor.

People you might see shopping there: I saw a Dad and his son, two boys, a girl and her brother. The ladies were definitely outnumbered, but everybody was young, including the people working there.

Employee’s reaction to question-asking: The employee, a young boy, never even gave me a chance to ask because he asked me right away what he could help me with. The second time he approached me, he told me, “Trying on a pair of sneakers didn’t mean that I had to buy them.” I found this annoying.

Likelihood you will have to check the next store for what you need: Maybe. There was a decent stock of Philadelphia gear, but in terms of actual sporting goods the selection was slimmer than others I’ve seen.

Feelings experienced at the thought of coming back: I wouldn’t be too eager to return to this one because of the trash and the general dirty feeling given off by The Gallery.

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