Because of my back problems, my wife and I needed a new bed, so we went to Macy’s last night. As is our tradition, I had her do the reconnaissance work a few days ago, visiting various stores, narrowing down the choices, and then bringing me in for the actual purchase. She’s the shopper, I’m the buyer.

I hadn’t been in a department store in a very long time, and had forgotten about the smell. It’s not bad, it’s not pungent, but it is a distinctive scent that attacks your nasal passages as soon as you open the doors, in a way that says, “you have now entered the world of retail — prepare to part with your money.”

We glide past the makeup counter with its bored sales women, who spend their free time seeing how many different products they can apply to their own faces before the mirror screams in pain. I wonder if any customer has ever said to them, “I want to look just like you!” Now that Tammy Faye Bakker and Heath Ledger are dead, I doubt it.

We ride the escalators to the third floor — my wife leads the way, knowing that without her as my guide, I’ll be drawn genetically to either the electronics or sporting goods area — until we find the bedding department and its sole occupant. The salesman has the same look Kevin Costner did when he spotted his first Lakota Sioux in “Dances With Wolves,” just thrilled to see another human being who might communicate with him. We explain what we’re there for, a pre-winnowed choice between two beds, which I’m here to audition. Whichever one feels best to me is the one we’ll buy.

My decision takes all of 90 seconds, and then the action swings back to my wife, who has heard there’s a sale starting in a few days, and could we get that price today, and when can we have it delivered, and do we want this outer cover that comes with a warranty and seems to be the bedding equivalent of undercoating on a car.

Boom! We’re done with the purchase and paperwork in mere minutes. As the sales guy hands me back my credit card and explains the details to my wife — he knows who his customer is — I sense some remorse in his eyes. It’s not that he’s made a bad sale, or that he’s not proud of the products in his store. It’s that we’re likely to be the only people he talks to tonight.

It reminds me of those few other times I’ve been in a store like this, usually to buy a couple of shirts, and had the place to myself. The staff always looks hungry for any task to relieve their boredom. At 7:30pm on a Thursday, they’ve already triple-checked their inventory, milked every last bit of small talk out of their colleagues, and gazed longingly at anyone in the vicinity who might need some assistance. I usually take a pair of pants off a rack and leave it on a nearby counter, just to give them something to do.

Having completed our business, my wife and I ride the escalators down to the first floor and out the doors to the parking lot. That’s when I see a sign that stops me in my tracks. It says, “Visiting from out of town? Macy’s welcomes you! Ask us about services and perks that make out-of-town shopping fun and exciting!”

This is a department store chain with 800 outlets across the country, which in the last few years has swallowed up other stores and turned them all into the same brand, with the same products, with the same interiors. There is exactly zero out-of-town feel to any Macy’s store, anywhere. In fact, there’s barely any life, let alone fun and excitement.

That’s when I realize what the aroma is. It’s the smell of desperation.