The Shopping Rant

The adventure before the adventure makes us wonder why so many Americans view shopping as a recreational activity. The type of shopping that most people engage in is the most frantic and frustrating exercise in futility that one could pursue. But it left us with no regrets for choosing our method of shopping.

Everyone laments the decline of Main Street while they spend all their money in mail-order catalogs (including the Internet) and in suburban discount stores. The perception is that things cost more at the brick-and-mortar businesses on Main Street. With a few grand worth of major purchases to do, we made a conscious decision to buy everything that we could locally. We figure that if the price difference is minor, the personal service and attention we’d find downtown would be worth a couple of extra dollars. And we’d obviously like the money we spend to stay in and benefit our own community.

The Main Street experience

After dealing with two suppliers of outdoor equipment, the local camera store and the local Apple Computer dealer, we found the price difference was not what we expected … there was no price difference. The Apple dealer had our computer for the same price as everyone else. What we spent in sales tax we saved in shipping, and we didn’t have to wait a couple of days for our computer. When we upgraded our memory, they even bought back the memory module we couldn’t use. Try arranging that thru a mail-order catalog.

We went to the outdoor stores with an REI catalog in hand, hoping that they’d be able to at least come close to their prices. It turned out that they were able to meet REI’s prices across the board, and we spent hours in each place trying on different packs, sleeping bags, jackets, shoes, etc. The fittings, fine-tunings, and adjustments would have been impossible anywhere else.

The Big-box experience

The shopping nightmare began when we had to leave the familiar confines of Main Street and venture to the suburban discount stores. There were still many items missing from our travel kit, and some regional and global big-box stores were our last resorts.

The first roadblock was the incompetence of the sales staffs. The Main Street stores were staffed by people who were experts in the products they sold and their use. I trust that they were paid in a way that rewarded their expertise and helpfulness (most staff we dealt with probably got a small cut on the stuff we bought, so to them we were well worth the time they spent with us.) In mall-land we had a hard time finding anyone who even knew what we were talking about, much less able to lead us to the stuff we needed. After miles of driving and endless hours scouring aisles and fighting crowds (both in the stores and on the roads), the missing items in our travel kit remained missing.

If we did find something that was sort of what we needed, it usually wasn’t worth buying because it was junk. People go to these places thinking that they’re getting a good deal because the prices are cheaper. But discount stores also prove that you get what you pay for. To paraphrase a Neil Young lyric, instead of searching for quality we’re scrounging for quantity, and no one has time to properly evaluate products.

Sure, the tent at the downtown outdoor store may cost $150, but it’s light on the back and will hold up for a long time. The $50 tent at the discount store is heavy and it will wear out in about two uses. Someone who camps a lot will easily burn thru more than three $50 tents before we need to replace the $150 tent. The junk in the discount stores may be cheap, but in the long run, this wastes a lot of time and money.

Big-box stores are fly-traps for impulse buyers

The second thing that made our blood boil was the difficulty in navigating these places and actually finding anything. If you go into a discount store knowing exactly what you want, and intending to quickly find that item, grab it and get out, YOU ARE NOT A CUSTOMER THAT THEY WANT. They WANT you to be lost. The more time spent in the store, the greater likelihood to buy something on impulse. Sales assistants seem to be generally confined to the break room, and those you find aren’t much help anyway. So the stores are filled with lost sheep wandering the aisles, mindlessly throwing things into their carts as they go, which is exactly what the corporate owners want.

The difficult navigation inside the stores continues on the outside. These places are buried in a maze of parking lots, feeder roads, and frontage roads along what used to be thoroughfares. The express routes we were once promised are now hopelessly constipated by traffic to and from these complexes of discount stores and strip malls.

So after all that effort, stress and frustration, out of six items on our list we crossed off one item.  For everything else we came out empty-handed. All-in-all, the trip to the burbs was a monumental waste of time.

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