Stuffed in California

I’ve been fascinated by my reaction to the consumer culture in the U.S.  For me, it has the frisson of hunting and gathering butted up against the Buddhist attitude of unattachment to things.  Things shouldn’t matter, and yet, I was partly looking forward to coming to the U.S. because of the things I could/wanted/thought I needed to acquire, at cheap prices.

Matt and I came here for a meeting a few weeks ago, and then to spend the week before Thanksgiving in the Sacramento area, seeing my family, with his mom and grandma visiting as well. Thanksgiving is a holiday for appreciating life, for recognizing the good things we have, which usually means family and health.  But in the U.S., it is also a festival of gluttony. This year’s trend of opening stores the night before Thanksgiving for midnight sales, and of shoppers pepperspraying each other to get to bargains, was a bit over the top for me.

But I’m far from immune to the allure of the bargain.  When we arrived in Boston the week before the holiday, I noticed how thrilled I was to see familiar stores — including in particular Trader Joe’s and Filene’s Basement.  I bought insanely cheap food at TJ’s, which made me so excited.  Cereal for a few bucks instead of more than $6, pre-made tamales for less than $2 — oh man, heaven!

Lab coats for sale at the Barnes & Noble bookstore that serves Boston University. There were possibly more clothes in this store than books, but of the books for sale, I wanted them all...

(I could mention CVS, Crate and Barrel and a few other mainstays from my former lives, but would that amount to commercial promotion? I was so tempted by the fabrics from Marimekko — yes, the *Finnish* pattern maker with storefronts in Stockholm — hanging in the windows of CB.  I knew it would be cheaper than anything I could buy in Sweden if I could just fit it into my luggage … but I digress.)

The week we were in Boston, Filene’s was having a going-out-of-business sale.  That in itself was shocking: When I lived in Washington, D.C., that place was my go-to bargain store for professional clothing, warm wool socks, funky fashion, base layers (yes, cheap bras and underwear!) — you name it.

And here it is, crashing in this economic depression (is that the right word still?  Isn’t the U.S. recovering from the “downturn”?).  How could a place filled with cheap designer crap be crashing right now, when people think they really need the bargains?  One of the employees said that the company had partnered with another that was in even worse shape, and Filene’s owner was in dire straits and had decided to let it go.  I remember a similar crisis period the chain faced about a decade ago; this may have been the beginning of the end, when they merged with the other clothier to survive.

But I digress again.  My intended point was this:  Matt and I headed in there for nearly two hours and came out with more clothing than we both probably need.  I bought my usual assortment of socks, he picked up a warm shirt, I got a blouse I don’t need, he got new Converse shoes — the list goes on. These items all seemed necessary at the time and will be quite welcome later as we use them, but I was almost embarrassed to think about how little we paid and how much we got.  How can the U.S. and its citizens keep this up, this desire for supposedly quality goods on the cheap?

This feeling only heightened for me once we reached California.  I won’t share the details of our outlet-mall excursion (suffice to say: I came away empty-handed, as my intended quarry of bras and a certain style of shoes had been phased out by the companies I expected to be no-miss, and I somehow resisted some cheap shirts at various big-name stores). Instead, I’ll tell you about our visits to CostCo — and yes, I do mean plural visits, two in one day!

The main purpose was to buy new glasses for us both.  The selection is limited, and surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to choose a pair I thought I might like. (Being married to Matt has dramatically improved the speed with which I make shopping decisions; those who know me would be surprised at how little I can dither on occasion.)

This time, shockingly, it was Matt who took his time. He was dissatisfied with his choices, being a man with a larger face confronted with a wall of women’s frames and smaller sizes.  He stopped to get his eyes checked (and got a lecture from the resident eye doc on how important it is to do regularly!), and then came back to the wall to face the music.

Nothing pleased him.  So we went to the next CostCo down the highway (transport in the U.S. is another digression for another post). Matt dithered some more.  Finally, his mom and I said to him, just get a pair of glasses!  They are SO CHEAP in the U.S., and even cheaper in CostCo!  For about $150, he could get a new set that would most likely cost $500 in Sweden. So he bought a pair, even though they weren’t quite what he wanted.

How can this be??  How does this WORK??  Is it simply the number of people who live here, and the ability to get things made in bulk?  Or is it the expectation of cheaply available goods, and the need for retailers to take losses, so that they have items they expect to let go at cost or below to get sales?

This is not just CostCo I’m referring to.  Down in southern California with my mom, post-Thanksgiving, all of the stores seem to have sales for “the Holidays” (meaning Christmas), or some kind of discount, whether it’s seniors’ Tuesday or coupons from the newspaper inserts that they are printing every day. I assume this is mostly the economic downturn that is driving department stores and others to mark down their products to get sales.  But isn’t it also something U.S. consumers have come to expect?

I have for sure.  And so I found myself surprised again the other day, as I ended up in Macy’s prepared to purchase bras at full price (which is still shocking to me) in order to get what I want.  I have limited time here, and I need to get what (I think) I need, knowing it will be cheaper here than back at home in Sweden.  Needless to say, I didn’t have to pay full price — my mom had coupons and discount credit cards and all assortment of consumer incentives.

But later in the week, I headed over to Patagucci (better known as Patagonia), fully convinced I am ready to pay full price for what I want — winter boots, from a brand I know and trust, versus the unknown (and possibly better? Nah!) Swedish brands.  Is it possible that I have adopted, finally, the Swiss attitude? Buy the best, buy it to last, and pay what you have to in order to get this year’s model.

Let me assure you: when I saw the stickers at the Patagucci store, the cheap American in me kicked in.  It’s a good thing that we started at the store down the street that sells the company’s extras and last-season’s models.  I bought a Patagucci raincoat.  I won’t tell you how much it cost (still breathtakingly expensive!), but I got it at a steep discount.

Further Reading:

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