The Faraway Co.

This page written circa 1 February, 2000.

The art of retailing in America is very advanced indeed. Every place has its "angle". There are shops that are cheap, and ones that rely on advertising to convince you that they are cheap, which they are not unless you really haggle. There are ones that are expensive, but they are well-stocked and efficient and rely on you wanting speed more than economy. There are ones that are mostly slightly expensive but with a few really cheap buys to get you in, knowing you probably won't notice prices of things over which they do not make a fuss. There are ones that are very expensive, but have what you can't get anywhere else nearby. The chains like K-Mart and Target are usually better if they have what you want, but their stock is basically unchanging in style and ever-changing in detail: Ross always has blue business shirts, but never the same exact brand and design twice.

I realised recently that CD shops here basically do not expect you to listen to the CDs in the shop before you buy. Perhaps this is why e-commerce is doing so well... it is not only cheaper but you can listen to samples and not even stand up, let alone drive your car, plus if you buy out-of-state there is no sales tax.

When I was about 6, I read or had read to me a book about the Faraway Tree (Enid Blyton?). The gist was that some children lived near a wood of tall trees. They discovered that if you put your left ear to the trunk, you could understand just what the trees were saying as they whispered to themselves when the wind blew.
One particularly large tree provided homes for a bunch of odd characters including Mr Moonface. It had a variety of diversions, including the traditional washerwoman who lived most of the way up, and whose waste laundry water would periodically douse some unfortunate below who failed to hear it coming. It also had one very tall branch that reached up into the clouds; therein there appeared "lands", local worlds you could visit, and each of which had some peculiar defining characteristic, like everything was made of jelly or everybody was mean. I do not remember the details of any of these, except that some were too ridiculous even for my six-or-seven-year-old mind, but I recall that they only stayed at the top of the tree for some finite time, I think it was three days, before they blew onward. You had to be careful not to get caught there or you had to wait a cycle (some dreadfully long time) before you could get back home.

CostCo is one of our favourite shops here. Their angle is that they require you to be a member before you can buy stuff there (like Campbell's) and they sell in bulk. This is a shop that offers the usual shopping trolleys, but also shopping trucks... wheeled palettes upon which cubic metres of stuff can be stacked. They sell all kinds of stuff from PCs and TVs to towels and garden tools, but more than one third of it is food, fresh, frozen, tinned and bottled.

What is fascinating about the place is that they don't regularly stock much at all apart from frozen chicken, tinned tomatoes and tissues. At the onset of Spring they stock lawnmowers. Only two models, both good quality Hondas last year, and both at a very good price. And only for about three weeks, then they are all gone for another year. Briefly they had refrigerators, as Summer heated up. Mid-summer they had paddleboats. Once, and I missed it, they had pneumatic tool kits, and for a while trolley jacks. There was a wave of Portmerion crockery, a brief stampede of wooden rocking horses. We just happened to be looking at the right moment to get the built-in, reverse-osmosis water purifier. I had to wait a year to get an air compressor.

A recurring enquiry about America is "is it cheaper to live here". Well, it can be, but if you don't pay attention, no it isn't. Although the multitude of competing businesses work to keep things cheap, these businesses do their best not to face each other directly, preferring to convince you that they are better value by evading direct comparison. Keeping costs down can be hard work. CostCo is more exactly like the Faraway Tree, but with all shopping here it pays to get in and buy while the right land is in season, but give up if you do not have your wits about you or you can't cope with shopping being an adventure.

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