The Soapbox

This page written circa 7 February, 1999.

The Art of Shopping

To the left you see a picture of a piece of mail that arrived this week, along with a few others. It is, as you can see, inviting us to subscribe to The Chronicle. What is stunning is that the newspaper's headline reflects knowledge that we are new to Santa Rosa. We also received a sincere welcome from a dentist of whom we have never heard, but who promised to work with us to keep our teeth healthy. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's story of how initially upsetting it was to receive a letter threatening suicide, but which was subsequently observed to be addressed to "The Occupant".

Tony tells me that the shops are now clogged with Valentine's Day cards. They are so numerous that they are divided into categories, e.g., "husband", "wife", "girlfriend", etc. Particularly worrying are the lower categories such as "little sister", a division I would have expected to have been limited to Arkansas.

We have simultaneously come to grips with another aspect of marketing here in the US: The falsity of the assumption of a perfect market is exploited on a microscale. Despite the price-squeezing that is to be expected in a capitalist game, the price of a particular thing can vary enormously from shop to shop. Kay's favourite cereal is $3 at one of our favoured grocery stores, and $4 at Safeways. Wheels of French brie differ in quality, but CostCo can do a very nice one for half the price of Food For Thought. We are slowly learning what places to shop for what goods. It is much more of an art here.

CostCo deserves to be described. You have to pay $40 a year to join, and they issue you with an ID card that carries a photo. This card is checked at least once per visit too. They sell food, appliances (flashlights to dishwashers), computer parts, plants, tools, tyres, petrol, all sorts of stuff. And they are very cheap on what they sell. Cath and Kay stocked the pantry there. Their angle is that they have just one of everything. Choice of one dishwasher, one model of lawnmower, one size of tent, one sort of modem, one brand of French Brie, and so on. From what we have seen they are damn good on what they have, but you gotta take what their buyer recommended!

As you can guess from the range at which the above hints, the place is BIG. And sometimes, like on Brie and compressors, they are stunning. They sell a compressor (your author is seriously lusting after a set of pneumatic tools) for less than the asking price of second hand models in the HP classified ads! Of course, it takes a while to get to trust the value. So many places are good value on one thing, and bad on another... this is yet one more marketing tactic employed by shops here. You go to get a brilliant deal on razor blades, and get ripped off buying the milk and soda you suddenly remembered you wanted.

Another aspect you get to feel in the shops is that they want to sell you what they want to sell, not what you want to buy. I recently bought two 300W halogen standard lamps, the sort we paid A$60-120 for, at just US$9.95 each. This is stunning value, but you have to want just the sort of lamp they have to sell, which we did that week. Altogether, if you can wait your opportunity, you can do bloody well shopping here. The converse is true, too: If you need it now, and you want it just this way, expect to pay. The difference in value between buying what they want to sell, and buying what you need this instant, is wider than I have ever known. Shopping around is four dimensional, and the man with the tardis gets the best deal.

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