Supporting brick and mortar stores

I was raised on shopping malls. Living in the surburbs of sprawling metropolitan areas my entire childhood meant being brought along on various trips. My mom would often deposit me at the bookstore, or better yet, the toy store, while she went off and took care of real shopping. During that time, I became familiar with the entire line of Legos, learned the rules of D&D, and played the first 10 minutes of countless video games at demo stations.

Over time, I grew up. A little. I could stand to shop with my mom when she was looking at pants for me (instead of her needing to find me after having scouted out the prices). But now, I rarely go to malls. I’m of the impression that they aren’t quite as important here in the Bay Area as they were back in Katy, Texas, but on the whole, I don’t do much shopping in-person anymore. Part of that is not having a car to get to such places, but even that’s okay, because the internet lets me do all the shopping I want from home.

Apparently I’m not alone, according to this article. Shopping malls, once thought to be the great center of commerce, have been dying around the United States. The article doesn’t focus too much on the reasons why this has been happening, but it does point out 2 main reasons.

First, we apparently rediscovered our roots in stores and restaurants that can be entered from the street. I think there’s something classy in imagining ourselves poking into independent boutiques, looking through storefront windows on a sunny day, and living it up in the city. That’s something I can get behind.

The second reason, however, is the bigger culprit in this situation, and that’s online shopping. It’s so easy. I remember coming down for breakfast on Sunday mornings and seeing my parents trawling over ads, trying to pick out the best deals. My mom had her stacks of coupon clippings that would get sorted into piles. And for important things like big electronics, this could go on for weeks. Now, it’s really tidy. All available products are easily found via search engines. The search engines even compare prices for you, making it easy to find the lowest cost seller. And in moments of confusion, there are many forums and buying guides to help out.

But like a lot of conveniences, there’s something lost, and I think it’s the whole “shopping” thing. I don’t think of myself as much of a shopper, but I do enjoy looking at junk. I’m sure that attitude is frustrating enough to storeowners, but I’ve managed to make things even worse for them as I see things in stores that I later by online because it’s cheaper and gets me out of impulse buys. Yikes.

Somewhere in the economics of purchases, I’ve lost the value of the shopping experience. Sure, I can buy the exact same book on Amazon for $5 cheaper than at Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t spend a half-hour perusing books, walking through ranges of shelves, and discovering new reads online. For myself, the economics as is work out perfectly: I can browse in-person for free and buy for less online. But the physical store deserves the final price I pay for the book for having helped me find it, as well as the retail premium above online prices for the shopping experience.

Honestly, this will be a tough fight. My mom’s coupon-clipping ways and exhaustive (and exhausting) deal-hunting make it hard for me to believe that it’s right to not go for the cheapest option. I’m sure I’ll lose it many times, but at least I’m conscious of it. I won’t suddenly buy more than I do now, but when I see that kitchen gadget in-person, I’ll try not to let myself out of the purchase because I’ll buy it online later.

And I’ll try to do that everywhere. I have enough elitist, yuppie guilt to support the mom & pop shops and small, unique businesses, but I think I need to push to keep it in mind for the big retailers, too. I have too much nostalgia for Fairview Mall, Katy Mills, the Target at I-10 and Fry Road, and other to not give back for some of it.

Buying a TV

I’ve spent the past 3 weeks easing myself into my summer life of job work, cooking, and commuting. Out of our college possessions, Leland and I produced a few nice items among a trove of trash, including cooking equipment, a few musical instruments, and some posters. Before we moved in, Lee had mentioned last quarter that he had a Wii sitting at home, and a mental image of his parents playing Super Mario confirmed that no one was using it. Just last night, I played Mario Kart for Wii with our 3rd roomamate, Andrew, on 32 inches of flat panel entertainment. It’s one of my first major investments in a new item.

Not to say a used one wasn’t available to us. At the beginning of the school year, my drawmate Ben found a 50 inch TV on craigslist for $100. With Dave’s rolling bedroom, we actuallly had enough space to drive it back to campus on our own. When we met our buyer, he mentioned the glare as his primary gripe and reason for sale. The TV sat in a garage converted into a den, with a window opposite the TV. Apparently, when the sun hit that window just right, you couldn’t even make out a purple cow on the TV. The TV was a little old as well, and the factor of 10 discount counted each year of its life.

At the end of the school year, no one wanted to–or even could–take the monstrosity home. Lee and I got the offer to take it with us across the street to our summer dorm, and we firmly (but politely) refused. It was no fun to carry up the stairs, and absurd amounts of video games had turned the screen red. An attempt to recover all $100 on craigslist failed, but an offer to take it for free (assuming that the taker did the physical work of taking it) got 15 calls of great enthusiasm. In the end, someone took it down those 3 floors and away to a women’s shelter where they will have to deal with the glare.

Our next option was to buy another TV. At the end of each school year, many students have 26 to 30 inch back projection TVs of mysterious brands to sell. While certainly an option, Leland pointed out that those not only weighed their worth in rocks but also waste precious dorm space. Instead, we agreed a new flat panel would be a better investment than buying a throwaway to use for just a year. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, TVs can last for a long time, and a decently sized flat panel TV could become an establishment in a future living room.

We began our search online. I’m sometimes astonished by how much shopping has changed; I remember my grandpa’s shop with rows of TVs in his quiet Gravenhurst shop. There, the best bargain was on the shelf. Today, it’s listed on some website. Instead of having to cross town to compare prices, we can now go to other websites that mine those websites for the shiniest deals. A particularly good one was an eco-friendly Vizio TV from the Dell store. With a coupon code, it would cost under $400 (before tax). Had we known standard market prices, we would’ve taken the deal right away, bt we didn’t want to commit so soon. Good advice says not ot fall in love with any particular house, especially the first one. We trusted caution and for a couple more days we watched for alternatives, keeping that TV in mind. It seems that the Cupid of LCD displays was hoping we’d be foolish lovers as after a couple days, including Sunday ads, we never found a deal as good as that first one. When we went to buy, the coupon code had been used up to its limit.

At first, we denied it by redoubling our efforts to find something just as good. We even tried the old ways and went to the local Best Buy to look at TVs. Side by side, the difference was noticeable, but I double I would ever notice with just 1 sitting in a dorm room. The limited selection and generally higher prices swept away my doubts for why store shopping has been swept away, we went back to the internet.

A few days later, we settled on a different Vizio from Dell. Despite it not being quite as good as the first, we realized we could wait forever on a deal, agonizing as each gem passed. With only an 8 week summer, it seemed more worthwhile to have the TV for longer. After overcoming a most bizarre method of screening orders where our TV was only shipped after canceling the order, we got notice that it would come in the following Monday. And seeing a new TV in your living room helps a lot when coming back from work on a Monday.

Since then, it’s been what we wanted from it. I now have Sportscenter with my Fruit Loops, Super Smash Brothers to fire up with company, and a legitimate display for movies. And every time I look at it, it seems just as good as any one I saw on the shelf at Best Buy

Shopping in China

I’m sure you’ve all heard about markets, whether from people (like me) who have shown you the DVDs, or 1st-hand on the streets of New York Chinatown. Lemme break it down for you:
Homogeneous products: everyone is selling the same thing. The branding isn’t distinguished between the sellers. Somehow, someone has a massive factory churning out folexes, t-shirts, and jewelry, from which all of the vendors buy their merchandise. I wish I was smart enough to be that person.
Large number of buyers and sellers: Boy, are those places crowded. Thankfully, most are smart enough to learn English to converse with the (dumb) westerners who come by, often in large numbers. Bustling place, especially now that they’ve moved inside (if I don’t comment on this at some post later in the week, comment if you care, and I’ll get to it). The shops are all very close to each other, so if you don’t like one, take two steps forward and try again.
Imperfect Information: Oh boy, is this one. It’s a market. You vs. them. Prices are usually inflated at least 200%. About 700% on some t-shirts, today. If you don’t know how much the items are worth, you’re going to pay too much, of which the sellers have absolutely no problem allowing you to do. Best hope you’ve improved your appraise and persuade skills before you come (at least 10 ranks =D). And remember: the best thing you can do is walk away.
Sellers are price-takers: This one I’m not perfectly sure about in my head, but I think I’m right. As mentioned above, the sellers are trying to get you to pay too much, but in the end, if you can get them down to what it’s worth, they know what it’s worth. And they’re going to stick to that value. If it’s too little, those are losses. If it’s too much, then the (smart) customer can walk on to the next shop.
So I ended up picking up t-shirts (not for me) and DVDs, though by no means splurging. Not like you can really splurge, with prices as they are. Back in NY, I ‘member people getting DVDs for $3-4 on the street. Definitely overpaying. Of course, the plane ticket is expensive, but when you move past that, you’re talking about much cheaper merchandise. 2 things make stuff really cheap:
1) Standard of Living: It’s just cheaper to live here. If you were here, you’d know why.
2) Exchange Rates: China had pegged the value of the RMB for quite a few years, since it’s good for international trade (mostly, I think). Ask any good econ student to explain if you don’t get it. Anyways, the exchange rate means that stuff is ridiculously cheap for us.
Here in China, it’s fair to pay about $.50 for a DVD, $1.25 if you’re looking for the real deal (as real as it gets around here ‘neways). Not bad at all.


Yes, a truly American holiday: Day After ThanksGiving Sale.
I find it interesting (and I talked about it with my mom and sister in the car) how it seems like this unofficial holiday almost trumps Christmas itself. I know that at least in my family (and according to various other ppl), Christmas is just the day. All the real gift-giving and such occurs way in advance, for you might as well go out and find the deal on what you want, get it, and get paid back for it. Doesn’t make good economical sense for someone to surprise you under the tree with something you either don’t want/spent too much on.
You know you’re in the US when the joy of frugality exceeds the joy of giving.
But I guess that’s the evolution of holidays. Even Thanksgiving itself is no longer truly about giving tahnks, but simply to ingest enormous amounts of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, etc. until filled for a 2-month hibernation (on a similar note, apparently turkey contains some chemical that actually causes us to become sleeping), and then watching football.
I’m not complaining at all; I delight in the festivities. I eagerly anticipated Thankgiving… so I could look at the ads in the morning for the sale. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, I join my mom and sister in a yearly ritual to find the “best deal”. And I know I’m not alone in this thinking. Just ask ones of the hundreds of other ppl lined up outside of best buy, circuit city…
It was funny though, since my sister went to get a jacket at Kohl’s. I just slept in the car, but apparently there were some pretty vicious moms who literally trampled into the store for 50% toys.
So as far as my purchases went, I managed to HL2 (w00t) which I am quite excited about.
Wait, no. I didn’t get it; my sisters did, for me.