This shopping plaza used to be dominated by an Ames store, the site of my wackiest shopping experience. Ames offered merchandise similar to Wal-Mart’s, usually in whatever styles and colors Wal-Mart didn’t stock, and ran weekly sales that beat Wal-Mart’s prices. Bargains were hottest on Tuesdays, “senior discount days.” Everybody took advantage of the generous discounts offered to those over 55. If you weren’t over 55, all you had to do was find a friend who was and offer that person some free stuff.
I used to watch people buy whole cartloads of children’s clothes at bargain prices, handing the cash to Grandma, who then took one bottle of shampoo out of the cart for herself. Store managers knew that this went on and said it was not a bad thing—it might be the only time some people ever took their parents out to lunch.
To make things even easier for senior shoppers who would wait near the checkout counters for hours while their more active friends shopped, the managers had installed benches at the front of the store, where the senior shoppers sat to wait.
My own parents wouldn’t come to this Washington suburb to help me exploit Ames’s policy, so my favorite accomplice was a youthful-looking sixty-something man I’ll call Arjun because that’s not his name. He was dark even by Indian standards, about 5’8”, thin, and health-and-figure-conscious.
He usually liked to walk around and shop. One day in July of 2003, after we’d bargain-hunted through four other stores that were also running sales, and had a brisk walk around the lake, the heat got to him. It was about 90 degrees outside and, since the store’s air conditioning had given up, it was about 100 degrees inside. Probably even hotter near the counters, where tired, irritable shoppers were browbeating bleary-eyed cashiers. For once, Arjun decided to sit on the bench.
It's relevant to mention that he sat down on a bench beside an African-American man with dark skin and a white beard, about 5’10”. A slight majority of the crowd in the store were African-American.
I knew where to find the item I wanted, but the store had run out of the color I wanted. It took me a good half hour to locate an employee who could find a rain check form. During this time several people around me, including store staff, were displaying the whole range of reactions to heat and overcrowding. Lots of searching for things that had just been set down on the counter, and similar symptoms of brain fatigue. Lots of angry tones in people’s voices. At least two whiny babies. At least one sick toddler. I wondered how Arjun was holding up.
After finally filling out the rain check form, I joined the crowd of disappointed shoppers who had only rain checks to take home. When I was able to see Arjun through the crowd, he seemed to be involved in a lively conversation with an African-American woman. She was one of many so-called “Black” people whose actual skin color is lighter than Arjun’s “Brown” complexion.
By the time I made my way through the slow-moving crowd, the woman was gone. Arjun was standing up and looked distressed, but insisted he was not ill. As we walked out the door I asked, “Did you pass the time talking with someone you knew?”
“I never saw that woman before!” he exploded. “At least I hope not! She came up to me with some sort of box underneath her cart and just ordered me, ‘You carry this out to the car.’ I looked, but I couldn’t see a receipt stuck on the box. You know they stick the receipt on the box when it’s too big to fit into a bag. I just knew she was trying to get me involved in some kind of shoplifting scheme. Why she thought I’d help her steal anything, I had NO idea. I was looking around for a security guard when this guy came up and took the box out. I thought the alarm would go off, but it didn’t.”
“Would that be the man who was sitting beside you?” I asked.
“Oh, no, he checked out with his family just a few minutes after we came in. The one who carried the box was young, and at least six feet tall, with puffy Afro hair...” Arjun went on to describe the man in detail, as if he were rehearsing how to describe him to the police. “I bet that woman does that to some poor man every week. People feel sorry for her and help her. Then if the alarm did go off, she’d be gone, and some man would go to jail for her.”
I could imagine how that sort of scam might work. I could also imagine how some poor, overworked mother could have stumbled through the checkout line, about to collapse from the heat and clamor, too exhausted even to look up and make sure she was approaching the right bench...
Nevertheless, Arjun persuaded me to write a letter to the store managers, alerting them to this woman’s bizarre behavior, just in case it was a scam. But this did no good.
The next day, when I showed Arjun the letter, he said, “Have you heard the news? Ames is going bankrupt. The whole chain is going down. They broke the news this afternoon.” This news ensured that what might have become somebody’s worst experience remained merely our wackiest shopping experience.
A year later I was curious to see what kind of store would move into the building formerly occupied by Ames. When National Wholesale Liquidators sent out the announcements of their opening sale prices, I decided to buy some sand shoes and underwear on sale. This led to that WORST shopping experience.
The store was in total chaos. No two similar pieces were located on the same rack. While examining every tag to look for my size, I noticed that the piped-in background noise was louder than a normal conversation. In fact, if they’d had either stereo speakers, or a recording made by a group anybody would ever pay to hear, it would have been like an actual rock concert.
Being one of those average-sized women who seldom find ready-made clothes that fit, I wasn’t too surprised that one item I wanted was not available in my size at all. I picked up a garment that looked obviously too small, but was marked just one size smaller than I usually wear, figuring that it must be designed to stretch. Then I picked up one that was marked one size larger than I usually wear, since it looked close to the right size.
At the cash register, although this was September and the temperatures were down in the seventies, I thought the cashier looked ready to fall asleep. Behind her slumped a guard who looked even wearier. Two other cashiers and one other guard were also on duty. They looked equally droopy. I could understand their weariness, since at the checkout counters the noise was even louder than it had been in the lingerie and shoe departments. I thought I heard the cash register beep one time less than the number of items I was buying, but since (a) the noise was really getting on my nerves, (b) I could easily have missed hearing a beep because of the noise, and (c) nobody could talk over the noise, I just hurried out.
Sure enough, when I got home, I realized I’d paid for only one of the two pieces of underwear. Then I tried on the item that was supposedly too large, but looked as if it would fit. It didn’t fit. It didn’t stretch. It remained at least one full size smaller than any similar garment in that size. I’d paid for one of the two pieces, but I couldn’t use either one...and of course the store couldn’t re-sell underwear!
I figured that, if I never claimed the refund on the one piece for which I’d paid, but just donated both pieces to a homeless shelter, the store was losing only half as much money as it would if I demanded the refund due me. So you could say the store and I were splitting the difference. Nobody was actually coming out ahead.
Women learn to anticipate that, due to variations in the styles and material used as well as variations in the actual shapes of women with the same key measurement, quite a lot of clothing items that are supposed to be “our size” aren’t going to fit as well as the size above or below might fit. We learn that, when we buy suits, some of us should buy the jackets in a larger or smaller size than the skirts. We learn that, if we buy standard kinds of shoes, we can at least figure out which sizes to buy in each type. And we learn that sometimes, especially in second-rate stores that rely on noisy piped-in music to keep the staff awake, any resemblance between the size marked on the package and the actual size of the contents is strictly coincidental.
I’ve had wackier experiences with mispackaged items, like the shoe box that contained one size 7 shoe and one size 10 shoe...but at least that store kept the noise level down low enough that I could simply tell the manager, “I’ll bet you have another pair just like this somewhere.” Noisy stores drain people’s energy even more than hot air does. Any time a store gets overheated, overcrowded, or noisy, everybody is likely to have an unpleasant shopping or working experience.