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Buying retail -- cautiously

Farewell, wobbly chairs; hello, $99 discount-store dining set.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 4:39AM

Some people seem to think that I never buy anything new. That's not the case. A few weeks ago I bought a dining table and chairs.

Although it's like placing a "Kick Me" sign on my own back, I'm going to admit that I bought these things from Kmart. 

Discount department stores have a down-at-the-heels reputation: their merchandise is low-end and their employees -- when you can find them -- are surly and unhelpful. 

That wasn't my experience. When I couldn't find the advertised dining set, a manager brought one out from the stockroom. Then he loaded it into my car, chatting pleasantly.

The sale price of $99 was a good deal for a table and four chairs. It's perfectly respectable-looking furniture. Naturally, some assembly was required. 

Would I have preferred to buy an oak dining set handcrafted by a local artisan? You bet. But that's not in my budget. I'm certainly not the only one who can't afford custom furniture, imported linens or high-end cookware -- and this is how discount department stores stay in business.

It works for me
For the past three years I'd been using a wooden table borrowed from my daughter and a couple of chairs found by the Dumpster on trash day. 

The table was and is nice. The chairs were wobbly. I'd gotten used to them, though, and for this reason the new chairs felt odd. As a sailor needs to get used to unmoving ground, I had to reaccustom myself to solid seating.

I might have used those old chairs indefinitely if my daughter hadn't shown me the Kmart ad. It's not that she needed her old table back; in fact, it took some rearranging to fit it into her apartment. She just wanted to remind me that it really is OK to spend something on myself -- on, say, chairs that don’t shimmy.

It would have been possible for me to "shop" via craigslist, rummage sales, thrift shops or Freecycle. This is the way I usually get things, or get rid of them. This time, however, I behaved like a consumer: I looked at the ad and had the urge for something that was new, not just new to me. 

There's nothing wrong with wanting new things. It not only keeps a lot of people employed, it saves us from having to do everything ourselves. We could bake our own bread, sew our own clothes, and hew our own furniture from trees we felled ourselves. Some people do. But most of us prefer to hire it out.

The snob factor
Why, then, have I felt reluctant to tell people about my new dining set? One word: elitism. As noted above, some folks sneer at those who shop at places like Kmart or Wal-Mart. They throw around words like "food stamps," "low-income" and "redneck." Maybe it makes them feel superior to disparage people who don't have much money. Maybe they've been lucky enough never to have been broke. 

Others raise ethical concerns about discount merchandise, saying it's made overseas under sweatshop conditions. No kidding. But where do most retailers, even high-end ones, get their products? Almost certainly not from American factories whose unions ensure fair wages and safe workplaces. I just checked the tag on a Liz Claiborne silk blouse and it read "made in China." (I bought the garment in a thrift shop, incidentally.)

A lot of people go to Kmart or Wal-Mart because they can't afford to shop anywhere else. Others are pulled in by the occasional loss-leader price that matches their budgets.

That's me. And after three years of taking meals and doing homework from a wobbly chair, I have to say it feels good to be on solid ground.

Published April 7, 2008

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