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A Radical Shopper's Adventures in Consumption
By Sam Pocker
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Format:ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
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Why do grown men sleep on the street overnight to buy video game systems?
How do Dollar Stores cheerfully charge a dollar for a 25 cent pack of gum?
What are the pitfalls of Brand Name Loyalty?
And how do you get an entire car-full of pudding for free? “Stand-up economist” Sam Pocker delves into these hard-hitting questions — and the result is a fascinating, wry, and amusing account of consumers’ non-sensical habits and the stores that prey upon them. With a dash of vitriol and a dose of sarcasm, Pocker exposes the sheer inanity of marketing schemes, the plague of rude cashiers, and shows how the “little guy” can rise up and beat the system by outsmarting the stores with their overly-complicated rules for rebates. Retail Anarchy is a satirical look at the self-imposed consumer coma that America has fallen into — and Sam Pocker’s mission is to wake readers up!
FOR JEAN & TALAS
With thanks to:
Ray & Carl Cooke
Rich & Karen Deiser
Dawn & Mark Graham
Kelly Marie Holmes
Debbie & Greg Miller
Darlene & Bobby Roper
Mary Jane Slaughter
Everyone at Shidoobee, RC, RE,
TCC, HCW, CW, MA$, B$, FW,
SD, and SA
Mom & Dad
Sagendorphs, Bradys, Hoppers,
and Banachs everywhere.
Special thanks to Skip who sold me the Stones
ticket which ultimatley inspired this book.
ticket which ultimatley inspired this book.
This book is full of contradictions because it was written by a real person who, just like you, contradicts himself all the time.
This book is full of opinions; some are nice and some are not so nice, just like your own.
If you want to read a textbook about economics, you should go find one, but that's not my intent here. This book is a story about people and money, and it is intended only to make you think about how you spend your own. Call it a "Bedtime Story for Consumers."
Now get nice and comfortable, and remember, when you hear this sound **, turn the page.
"Hello Customer, Keep Erection Strong."
Walking into a Funkadelic concert, many patrons were witness to several men in various stages of intoxication and undress screaming and singing what seemed to be indecipherable noise for the better part of four hours.
Somewhere in his early thirties, George Clinton stood on a stage, tripping on LSD, dressed only in a bed sheet, and declared, "Free your mind and your ass will follow," and then proceeded to laugh uncontrollably for several minutes. It was, however accidentally, excellent advice for his audience.
True enough that George was mainly dealing with race relations, and not with consumer affairs, but the advice is easily adapted and equally as accidentally useful.
Before we can discuss George or how his work affects you, I need to explain a few things to you about the book you're about to read.
First of all, I am an economist, and therefore an expert about my topic. Fair enough? Let's examine my credentials. How did I come to be an economist? Did I attend a university and get a degree in business? No. Did I work for a financial firm? No. Have I ever taken a class in economics? No. As I discovered, all one needs to do in order to become an economist is simply to declare themselves to be one. All of Wall Street bases its decisions on the opinions of economists (admittedly, with legitimate credentials, I hope) but it is not actually necessary to do anything other than breathe in order to claim to be one. Having been an economist for almost five years, I have been offered multiple opportunities to speak to decision-makers at large corporations and their various industry conferences, and my thoughts have been taken under consideration when making business decisions that affect their various companies. Yet I have absolutely no formal training or experience of any kind. Pretty much all I have done is relay information that I have processed in the most primitive forms of common sense I could imagine, and then find my ideas receiving more and more attention. To George Clinton's detriment, I didn't even have to drop acid or wear a pair of tin-foil underpants in order to get people to listen to me.
Second, none of this happened by accident. For years, I would visit big box stores and watch customer service deteriorate and then come home and listen to economists on television place blame on abstract things like the price of oil to justify why retail sales were slipping. I've known for a long time that I had something I needed to say about the situation in retail but it's been only recently that I see how these things are affecting average consumers in such a profound way that it would be irresponsible for me not to speak out about them.
Third, I need to address a natural criticism of the work that follows. While any serious literary critic will rightfully note that this work is somewhat meandering (a "sprawling mess") and reads closer to a blog post than a proper book, it is entirely my intent for the work to have this aesthetic. This is due to the fact that the shopping centers which it criticizes have also been laid out in this very same fashion. While some first time authors may use another author's work as a blueprint, I used the floor plan of the King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Additionally, I have intentionally thrown out any fundamental literary structuring because this particular book was written for people who rarely read books. It is my sincere hope that after discovering and reading this one, they may begin to visit bookstores and libraries as opposed to the big box retailers who are presenting advertisements as faux-information, such as is found in commonplace "advertorials." If I have to hear my future mother-in-law regurgitate one more Fox News commentary as scientific fact, I'm going to take a baseball bat to her television.
Fourth, you may find yourself infuriated that I never fully introduce the characters or establishments. I take that as a raving compliment. In life, you may have discovered that you hear a great many stories about people you have never met or places you have never been. In writing this book to depict a slice of modern life which is being grossly ignored by the media, it is my hope to replicate a human experience and, as such, I present to you a conversation as is intended, not spoon-fed.
I trust that you, the reader, are of reasonable intelligence, and can figure out what is going on for yourself. If children can understand a Harry Potter book loaded with imaginary words, I'm quite confident that the average adult can comprehend a book about shopping.
Some people apparently get angry reading this work because of the information which is intentionally missing. For the more literary-minded among you, please understand that this is a device to elicit said emotion. When was the last time a book made you truly angry? So mad that you threw it across the room in disgust, then ran after it, picked it up, and kept reading? Those were the things I was looking at when writing it and, hopefully, you won't need to spackle and repaint small holes in your wall when you're done reading it. I have found it to be just wonderful to discover how many of my friends look at a film like Triumph Of The Will as a great work of art and speak of it with nothing but praise, yet are infuriated by my book about shopping.
Fifth, if all of this doesn't make you crazy (and strangely intrigued) already, this book is actually about dancing. Yes, celebratory physical expression of your emotions in public places are a key theme of the volume you hold in your hands. We all (hopefully) come to a point in our lives where we look around to discover that we are now the oldest people in the nightclub and feel a bit sad that we are too old to dance. I have discovered that with the proliferation of iPods (and the fact that in-store music is now interrupted frequently with advertisements for products) it has become socially acceptable to dance in public, and that with big box retailers dominating our landscape, the average department store is now bizarrely transformed into a discotheque of people dancing to their own individual playlists. This is why there are so many references to music in the book; because if you promise to read it cover to cover, I promise not only to make you throw it across the room in anger but to make you laugh, and want to dance. Go out and find yourself another economist who can offer you that. Dave Ramsey may want to hold your hand, but I'm here to burn your town down.
Sixth, many grocery stores hire mentally handicapped people to work as baggers, the people who are there to put your groceries in shopping bags while you pay for them. For many years this was a great idea because it gave the otherwise unemployable a job they could do, and provided a decent service to the customer.
When your bread was at the bottom of the bag under your carton of milk, you thought "oh well, they are doing a good service to the handicapped, and it's just a loaf of bread." It was excusable because they are handicapped, they can't help it, and we should all help out in the community.
This was, of course, all before bread became almost four dollars a loaf. I tend to look like some crazy antiques collector when I buy a loaf of bread now, making sure the date is as far out as possible and the loaf is near perfect for four dollars.
Having mentally handicapped baggers crush that loaf of bread is no longer excusable to me. While it is not the fault of the handicapped person, it is the fault of the store for continuing to employ them in this capacity. Please note I said in this capacity; I am not advocating that the handicapped be fired or penalized.
While I don't really want to see them lose their jobs and while I don't think a loaf of bread is worth $4, it is clear that in the situation the price of the item needs to come back down. However, we can't expect the manufacturer and retailer to do this. It's not fair to the handicapped guy to lose his job and no supermarket would be stupid enough to let these workers go for fear of a lawsuit. So who is the loser in this situation? The consumer, of course. This is a good part of my belief that retail is now at the forefront of anarchy, that for the first time in history the consumer has a real need to fight back. We are not talking about snake oil or false claims; we are talking about bread and milk. The consumer has been abused for too long, and is passively taking it, hence the fact that we are in a consumer-driven economy.
Imagine if every customer who bought a loaf of bread that was smashed up by the bagger brought it back to customer service and demanded that it be exchanged for an undamaged loaf; you would see real change as a result of the losses to either the store or manufacturer. At first the price would go up, which would then create competition by the other bakeries and ultimately drive the price back down once they realized the baggers were the bottleneck. While it may be tedious and unpleasant, making such demands is required of you as a responsible consumer.
While I am extremely sympathetic to mentally retarded employees, I am less than sympathetic to those perfectly intelligent employees who choose to act mentally retarded; in fact, to them I am downright aggressive and nasty.
Moments ago, I received an email solicitation with the subject line that read simply "Hello Customer! Keep Erection Strong!" Without opening the email, I already knew what the solicitation inside would offer. That is more than I can say for the hundreds of solicitations I receive every day with the names of obscure sales or the ubiquitous "Friends and Family" sale in which you always have to open the email just to find out how much of a percentage discount will be offered. It fascinates me that one person with no budget and a questionable command of the English language can advertise their penis enhancement product more effectively than a major corporation with a marketing budget.
It's the same thing that is wrong with the cashiers at one of my grocery stores. They are painfully lazy and couldn't care less about anything but their paycheck. Why are they so lazy? They're unionized, and the store is required to keep them employed unless they want to go through the intolerable process involved in negotiating with the union over letting one of them go. Now I have nothing at all against organized labor; I think the concept is completely on the right track and useful. However, when you have a really big union and a group of the employees decide to use it as an excuse not to work and the others don't say "hey, you're making us look bad," then organized labor may appear to both the employers and the customers to be a negative thing. In my case, everyone in that store decided to be lazy and none of the other union members seem to be telling them to shape up or ship out.
I absolutely hate this idiotic mentality retail employees have as if they are some sort of authority figure over you the customer. You can't blame them since the retailers all are starting to think this way now and encouraging it as part of the corporate culture, but that's okay. You can still fight back, you can still stick it to them, and you can still prove to them that no matter what they seem to think, they are a small piece of the overall retail puzzle, and that you have recourse—lots of it. You have more recourse than they have sense.
Now go to the register, pay for this book, use one of those frequent shopper coupons they email out every week (if you forgot it, that's okay, buy it anyway, because by the time you're done reading you will never forget one again), and bring it home so we can sit down and get to the "soup at hand."
"WHAT ARE WORDS WORTH?"
GEORGE CLINTON WAS A HAIRDRESSER
True story. The man who began the most important American musical genre of the twentieth century was not a musician, but a hairdresser. Men hanging out at his barber shop in New Jersey wanted to form a Doo-Wop group known as The Parliaments and so off they went to change the world.
Before I tell you about funk music, I have to tell you about marketing. George Clinton may have been pumped full of drugs, but the man understood marketing better than the CEOs of many of today's Fortune 500 companies.
Initially, The Parliaments were signed to one record label, Revilot Records. After struggling for a few years with little success, Mr. Clinton discovered that the band could sign with another record label at the same time if they simply wrote and performed music under a different name. In 1968, Funkadelic, a band with the exact same members as The Parliaments, signed with Westbound Records. Having achieved some minor success by 1974, The Parliaments were no longer under contract to Revilot and went on to sign with Casablanca Records. This marketing method proved so successful that by the mid '80s the core members of what would be commonly referred to as "Parliament Funkadelic" would end up being the working members of over a dozen different band names spread out over a dozen or more record labels.
In 1979, Mr. Clinton even marketed this fact on the album cover for "Uncle Jam Wants You" (Funkadelic on Warner Brothers Records) featuring three props from his stage shows which were related to the titles of his hit songs. Imitating a famous pose from one of the Black Panthers, he is surrounded by the "Bop Gun" (Parliament on Casablanca Records), "Flashlight" (Parliament on Casablanca Records), and a flag from "One Nation Under A Groove" (Funkadelic on Warner Brothers Records).
Thus, he is symbolically expressing to the customer that no matter what the band name or record label, all of the music contained within is being written and performed by the same group of musicians. Never before and never since has anyone in the music industry so shrewdly pitted all of the record labels against each other in their never ending quest to sign the next big thing.
In creating a mythology, Clinton shrewdly realized that while the performers by name may begin to leave the group, if he created a stable of fictional characters which could be played by any musician that replaced them, he therefore could ensure the continuity of the work. By doing this he got so creative as to pit his own characters against each other. So the album "Uncle Jam Wants You" features notes on the cover art which outright insult the work of Parliament, as if to appear that the two groups were engaged in a feud when in fact, as I have stated, they were all comprised of the exact same people.
Ten years later, Prince would copy this routine (and in fact a good portion of the film Purple Rain is a takeoff on this idea) by creating faux groups such as The Time, Vanity 6, and The Family, all of which released albums composed and recorded almost entirely by Prince with only the lead vocal replaced and a different person or persons on the cover. Thus, in the film Purple Rain, a mythology was created when groups named "The Revolution" and "The Time" were fiercely competitive when in fact Prince was essentially a singer-songwriter using these groups as characters as a means of presenting his work.
What does any of this have to do with shopping or marketing?
Funk music operates on a simple premise. By emphasizing the first beat of every measure of the music as opposed to the second and fourth beats that soul music traditionally emphasizes, it allows the musicians to work as a group while individually expressing themselves; each could be playing an entirely different song simultaneously, but as long as the first beat of each measure they were playing was in time it would all sound perfect. It is generally regarded that James Brown invented this style of music, but as with anything in the history of music twenty people will claim to have done it first and none can ever supply proof.
All forms of dance music operate on the same principle that once you begin dancing your circulation will improve, providing a feeling of euphoria as dopamine is released into your system, and increased brain function as an additional result of your physical exercise. Set to music, it is practically like doing drugs (or Hostess Cupcakes).
Marketing operates on a simple premise as well—get the customer excited about the product or service by any means necessary, and once you have them on a roll, sell them the item while they are so happy they don't care what they are buying or how much they are spending.
Just look at the mythology and characters, with the soap-operaesque plotlines and drama that are now being used to sell everything from things like insurance (Geico Caveman) to shipping services (Dale Jarrett for UPS) to sandwiches (Jared for Subway) to computers (Dude You Got a Dell character). There are television commercials with sequels and, even worse, some brands actually have licensed merchandise like t-shirts and hats featuring the characters created solely for these television commercials.
As it turns out, a great many marketing gimmicks created by George Clinton in an attempt to screw the system have now been adopted by marketers in order to screw the customers. As customers, it is time to come up with some gimmicks of our own. Bop Guns, Flashlights, and "One Nation" flags flying high.
Thirty years later I would find myself in a Wal-Mart, bored, restless, hungry, tired, and cold. Recently out of the hospital, I was having trouble walking and somehow had decided that walking around the main perimeter of this store was a good form of exercise. I needed to put some music on my iPod that would get me moving; you know how everyone wants to listen to music with a good beat when they exercise. While I am not entirely sure why I decided to play "One Nation Under a Groove" on that day, it is clear to me now. Sometimes the most innocent and meaningless decisions can have the biggest impact on your life.
In this case, I found myself dancing alone in the aisles of a Wal-Mart, and suddenly it no longer looked like a Wal-Mart, it looked like a nightclub and I felt good. When I looked around at how miserable everyone was, filling shopping carts with things to make themselves happy, it occurred to me that it was a great waste of money. For it cost me nothing at all to have the time of my life just inches away from people who were spending hundreds of dollars and looked like they had just come from a funeral.
It further occurred to me that I was having more fun for free at a Wal-Mart than I had had at concerts where I had paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket and gone home completely disappointed. I swore to myself I was never going to pay that much money for a concert ticket again, and as I looked around at the cost of the things in the store I wondered what else I was never going to pay so much money for again.
Somewhere around the magazine rack I noticed the police coming into the store to confront someone at a checkout register. I turned down the music slowly, took out my headphones and was presented with my first dilemma.
WHY DO TERRORISTS SHOP AT WAL-MART?
Every once in a while, a story will pop up on the news about terrorist cells buying up lots of prepaid cellphones at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. The stories are always the same: a van was pulled over, piled high with cellphones separated into bins of the phones, the batteries, and the packaging. Three or four men of "Middle Eastern descent" were in the vehicle and it had been driving from store to store clearing out all of the shelves, all of this paid for in cash. The articles or stories will always mention how a nuclear weapon could be detonated using a cellphone as a trigger.
When the shelves are restocked at those local stores, signs are put up noting that there is now a limit on the purchase of prepaid cellphones, and perhaps that you might have to show ID if you wish to purchase one.
Doesn't it seem kind of silly to you that terrorists would need that many cellphones to set off one bomb? Maybe there is more to the story? And why would the stores put up signs with limits if the terrorists had already been caught? How many terrorist cells are planning to blow up Manhattan with cellphones and nuclear weapons exactly? And if you were planning to do so, why go all the way to Wal-Mart to get the phones? Wouldn't it be easier to buy them in bulk on eBay or something?
Prepaid cellphones are a classic promotion gone wrong. The wholesale on these phones is usually in the range of $100. A cellphone service provider will buy them in bulk, program them to work on their network, and then package them up with their logo and information, only to sell them at places like Wal-Mart for a mere thirty dollars. So why take a loss? Because they are hoping to hook the customer into spending thousands of dollars in service over the lifetime of the phone. By attracting people with bad credit who couldn't be approved for contract service, they are able to sell each minute at a premium price, for a thousand minutes may cost $75 to a customer on a contract, but on a prepaid basis, those same thousand minutes can be resold for $250 to a customer with bad credit, desperate for the use of a cellphone.
This leads us to the "terrorists," independent cellphone resellers who realize they can pay $30 cash for a phone that is worth $100, and resell it on eBay for $50. I ask you, what could possibly be more American than that?
Because they are independent and do not have the resources of either the cellphone service providers or the big box retailers they are taking advantage of and competing against, instead of being portrayed as inventive and aggressive entrepreneurs, they are portrayed as "terrorists."
As of this writing, police still have no leads on countless violent crimes, but they do have the time and resources to harass entrepreneurs who are attempting to make a buck in a legal and ethical way (and at the expense of companies who are trying to exploit the impoverished, no less). Why? Because someone at the cellphone service provider said it was clearly a crime to take advantage of their bad promotion and the retailer (in the interest of continuing to do business as usual) as an accomplice concurred with the claim.
On many occasions, I have had the opportunity to purchase large numbers of cellphones at a substantial discount using all sorts of rebates and coupons and on occasion I have had a store manager refuse to sell them to me in any quantity. When I contact the corporate headquarters of these chain stores and ask them what the problem is, they instruct the store manager to sell me the phones, after which he usually claims that the police had asked him not to because "drug dealers use them."
No matter who you are or where you shop, there is always some fabricated reason why the store does not want you to buy prepaid cellphones in bulk, but the real reason is always the same: because they are a loss leader item that is constantly sold far below their fair market value. If the stores sell too many phones to one person in a reasonably short amount of time, they are often harassed by the cellphone providers who as a "courtesy" inform the police that "drug dealers" or "terrorists" may be trying to buy up all of the phones Since the people with the financial risk in these sales cannot control the secondary market, they attempt to control the primary market.
You will never hear that on the news; you will only hear about how terrorists cannot get their hands on every cellphone in sight quickly enough.
Publishers Weekly.com, June 22, 2009
"…Pocker's canny insight will resonate with any American shopper."
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2009
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press