In Search Of

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I pick up the New York Times early one morning, and see an eight-page ad announcing some grand opening (really extension) of a store, in fact, J&R, a place I’ve talked about for CD-Rs.

Hmmm, quite a few specials here, limited to the first ___ customers. Hmmm, here’s the router Odd One had used and liked a while back, for a lot less than Odd One paid. Couple other bargains, here, too.

Hmmm, I will get cable modem pretty soon now, won’t I? Would be nice to easily hook up a broadband connection to the test rigs so I don’t have to connect and disconnect and go grab files from other hard drives, wouldn’t it? Might make a good story describing how hardcore New Yorkers can be in search of some bargains, wouldn’t it?

Uhhh, Ed, how would you know how hardcore some people are unless you’re there to see them?

I got on the subway.

Calm Before The Storm

The store is located in lower Manhattan, within serious stumbling distance of City Hall and not too far from Wall St. In this neck of the woods, what’s noticeable is not tall buildings, but short ones. Besides City Hall, probably the building that stuck out most was a century-plus old church, complete with graveyard.

There’s a few like that (most notably Trinity Church further south) surrounded by skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. The reason why they’re there is that the churches were founded back when New York was a teeny tiny town huddled at the very bottom of Manhattan, and never sold the property (indeed, they continue to own a good chunk of downtown Manhattan property).

Right now, though, I’m happy so long as the inhabitants of that graveyard aren’t getting up and getting on line ahead of me. Now that would be a sale!

I look at the usual entrances, and don’t see anybody. Have I underestimated my city’s tenacity? Then I remember the new extension is just around the corner. I turn the corner, and, yep, there’s a line.

Not a long line, but then again, this was two hours before the store opened. Just for the record, I was number 11. So maybe I’m not [H]ard, but I’m hard enough.

And who were the people harder than me? For the most part, they were old!

Not old as in emergency medical service trucks on stand-by, but not the teens and teens plus I had expected. I guess Saturday night was more important than hardware.

Not for one fifteen-year old, though. He had his priorities straight. He dragged his mom down to the store without informing her of trifles like the store’s opening time and joined the line right behind me. He wanted a refurbished OK 22″ Diamondtron monitor. I saw the price: $200. I didn’t blame him. For a few moments, I wanted one, too, but reason, as in “YOU GOT THREE LIKE THAT, ED,” intervened. For a little bit, I felt like you must feel when I tell you not to buy yet.

He was trying to get Mom to buy a router, too. I don’t think he succeeded, because he wasn’t explaining why he needed one too well. I wish I had had a copy of Odd One’s piece for tips on Why You Need A Router.

The hardest-core guy, though, was someone who came about a half-hour after me. He had a good excuse for being so late, he flew down from Toronto. I think the reason why he came down was that they were selling an Apple iBook with the right fruit color. Didn’t make much sense to me, but he kept saying things like “They have a BLUEBERRY.”

People like that must have either never got or always got their choice of M&Ms when they were kids. Gee, with a little time and care and spray paint, I’d make one any color he’d want. 🙂

The line grew slowly until about 9:10, when the pace picked up, about an additional person per minute.

I had come along with my copy of the New York Times, to be used as reading material, a marking spot, and, if necessary, a budgeoning weapon. Since I didn’t need to continually remind myself why I standing in line for hours, so I put the store ad section down with the paper. This became a very popular item to borrow. I considered charging by the minute.

I got into a conversation with a friendly, courteous gentleman (of course, he wasn’t a native New Yorker; he was from Kentucky) when I noticed my ad section had been missing in action for quite a while. I wanted that club in my hands before going into combat.

I tracked down the miscreant, and asked for my paper back. Well, there is asking and there is asking. Tone is everything. You can say, “Is that my ad section you borrowed? Can I have it back?” and make it sound like, “Are you ready to die for it?” I’m afraid I sounded like that.

I got it back, quickly. If I had been a little more forceful, might have gotten his wallet, too. 🙂

By 10:00, there were about 100 people on line. As the store prepared to open a half-hour later, I’d say the number had about doubled, and now extended most of the way down the block.

The Storm

A bit past 10:30; the store opened. I found the section, and two clerks. One was filling orders; the other was filled with terror. He saw people coming, and had the glaze of a deer before headlights.

He yelled to a supervisor for help, not noticing the help within three feet of him. Then again, his first customer was me, which could distract anybody.

Besides the router, I had also decided to pick up a couple NIC cards. Three items in total. OK, three items with three instant rebates, one mail-in rebate, and two gift card rebates.

Numeracy and panic do not play well together. Adding literacy to the requirements doesn’t help one bit, either.

It took a while for him to first realize I wanted three items, then which three items I wanted. After this unpromising beginning, the math of the matter was a crushing blow.

He simply could not answer questions I raised while he marked down the transaction, questions like “Why are you putting down the price before instant rebate?” “Why aren’t you noting the gift cards on the receipts?” and “Why aren’t you handing me the equipment like the other person?”

There was extraordinary skepticism that a $50 item might be sold with $25 off AND a $25 gift card, no matter how clearly it was stated as such in the ad.

I ended up essentially working the transaction through with the fellow’s supervisor, and found out that, yes, I had to pay sales tax on the amounts of instant rebates, and no, the sales people took care of gift cards, and yes, you had to pick up the merchandise after paying for it.

I realized unpleasantly that I was in a true Moscow on the Hudson, a store with Soviet-style distribution a few short blocks from Wall St., the center of American capitialism.

I had many times read the horrors of the three-phase, “Choose the items, then pay for it, then get it” in an environment of too many people chasing too few goods. Now I was going to see it.

So like Pharoah, I hardened my heart, and went on.

I got to the sales counter, and immediately pressed my bid for the gift cards. As expected, the cashier refused because it wasn’t marked on the receipt. This got an immediate, sharp, loud, “NO, look at your ad!” It was simply too much for the cashier, who immediately called for a manager, and would not even look at her own store’s ad.

Let me quote straight from the ad, “we’ll give you a $25 instant rebate, PLUS (their emphasis) A $25 or $50 Gift Card FREE. Limit 2 Instant Rebates Per Item Per Customer” The ad then showed the item I was buying, minus $25 rebate, plus a $25 Gift Card. I was buying two items, so I expected two rebates and two $25 Gift Cards. This is not rocket science.

Except here. The first level manager kept trying to deny I should get a Gift Card at all, and two were out of the question. It took somewhere between five-ten minutes and second level managerial involvement to conclude this lesson of “Introduction to Reading” and for me to get somebody to note down that I was entitled to $50 worth of gift cards.

The cashier asked if I wanted one $50 card or two $25s, with a look of “please don’t say two.”

Deep, very deep, down inside, I am a kind man, so I didn’t.

Next was pickup. Now I could see why you’d want to have pickup in a corner of the front of the store for some of the items on sale, like those 22″ monitors.

However, large numbers of items were relegated to pickup, which meant large numbers of people were waiting around for packages. All around the pickup area, in the front of the pickup area, by the sides, up a nearby flight of steps. This is just fifteen-twenty minutes after the store opened.

Looked like the Merchandising Mickey Mouse Club had gathered around the clubhouse.

The pickup area was a small area with some sort of trap door through which the goods emerged. As they came through, someone announced who it was for. Not too loudly, either. I can’t say I blame the announcer for that, he was going to be doing that all day, but it did cause people to crowd as close to him as possible just to hear him.

This made it difficult for people who had heard their name come forward to pick up their merchandise, then get back out alive again.

The grand challenge, though, came to those who were picking up 22″ monitors. What they had to do was use their monitors like the Hand of God, in this case pushing aside the Red Sea of people surrounding them.

While those responsible for distributing were doing pretty well given the difficult circumstances, I noticed ominously that the cashiers were adding people faster than pickup was getting rid of.

In about fifteen minutes, my name was called, and it was my turn to part the human ocean. Since I couldn’t bowl people over with my item, I tried bowling them over with a little humor.

“One less body,” I uttered, and someone said something like, “and three more added.” We laughed.

When I finally got out of the store, I must have looked a bit dazed from the travails, because a few people standing outside laughed a bit. I said, “This is like warfare,” which got a bigger laugh.

The Aftermath

I read later on elsewhere that the most desirable items lasted for just minutes after the store opened; getting there fashionably late meant getting fashionably nothing.

What did I get for my troubles?

I got an SMC Barricade 7004BR router for what will be a net $62, for one.

I also got two 3com NICs for the equivalent of $4 each (and there will be a likely story about getting these to work in Windows 2000 without 3com support shortly).

Plus, I got this story.

Maybe I can get yours. Bravado aside, I know that’s not a world-class case of shopping firefight. Do you have one? Email me with your tale if you do.

Email Ed



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