August 28, 2010
It's Not Just about Getting SomethingBy Elihu Perkins
For a while some years ago, I knew a woman brought up in a certain way. "Well-heeled" has always been one way to describe it. "Silk stocking" is another.
This always set her apart among ordinary people. While every woman has her own set of dos and don'ts, this girl's book of rules was a real doozy. It was more like her own private 21‑volume encyclopedia.
Here's an example. It was summer, and she wanted a particular brand and style of tennis shoe. Money was tight for her right then, and she hadn't been able to find a pair for the price she wanted to pay.
One day, I needed a case of Quaker State, and so I dragged her into a big box retailer. It was a Target, I recall. On the way out, I happened to notice a large display. The very shoes that she wanted, in the style and color she wanted, and for the exact price she wanted to pay, were right there. All she had to do was walk over and find her size.
I thought it was a done deal. Hey, isn't this lucky? I said, shifting the box of motor oil on my shoulder. You want to pick up a pair while you're here?
To my surprise, she blanched. Her face took on a muted look of horror. Her head shook with tiny little shakes. It was like she was shivering from the neck up.
I'll never forget what she fiercely whispered at that moment. "No," she said with an ugly finality. "I don't want to get them here."
I was thunderstruck. She had been talking about these shoes for days, maybe weeks. Now she rejects them, solely because of where she found them?
That incident came back to me today after I saw a story in the San Antonio (Texas) News-Express. It introduces us to a new point-of-purchase device. The News-Express's headline called them "vending machines with style."
These so-called "snazzy" contraptions "with the swipe of a credit card, dispense designer purses, clothing, iPods, digital cameras and beauty products." Their target locations are "grocery stores, malls, airports and even department stores."
One version of these sales droids has the name of Chirp. It parent company also owns the Redbox video vending machines. Chirp offers its customers designer fashion brands at discounts of 30-75 percent.
The company is presently field-testing units in five San Antonio supermarkets. One of them "recently sported a high-definition display featuring scenes from the new Julia Roberts movie 'Eat, Pray, Love.' Below that was a glass-fronted 'shop' displaying items designed to tempt the movie's fans: silver jewelry, a tote bag and Prada perfume."
Chirp rotates its merchandise regularly. (Good idea, since Eat, Pray, Love turned out to be a bomb.) Still, the goods it offers aren't cheap. One Dooney & Burke handbag a San Antonio Chirp offered had a price tag of "about $160."
San Francisco-based ZoomSystems is Chirp's rival in this field. Its one thousand kiosks carry merchandise from Apple, Inc., Best Buy, The Body Shop, and ProActiv skin care.
Company CEO Gower Smith is proud that his ZoomShops provide his customers with "immediate gratification." This echoed the view of Los Angeles research analyst Toon van Beeck, who told the News-Express that innovations such as Chirp and ZoomShops are "all about convenience."
It's hard to argue with that. Yet when I think of my now-missing friend, I believe that she would not ever use this sort of device. For her, I think the Chirp and the ZoomShop would strike her as vulgar, even dehumanizing, creations. They would insult her. For her, getting something from one of these boxes might seem like a lab rat pushing a bar in its cage for a food pellet.
For you see, I think I understand finally what she meant that day when she said she did not want to buy the sneakers in a discount store. For her, shopping was not just about getting an item of merchandise.
No, I believe she demanded more. For her, shopping meant spending two things. One of them she could replenish, and the other she could not. That second one was her time. When she shopped, she also spent her precious time, and she wanted something in return for that. She wanted a story she could tell. She wanted a charm to wear.
In short, she wanted a memory to take away. She wanted to recollect how many pairs she may have tried on before finding the right one. She wanted to savor who was with her and what they talked about in the store. She wanted to recall their back-and-forth about the pros and cons of the purchase.
She wanted a little bit of life in exchange for a little bit of life.
I think this came from her upbringing. It was an ingrained discipline. This was about living life in a certain way. It was about conducting life by certain standards.
Maybe what illuminated this for me was something that happened years later. I bought an iPod through Apple's website. The big draw for that was getting free factory engraving. You type in a phrase at the website, and hocus-pocus, a laser somewhere in China burns it onto the unit that's coming your way.
But I got something more, too. By ordering it that way, I also received a pleasant surprise. At the end of the transaction, Apple gave me a shipping number. With it, I could log onto the Internet and watch my purchase's progress as it came to me from across the world.
It went from the factory in China, jumped the Pacific to Alaska, then to the lower 48, all the way to my house. Yes, I watched it come toward me, little by little, over days. It was exciting. By the time the nice man in the brown uniform handed it to me at my front door a week later, the little thing was already mine. It was something I cared about, a lot.
Now, I could have gone on any afternoon to any big box retailer in my town and had a scowling, pierced, blue-haired malcontent in a polyester vest grudgingly open a locked display case for me. I could have taken my new toy right then and gone home with it.
But it wouldn't have been the same. I don't think that my iPod would have ended up as special to me as it has.
Somehow, I think it would have been even less special if I had gotten it by swiping a credit card and having it drop into my hands as if it were one of those little prizes you used to get from a gumball machine.
And I think my long-lost friend would agree.
No, it's not just about getting something.