Friday, December 18, 2009

Bad Idea #1: Venturing out to do errands at rush hour in December

I started the holiday season with the best of intentions where local commerce is concerned. When Amy Suardi wrote here on her Frugal Mama blog about the beauty of Internet shopping, I was quick to jump in here with a word of defense for the “Buy Local” message so popular in the suburbs around my home. I even wrote an article (to be published this coming Sunday in the Boston Globe) about three new independent businesses that are flourishing in the town next to ours.

But a seemingly simple excursion yesterday afternoon effectively quashed any commitment I might have still felt this season in brick-and-mortar shopping. It was the Murphy’s Law of shopping trips. Not that everything that could go wrong did – there were no car accidents, mechanical failures, natural disasters, incidents of crime or personal injury – but at each of the three stops I needed to make, systemic failures befell me. At least that’s how it felt to me.

I knew I wasn’t picking the best time of day to leave – 4:00 PM – but I wanted to wait until my husband Rick was home from work so that the kids could stay home. I told them I’d be back at 5:30 and would get dinner started then. My destination was only fifteen minutes away; it seemed like a reasonable timeframe.

My first stop was CVS, where I needed to pick up a prescription for Rick which he had submitted on line for auto-fill. I had also told him I’d pick up a $10 iTunes gift card for the gift swap at his office party to be held today. After I stood in line at the pharmacy counter for 15 minutes, the pharmacist didn’t have his prescription, and the store didn’t have an iTunes card in a smaller increment than $15. Arguing about a prescription refill with the pharmacy staff is futile, I’ve learned – they do what they can, and when a prescription isn’t filled the error is always either with the doctor or the patient – so I called Rick and told him to call the pharmacy himself to try to work it out and I’d stop by again on my way home, since I had to continue down the road to Staples to get our holiday poem photocopied. Staples has gift cards too; I figured I could look for the iTunes card there.

At the self-service Staples copy center, the two black-and-white copiers were in use, one by a woman about my age with three children running around pestering her – she appeared to be photocopying an entire supply catalog – and the other by an irritable teenager who kept rebuffing his father’s attempts to help him put together a project. For that line, 20 minutes. When I finally had use of a copier, I made one practice copy which came out on three-hole punch paper. I reset the tray and tried another practice copy, only to discover that the machine was printing a gray horizontal line across the center of each page. I tried again, then told the counter clerk, who called a technician over, who kindly refunded me the 24 cents for the three bad copies I’d made and started fixing the machine while I moved on to the second copier. After making my one hundred copies, I asked the counter clerk if she would run them through the tri-folder. “Of course!” she said cheerfully, which I found very pleasant. But she neglected to tell me that she didn’t know how to operate the tri-folder. She called over the same technician who had just finished fixing the toner problem on the copier. He didn’t know how to use the tri-folder either (which makes you wonder who does), but together they figured it out. After 20 more minutes.

My copying and folding done, I stopped at the gift card rack, but at Staples the smallest iTunes increment was $25. I thought about it. I had to return to CVS anyway; I could pick up the $15 one, but Rick is new at this workplace and I worried that bringing a $15 gift card to a gift swap for which the invitation specified a $10 maximum might reflect poorly on him. I decided to swing by Dunkin Donuts, right across the street, and buy a gift card from them instead, knowing they could give me exactly the increment I wanted. I pulled up to the drive-through and asked for a $10 gift card. “Absolutely!” the voice on the intercom said cheerfully, which I again found pleasant and encouraging. I pulled up to the window and handed the cashier my $10. “And here’s your five-dollar card,” he said. “I wanted ten dollars,” I said. He looked concerned. “Wait, I’ll give you another five-dollar one.” So: two $5 cards instead of one $10 card. Not ideal, for the new guy at the company gift swap, but not awful.

On to CVS, where I pulled up to the prescription drive-through. Five minutes later I was heading home. I arrived at 6:30, an hour later than I’d planned, washed my hands and threw together dinner: shredded cooked chicken mixed with peas, carrots and leftover gravy, then tucked into slabs of premade pie crust for chicken turnovers. We ate by 7.

It was a big hassle, but as I kept reminding myself, nothing bad happened. No car accidents, no injuries, no crime. No loss of wallet or credit cards.

But still. “I’m not leaving the house again until January,” I announced to Rick as we sat down to dinner. “And if there’s a Starbucks card in the office gift swap, please make sure you get it and please give it to me.”

I’m all for local commerce and supporting brick-and-mortar businesses, but I’m spending the rest of my holiday budget on line, from the comfort of my home office.


  1. Sounds like an unpleasant, harrowing shopping experience. But here in Miami Beach, there's hardly a sign of holiday rush or excitement and I miss it. We haven't seen a single Santa ringing a bell next to a Salvation Army kettle. Did spot one young thing in a red mini-skirt and Santa hat giving out coupons outside the restaurant where she must work. There must be a happy medium.

  2. Hey Nancy,

    This does sound like a frustrating shopping trip. I get the social and sensory aspect of shopping in person, but there is something so mathematical and predictable about online shopping that is attractive too.

    I'm glad you at least got home safe and sound.