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.