I’m pretty frugal and don’t get my entertainment from hanging out in stores. Actually, I generally hate shopping except on the rare occasions when there is something I really want that I’m excited about. I can shop online for most stuff and save myself a lot of headache and time. Because I don’t like shopping, I can go quite a while between visits to a store other than a grocery store. When I do go to a store, particularly a big box store, it’s usually a bit of a shock but I quickly adjust to the bright lights, big spaces, and loads of products and I quickly get what I need and get out. I’m not phobic about shopping; I just find the whole experience unappealing.
Recently I went even longer between shopping trips. We were out of town for about three weeks, traveling around four states. We were in mostly rural areas all that time, away from the strip malls, fast food outlets, and big box stores. Other than stopping at the odd grocery store to restock the motor home, we didn’t set foot in a store in all that time (other than some small boutiques to check out local crafts and wares). When we got home, my husband had to go to WalMart to get some glue to fix something that had broken on the motor home while we were traveling. He needed a special glue that he has only ever found at WalMart, so he asked if I wanted to go along. I needed to stop by the library which was on the way to Wally World, so I said sure.
All that time on the road and away from the stores had completely desensitized me to them. It was probably a mistake to mark my reentry into civilization with a trip to WalMart, which is the pinnacle of consumer overload. I should have started with something a little tamer, like a Michaels or Staples.
When we walked into the store, my first thought was, literally, “Holy Crap,” with an emphasis on the crap. I’ve been to WalMart many times in my life and, before I became more frugal and environmentally conscious, was a regular shopper there. But over the years I’ve gotten to where I go there maybe four times per year. The place shouldn’t have surprised me the way it did, but after having been away from civilization for so long, I saw it with fresh eyes.
“Please, let’s not stay in here too long,” I told my husband.
“You got that right,” he said, obviously feeling as overwhelmed as I was.
To get to the glue section we had to pass through housewares. I saw disposable plastic bowls for chips (it was football bowl week, so I guess they were out for bowl parties). Not one kind/design, but at least five. And they were stacked fifteen high in four rows. Six kinds of can openers and every other kind of appliance you could imagine, some for functions I can’t ever see needing. Plastic plates and serving dishes, designed to be used more than once but so cheap they’d likely be disposed of after one party. There were too many kinds of sheets, towels and bath accessories for me to get my head around. Rugs, bakeware, and even shower curtains were stacked high and deep and came in more varieties than I could ever use. It was the same on every aisle. It was just one pile of excess after another, most of it so cheaply made it will not last more than a few uses. Not just one or two choices of things, but five or ten of everything. Who uses all of this stuff, I wondered.
Then we passed through toys. Again, just piles and piles of stuff, some of which looked so cheap and breakable that I wondered who would even buy it. And very little of it looked like it would be fun to play with more than once. Then we went through paper goods where about fifty brands/types of paper, plastic, and styrofoam plates and cups were jammed on a whole aisle. All of that stuff, just sitting there waiting to be used once and disposed of. I almost wanted to cry.
I know full well that WalMart wouldn’t stock all this stuff if they didn’t expect that every bit of it will sell. And we wonder why our landfills are full and our houses are so jammed with crap they’re about to explode. There is so much stuff out there, it’s ridiculous. Most of it is stuff that no one really needs to live a full and satisfying life. Some choice in products is okay and even useful, but when manufacturers are manufacturing “needs” (in order to get you to buy more stuff) rather than useful products, it becomes a problem. Do you really “need” a specialized laundry detergent or do you buy it because a manufacturer told you to? Do you “need” disposable containers or do you buy them because someone manufactured the “convenience angle?” Do you “need” underwear with Microban, or do you buy it because the manufacturer told you it was so much better than regular underwear? It’s a system designed to gratify our urges to buy, consume, upgrade, and dispose. To have the newest and shiniest of everything. And we follow along with the plan all too willingly.
If you see this sort of excess every day (and most Americans do), it’s easy to become desensitized to it (which is exactly what the retailers and manufacturers are hoping for). It’s no wonder that people from foreign countries come here and, when they first enter a WalMart, you can almost see their heads explode. Most don’t like it at first; it’s all too much. But if they stay here long enough, they get used to it and even get excited about it. You get used to the excess, to the fact that we live in a cheap, disposable culture. It sucks you in. It’s almost possible to convince yourself that this much choice of crap is a good thing; free market and all that. Once upon a time, I was that way. When I shopped more than I do now I never noticed how overwhelming and unnecessary most of this stuff really is. I never noticed that I was being actively sold to and manipulated every time I turned a corner in a store. I turned a blind eye to the cheap goods and the impact this marketplace is having on our planet.
(Incidentally, if you want an amusing look at what I’m talking about, rent the movie Wall-E. The consumer wasteland that Wall-E is trying to clean up will make you laugh, nod your head in recognition, and then cry at the truth you see on that screen.)
But I got over it. Now I see stores and, by extension, product manufacturers, for what they are: Machines designed to separate me from my money in whatever ways they can. To some degree they are also out to separate me from my sanity, as well, because that’s the only way I can become irrational enough to participate in this warped system. Do I have to buy things? Yes, of course. I can’t grow or make everything I need so there are reasons I have to go to the store. But I don’t have to like it. I can choose to do things a bit differently.
I can choose to come to my senses and shop more sensibly and sustainably. I can opt to buy only those products that I really need and I can opt for the most environmentally/socially responsible choices I can find. I can choose to support smaller, local stores that stock far less garbage than the big boxes. I can choose to buy less of everything, period. I may have to participate in the system to a degree, but I can try to control how I participate.
If you’re drawing a blank on what I’m talking about and think I’m crazy, try this: Don’t go into a big box store for two weeks. Just two weeks. Do your grocery shopping at a smaller store and try to buy anything else you need either online or from a small retailer. Then walk into a WalMart or a Target and see if you don’t see it with different eyes. Time away from the mass consumerism might make you feel differently about things. It might make you see just how much waste we create. It might make you see how much you are marketed to every time you step in a store. It might make you realize that the goal is not to give you an experience, but to separate you from your money. It might make you realize that there is so much that you just don’t need. As a result you might, like me, opt out of the system and save some money and resources. Try it and let me know how it works.