There is a constant tactical debate amongst thrift store shoppers. To make lists or not, that is the question. I am list-less in thrift. I regularly and list-lessly shop at thrift stores in 10-minute recon strikes in conjunction with running the routine errands of my life and it rewards my pocketbook and my family. I learned to have an omniscient understanding of my family’s needs. Call it intuition. Call it psychic power. Call it Snake Eyes. But, find it and don’t leave home without it.
Though list-less, I am strategic. My overarching goal is to avoid the retail pinch. I think ahead about changing seasons, upcoming events and growing children while I peruse the shelves and racks in thrift. I imagine this is how pioneers shopped, in advance and within budget. I might shop six months out. Why do some people consider it gauche to buy a winter coat in April, especially when that coat is in quality condition, costs $8.99 and will be needed for a six-year-old who has outgrown his or her current coat? What many don't know is that Americans are so wasteful that we toss brand new merchandise over to thrift stores where the shopper actually cay pay less than 10% of the retail cost for a new item. The coat in the adjacent photo is a fine example. Is it so smart to wait until October/November when coats are in department stores costing well above $80 and your child has already suffered through a few cold days?
What’s a retail pinch? That’s when the market has you by the you-knows, and you’re desperate. You think you are in immediate need of something. Retail pinches can be brutal. One chilling example happened last year when holiday shoppers (shivering en masse outside a Wal Mart waiting in the dark and cold at 5AM for bargains) were so harried to get inside they trampled a store employee to death. Another example from last year happened when two men were shot dead in a Toys "R" Us after an argument. Could we really feel that frantic about shopping to play out events that would end in manslaughter and possible second degree murder? I don’t think our nation was allowed to completely process those horrific events or do any national self-reflection on how insane holiday shopping has become. That’d have been a great story for investigative journalism, but no one picked it up because they were too busy reporting daily holiday sales figures, contrasting them to last year's and the projected figures for Wall Street. I used to run with that harried crowd and have near PTSD from the experience.
We’ve been trained to think daily. Granted, there are some days that are so rough and crowded, we can only think hourly. Daily tasks lead to daily lists. Ever draw little boxes next to the tasks to so you can check it once done? Ever made a checked box for something already done just to have an immediate sense of accomplishment?
Becoming parent taught me to place the stake out far beyond daily tasks. Parents need to think in terms of months, years and decades to keep up with the growth of a child. Time is not going to stop and wait for us to catch up – that becomes most clear with the onset of parenthood when you watch a newborn zoom through countless developmental stages in a mere year. Best to think ahead. When baby is born the crib, diaper changing station, clothes and car seat are all ready. Put up the safety gates before the baby tumbles down the stairs. Put safety latches on cabinet doors and drawers before baby can open them and pull out a knife. Have a new winter jacket before it gets cold and baby doesn’t have a jacket. Start saving for college at birth. How I wish I had learned this lesson of projecting long term retail needs long before becoming a parent. Alas, it's tough to live with the regret that accompanies hindsight. You don’t need to become a parent to shop smart and have vision.
Shopping in thrift stores gave me a new awareness of want, need and planning ahead. It is a place untouched by spending researchers and strategists. The thrift store is free from specialized marketing tactics devised to jack up the number of items purchased via impulse, along with a sales staff on commission. Thrift stores do not have strategists laying out the merchandise in the store so that a shopper must walk by X, Y, and Z to get to A. There’s no study on what music to play or specialized fixtures. The retail market plays a little dirty but because it's a part of the free market, no one really calls it dirty. Never mind that retailers (along with credit lenders) have preyed upon the consumer to the point where we are sitting on piles of retail waste - and are over our heads in debt. Never mind that US shoppers mostly buy products made abroad because companies bow to Wall Street rather than to balance out a sustainable economic system with manufacturing operations providing jobs to the folks that actually buy their products. It's The American Way, shoot yourself in the foot and act like it doesn't hurt like hell because you meant to do it. Okay, that's a bold statement. Truly harsh. But as we reexamine our banking system, housing markets, automotive industry, and the granddaddy of them all - health care - would it be so wrong to toss retail into the mix?
The thrift market leads seasoned consumers into a different form of shopping behavior that tends to benefit the consumer. As I have noted countless times, shop thrift stores for about three months and you’ll find that you develop a Flinch Point, a dollar amount that you must ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” My Flinch Point is $5. That’s right - $5. If an item is over $5 I really think about it. But, I really don’t have a Flinch Point if I go to the mall. I have it on high suspicion the retail market works hard to eliminate the possibility of a consumer Flinch Point because it is not in their best interest. Another behavior that accompanies the thrift shopper is that they tend to check their carts before checking out. They review their selections, and often put things back. The focus is on need and, often times, budget. Rarely does it seem mall shoppers perform a final overview of their purchase. Ever been asked, “Would you like me to put those items up at the register so you don’t have to carry them around?” Once it’s at the register, odds are that sale is now closed. Plus when standing in long register lines during the holiday season, one can almost feel the hot breath of consumer rage breathing down your neck. Best to not review your purchase there or the annoyed crowd behind you might react.
I’ve had a lot of people try to apply conspicuous consumption to thrift shoppers. Sure there may be some cases, but they are rare. Most thrift shoppers shop out of need instead of want. Thrift stores are not in the business of casting want or impulse. You see people rummaging through their carts near check out all the time. It's difficult to apply standard retail jargon to thrift because they are very different in operation. Sure, there's racks, cash registers, even returns but that's about it.
Given this, I believe retail does not want you to plan too far out. They focus on the here and now because it creates a false sense of urgency. When faced with urgency, you are more likely to spend whatever it takes to be relieved of it. No one likes the feeling of urgency. I've come to think of the word urgency with a dire need of a bathroom like a mother with a newly potty-trained child searching for a store that will allow her child to use their restroom.
This is where having an omniscient understanding of your future needs is essential. If you are focused on a strict list, opportunities will be missed. My crystal ball tells me that a stinging retail pinch is in your future. My knowing has done well for me at the thrift and, it actually adds some creativity to my shopping. I really do some of my best thinking in thrift stores. Perhaps Goodwill should open coffee kiosks and dot their stores with little conversation pits. I wonder what would happen if a congressional committee routinely met in a thrift store, free from external influences where they could really focus on the needs of the American public at large. Boy, that’s pie in the sky.
Speaking of government, let’s do a little Supreme Court word play on list-less thrift shopping, “I can’t tell you what I need, but I know it when I see it.”
A friend of mine cautioned me to not be so bold or challenging. If you're a reader you know my retort. In the words of my family's matriarch, "Someone's gotta!" Perhaps this was just a release of bad air. I've been holed up with bronchitis.