Let's Go Shopping!
by Ruby Bayan
How different can shopping in America be from shopping in other countries? Well, let's see. Americans also shop till they drop. Cash is also still accepted (though plastic is much preferred, especially for big purchases that could trigger an investigation on money laundering!). And the customer is also still always right.
But in the year that I've stayed in the US, I discovered some nuances that make shopping in America a unique experience (aside from the sales tax, that is). Let's start with the fine print.
Every other shopping establishment and product manufacturer in America attempts to hook the buying public by offering super discounts and special bonuses -- spectacular offers no sane person can pass up. It's fantastic! But sometimes, it's not as fantastic as the bold letters make it out to be.
One lesson I learned about these spectacular offers is: Read ALL the fine print on ads and discount coupons, especially on those that scream too-good-to-be-true deals like "50% Off!" on clothes, "Only 99 Cents!" on a bottle of perfume, "No Payment Until Year 2002!" on a bedroom showcase, or "Only $99 a Month!" on a brand new car. Why? Because the real deal is in the fine print.
A store ad will have big bold letters saying "$5 Off" but if you look at the small letters, you could find riders like "For every purchase of $100 or more", or "From 6 PM to 10 PM only", or sometimes, "With the purchase of 50 pounds of ground beef". "FREE" could mean I have to buy one item first, then fill out a survey form, and mail it in, so that they can send me a coupon (within 4 to 6 weeks) which I then take back to the store to redeem my free item, before the offer expires.
And speaking of expiration, I make it the first tiny detail I look for in any special offer. If I want to take advantage of a real bargain, I better be at the store before the coupon expires!
Sale Day Sale
Another curiosity in the American shopping scene is the never-ending sale. Aside from the usual Christmas Sale, New Year's Day Sale, Valentine's Day Sale, Mother's/Father's Day Sale, and Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving Day Sale, there are the Presidents' Day Sale, Veterans' Day Sale, Labor Day Sale, Memorial Day Sale, and December 26 Sale (for returns and exchanges).
Everyone seems to hit the stores on these special shopping days -- I don't know where the shoppers get all the money to take advantage of all these! But it makes for a grand excuse when someone asks about the weird conversation piece sitting in the living room -- "It was on sale!"
Yes Return Yes Exchange
This one I appreciate -- for most of my purchases, I can return or exchange an item that doesn't work or is the wrong size/color/style, as long as I haven't used the receipt to wrap a used chewing gum.
Some stores allow returns and exchanges up to 30 days after date of purchase. If they have special conditions on returns and exchanges, they put up explicit posters at strategic places in the store, or they tell you about it at the check-out counter (for example, the item has to come back in its original packaging, or the tags have to remain intact).
The December 26 (After Christmas) Sale is specifically designed for those who are not happy with what Santa gave them for Christmas. The strategy is, when shopping for holiday gift items, shoppers ask for a "gift receipt" -- it's a duplicate receipt with an item identification but no price. Gift receipts have become a courtesy, allowing exchange, in case the item is not exactly what the recipient appreciates.
I once had to take a gift, a sweater (the gift receipt was in the box), back to the store to exchange it for something else (I had more than enough sweaters). I happily discovered that my friend had given me a $40 gift (I hope she liked the $10 picture frame)! And because I could exchange it for anything in the store worth $40, I was able to grab an $80 jacket that was, on that day, 50% off! How can I not love America?!
In the Mail
If for some reason you are unable to step out of the house to do your shopping, the US has perfected a scheme just for you -- mail order shopping. Catalogs come in the mail every week -- complete with pictures, detailed descriptions and dimensions, ordering options and instructions, delivery schedules, and payment schemes.
I've also tried this. All I had to do was take my pick, fill in and mail the order form, and wait for delivery. I had the option to pay by credit card, check, or money order. I can return or exchange the item if I'm not satisfied.
The only drawback is, I want to be able to see, touch, hear, and smell (and taste?) an item before I decide to make it a part of my life. I can't do this on mail order. And I hate having to wait a month for something I've suddenly discovered I can't live without. Other than that, mail order shopping is a pretty good scheme.
Spend Spend Spend
So, if you ask me, I'm convinced that in America, the buyer is encouraged, enticed, lured, and pursued to never stop shopping, shopping, shopping! Big discounts, year-round sales, and creative shopping conveniences, are just some of the ways buyers are made to feel comfortable about parting with their hard-earned money. But hey, shopping is therapy for me, in America or elsewhere. So, I'm not about to complain.
[First published in New2USA.com, 2000]