Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

Some are confused by Black Friday

November 25, 2011

The wave of fresh converts to evangelical Christianity appears to contain many who are confused about certain details of this, their first holiday season.

“I’m still learning my way around,” admitted Sonya Bennett. “I mean, I believe in Jesus and all that stuff; I’m just a little hazy on the reasons for some of these celebrations.”

Much of the bewilderment is becoming apparent during today’s so-called “Black Friday.” Large numbers of newly minted Christians showed up at post-Thanksgiving sales at Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers, thinking they were observing the day Jesus was crucified at Calgary.

“I guess I was thinking of — what is it? — Good Friday,” said Heather Thompson. “I thought Black Friday was the day the altar was draped in black cloth, and a somber service acknowledged our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Turns out, it’s more about low, low prices.”

Thompson said many of her friends were also confused about the day. She said she felt that the Church of Christ, of which she became a member earlier this year, and the nation’s retail sector were “just asking” for there to be such widespread misunderstanding.

“I mean, think about it: Good Friday marks an occasion when something bad happened, and Black Friday marks a good day, a day of door-busting bargains. That’s just plain screwy,” Thompson said. “You’d think it would be the other way around. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one expecting up to 60% off the cost of my salvation.”

Bennett, a recent convert to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, said the church calendar at first didn’t make sense to her. She said she had time to meditate and reflect on her faith while waiting in line from midnight till 4 a.m. outside the Valley Hills Mall in Seattle.

“I finally puzzled through it,” Bennett said. “It just wasn’t possible that Jesus was crucified in late November, then born in late December, and then ascended into heaven in March or April. I know He can do some amazing things, but this just seemed totally whack.”

Similar puzzlement was expected during next week’s “Cyber Monday,” which has become the day on which close to a third of on-line Christmas gift sales are made. Either that, or it’s something to do with Simon Peter, or maybe the Immaculate Conception, or maybe Zhu Zhu pets.

“The one that always messes me up is Maundy Thursday,” said Oscar Bennett, who joined the Southern Baptist denomination in February. “I mean, is it a Monday or is it a Thursday? I’m all for talking in tongues, but come on. How can we have effective outreach to non-believers with this kind of double-talk?”

Raymond Price, a new member of the fundamentalist Mercy Schmercy Catholic Church in suburban Atlanta, defended Christianity’s elaborate calendar as something that novices should study and become comfortable with.

“It’s really not that complicated when you put your mind to it,” Price said. “Ash Wednesday is the day we remember volcano victims. Palm Sunday celebrates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph after inventing the handheld personal digital assistant. Corpus Christi, in mid-June, marks the beginning of beach season on the south Texas coast.”

Price said his personal favorite day on the liturgical calendar was Ruby Tuesday.

“Any day that honors both the Rolling Stones and the Seaside Sensations combo platter is truly a holy day in my book,” Price said. “Ruby Tuesday — Fresh Taste, Fresh Price.”

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Cancelling the Gutter Guy

November 16, 2011

Sometimes, voicemail can be a blessing. Other times, it only delays the inevitable.

Yesterday morning I had to call and cancel an appointment with a pushy salesman trying to get me to buy new gutters for my house. Under the mistaken impression that his firm would simply clean my gutters rather than propose a whole new installation, I made this poor man drive all the way from Charlotte to Rock Hill last week. I dashed his planned two-hour sales pitch about 15 minutes in, when I had decided that I (and he) urgently needed to be someplace else.

To peel him off of me, I had to promise he could come back when I’d be better prepared to carve out a good eighth of my waking hours to learn about the advantages of Guardian Gutters (or perhaps it was Gutter Guardians). Now, only hours from the appointed time, I was going to back out.

I called his office and listened carefully to their voicemail options, as it seems they had changed recently. Patience paid off when I learned that option 6 was to cancel a sales presentation. It looked like my rejection could be done automatically.

Unfortunately, after a few rings on the other end of the line, a machine belonging to “Ed Reynolds” picked up and claimed he was out of the office but would return my call when he returned. I didn’t dare simply leave a message and hope that my salesman, some non-Ed Reynolds guy whose name I think was Mike Something, would get word in time to abort his 2 p.m. appointment. So I hung up and re-dialed the main number.

This time, I chose option 2, to speak with an office manager. I mentally rehearsed the reasons I would give for ditching a perfectly serviceable gutter guy on such late notice:

• My aunt’s recently diagnosed hair cancer looked like it was spreading to her eyebrows and mustache, and family had been advised to prepare for the worst, plus
• I was expecting an urgent call from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, plus
• I damaged my hearing at a Mannheim Steamroller concert and couldn’t hear a word he was saying, plus
• It’s pretty hectic so close to the holidays, maybe we can reschedule after the new year.

The office manager was all business regarding my request and, to my relief, she didn’t demand an explanation. She did press for a January meeting, and I agreed, but didn’t settle on a year. When they do call back to remind me of that perceived commitment, I’ll deny all knowledge of gutters, eaves, fascia and soffits, and will adamantly insist that roofing in general is all a big hoax.

I did, however, want to make sure that the salesman was absolutely, positively not coming. I didn’t fancy the thought of again having to resist his sales superpowers and escort him off my property at the same time.

“You’ve definitely got the right appointment cancelled?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re in Rock Hill, on Brookshadow Drive. The 2 p.m.”

That’s the one. I thanked her for her time, apologized for the inconvenience, and ended up pretty confident that the salesman wouldn’t return that afternoon.

I got off early from work so I could be home in time to lock all the doors, draw all the curtains and hide under the covers of my bed until at least 3:30. Just in case.

From this angle, the gutters don’t look that bad after all.

Trying to figure out the new cell phone

November 11, 2011

Often, I’ll write about being flummoxed by new technology.

When I first started this blog over three years ago, I wrote that one of the slots on the side of my laptop must be malfunctioning because twenties were not flowing out, like is supposed to happen when you have a blog.

When I discovered Wikipedia, I thought it was an online shopping site. I tried to buy three Christmas presents for my uncles there: Flucindole, a never-marketed antipsychotic drug; an Australian Wood Duck; and a Chartered Economic Analyst (ChEA).

I’ve told of the time I mistakenly recited my fast-food order into a trash can that I thought was the speakerbox interface to the order-taker.

“Ha, ha,” as we say in the humor business. “Very funny.”

Today, that is not my theme, although you’d think it would be considering that I bought a new cell phone on Monday. Today, I get to describe my mastery over at least a small sliver of the Digital World.

My old phone was so ancient that Motorola was still a respected producer of handheld sets at the time it was made. I had the Razr, a state-of-the-art device for about a month back in 2005. It had all the latest features, including a camera, internet access and text messaging. Some telecommunications analysts were even reporting you could make phone calls on it.

What I fell in love with was the text messaging. No more phone calls. No more “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine, how are you?”, “Fine. How’s the wife and kids?”, “They’re fine. How about your family?”. Now, telephonic communication could be done in a direct, efficient, soulless manner.

And the bonus was, you got to typeset. I love typesetting, as my 35-year career in the business can attest. Now I could do it anywhere.

The problem with the Razr is that it has one of those old-fashioned keypads with three or four letters to a key, so to type something like the word “feces,” you had to punch different buttons 35 times, complete with occasional pauses. I might like typing and I might like the word “feces,” but that amount of time and effort was ridiculous. The more I got into text messaging, the more I realized I needed one of those slide-out QWERTY keyboards.

When we went to the local wireless provider, my wife and son helped me consider the dozens of sets on display. My primary criteria were that my new phone have a user-friendly keyboard and be less than $100, after mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract renewal, today only. Because I have a heavy swipe finger, I also would’ve chosen to avoid touch-screen technology if that were possible, but apparently it is not.

We settled pretty quickly on the Pantech Ease. Pantech is a South Korean company that has a long tradition in the telecommunications industry, going back to at least April. The Ease is one of their most popular models.

I cracked open both the phone and the Quick Start Guide as soon as I got home, and started noodling around with the features. A certain long-tenured female in my family believed that I should read the 200-page User Guide cover-to-cover (including the last half, which was upside down and written in Spanish) to figure out how it worked. I made a different choice, and basically just started pushing random buttons.

I looked occasionally at the one-sheet overview and for some reason, a certain phrase caught my eye.

“Ease is about options. You can get quick access to the features you need in easy-to-use, easy-to-read Easy Mode,” read one paragraph. My son noticed all these “easy” references too, and made a succinct observation.

“What you’ve got there, Dad, is one step up from a Jitterbug,” he said. I think he’s probably right.

Reading further, we saw other clues that confirmed this suspicion. In a segment on mobile email, the sample address is “silverfox2″. The Cool Tools section describes how to use the “pill reminder,” a kind of alarm to prompt you to remember your heart medicine. This feature even comes with a “snooze feature” to give you an extra 15 minutes in case you’ve already passed out from your bout with angina. A box describing the available accessories called the Velcro belt-attached carrying case “fashionable.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t take me a while to master the Ease’s rather limited offerings. I’ve spent the last 24 hours puzzling through the different screens and have figured out how to send a text, how to text a picture, how to shoot video and how to send an email from my phone to my office. With an attachment. I think that’s pretty impressive.

My studies haven’t come without some trial and error. I wanted to see if I could receive video, so I asked my son to make a short film of what our three cats were up to yesterday morning and send it to me at work. It came through loud and clear. Too loud, in fact, as I couldn’t find the volume button and when I did it wasn’t very responsive.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” rang a high-pitched chant audible throughout the department.

“What’s that?” snapped Regina over in customer service. “There better not be a cat in here.”

When I woke up at 4 a.m. earlier that morning to get ready for work, I grabbed the phone from my dresser and apparently hit the “Say A Command” button on the side of the device.

“Say a command,” instructed a woman’s voice in a stern but friendly tone.

I was only half awake during all this after maybe five hours sleep, and you can probably imagine how aback I was taken with this middle-of-the-night directive. I thought I was caught in the midst of some S&M-themed dream. Fortunately, the Ease’s voice-recognition software didn’t know what to make of the command “Wuh? Huh? Shit! Ouch!” as I stumbled through the dark. I’ll have to come back to this feature later.

I really think I’m going to like this cell phone. There’s still a lot to be learned, so I am starting to make my way through the large User Guide. I’ve already learned you can toggle over from the Easy Mode home screen to an Advanced Mode display with three pages of apps icons if you want to attempt things like mobile social net, mobile banking and mobile web. Frankly, though, I have enough trouble doing those things standing still.

The only thing I miss so far about my old Motorola Razr was the resounding metallic thunk it made when you were done with your telecommunications business. It made me feel important and plugged-in to the larger world. People standing nearby would look admiringly at me, whispering to their friends “Hey, that guy’s got a cell phone!”

Sliding the QWERTY keyboard soundlessly back into position after firing off a text doesn’t draw anybody’s attention. But maybe, if I keep studying hard, I’ll find there’s a feature to record everyday sounds, and I can capture the sound of my slammin’ Razr for use as a ringtone.

Out with the old …
… In with the new

Finding new uses for the coupon

November 10, 2011

One evening in 1803, Thomas Jefferson came home from his job as president of the United States with exciting news. He had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, a $15-million transaction in which France handed over nearly a million square miles of territory to his fledgling nation. All lands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains would now be American.

“Soon we will span the continent,” Jefferson told his wife Martha. “Our manifest destiny to stretch from sea to sea has been set in motion by my presidency. We have purchased the future of America.”

“Did you use the coupon on the refrigerator?” a skeptical Martha asked. “Because, you know, Napoleon is having a special, and with any purchase over $10 million, they’ll throw in the French West Indies.”

“This is the best deal since we bought the island of Manhattan for $24,” Jefferson answered. “The size of our land has been doubled.”

“You didn’t use the coupon, did you?” Martha continued. “Oh, well.”

The coupon may not trace its origins quite that far back, but the hope of getting a better deal has always been with us. In mankind’s earliest history, hunters and gatherers would return to the cave with what they thought was an impressive array of roots, berries and elk chunks, only to have their pride deflated by the well-intentioned spouse who’d been hoping for a free order of tree bark as well.

Americans save billions of dollars a year with just a little foresight and a pair of scissors. The coupon (pronounced “kew-pahn” by the unwashed and “coo-pohn” by those of us with a continental flair) has made its way into our everyday retail buying habits. For almost every product or service you can name, there is the opportunity to save substantial amounts on your purchase by handing over a thin slip of printed paper with your cash.

To her credit, my wife does a fantastic job of watching out for bargains that benefit the bottom line of our family’s budget. The picture below shows just a part of our collection, hanging in plain sight on the refrigerator where only a blind moron such as me could miss them.

I frequently neglect to use these coupons despite repeated reminders. A silly sense of pride is part of this — I see myself casually accepting of any price announced by the cashier with the noble proclamation that I’m willing to pay “whatever the cost” — though it’s primarily a memory issue. I’m lucky to remember my car keys and my clothing before leaving the house on a buying errand.

I’m trying to do better. Even though the 1/20th of a cent in cash value doesn’t go as far today as it used to, it still pays to shop wisely. The image of the Coupon Queen hauling a file cabinet full of paperwork up to the checkout so she can save $3.67 is now little more than a stereotype. Even urbane men of the world are regularly seen these days pulling a wad of vouchers out of their finely tailored suits to save a few bucks on the business lunch that will seal the upcoming merger.

Keeping this in mind has helped me do a better job of using coupons. I’ve now become enough of a veteran bargain-hunter that I understand slight variations in how the coupon economy works. Once you’ve steeled yourself to the humiliation of a transaction that announces to the world how cheap you are, there are subtleties at work in different settings that are worth knowing.

The coupon is most commonplace in the supermarket. Some stores even have special double- or even triple-coupon Tuesdays, where essentially they pay you to cart their stuff away. It’s not at all unusual to see every one of your fellow shoppers racking up big savings, buying one and getting one free, earning a quarter off here and free bag-of-chips-they-don’t-even-like there as they stretch their grocery dollar to extraordinary lengths.

A casual attitude toward the coupon also exists in the fast-food industry. As long as you declare your intention at the drive-through speakerbox to use it (in addition to “I have a coupon,” also acceptable is “I had a suit on” and “I’d like some Grey Poupon”), they’ll often ring up your discount without even taking the thing from you. The deals are usually not that great, and often involve some leftover, failed promotional item, like the McSquid sandwich or the Whopper Super Extreme, an all-beef patty topped with battery acid.

It’s in finer dining establishments where things tend to get dicey. You’ll want to keep the coupon hidden until you’ve finished your meal, unless you want smaller portions and/or spittle in your salad. Produce the discount as you ask for your check, and have confidence in your right to use it. I usually say something like “I have this coupon I was hoping to use if it’s something you accept and you promise we’ll never meet again.” Beware of hidden details in the fine print that may disrupt your plans. My wife and I once had a coupon rejected because we tried to use it on Veteran’s Day Eve, because holidays were specifically excluded from the offer. (In the end, we were just happy to have found a reservation on a night as crowded with celebrating couples as Veteran’s Day Eve).

Finally, there are opportunities to use coupons to purchase services as well as goods. I’m frequently able to take advantage of an offer for $8.99 haircuts at Great Clips (regular price: $11). The good thing about this set-up is that you don’t pay until after the cut is done, and by then there’s not much your stylist can do to mess you up on purpose, short of holding you down and gluing your floor trimmings back onto your scalp. The bad thing, for me anyway, is that I usually feel so guilty about gypping a struggling single mom out of a few dollars that I leave an excessive tip that negates any savings.

Harking back to the Jeffersons, it seems the time is right to expand coupon usage to other kinds of transactions, like those involving the government. Maybe we consider additional incentives to sympathetic Afghan warlords to accompany their direct cash payments, maybe a coupon for half-off the latest ground-to-air missile technology. How about offering the Chinese a deal on Treasury bills, in which a piece of an American monument is thrown in for every $100 billion sold? They could be given Teddy Roosevelt’s eyebrow off of Mt. Rushmore and hardly anybody would notice. Or the Statue of Liberty’s exposed armpit, which could then be covered up with a Band-Aid. You could say she nicked herself shaving. It’d make her more human.

Regardless of what the nation chooses to do, I’ll keep trying to remember to use my coupons. Frugality and thrift are valuable traits in these bad economic times, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to show them. Our third president would’ve been wise to heed the encouragement of his wife. Imagine Martinique as our 51st state.

Helping out at the supermarket

November 7, 2011

Self-service in the retail world has come a long way in recent years.

I still remember when it required a partially toothed half-wit to pump gas into your car. Now, we dispense it into our own tank, and all over our clothes, with no assistance at all.

Fast-food restaurants used to pour drinks for us. Now, we do it ourselves at a free-standing fountain, and come away with a bonus application of industrial-strength adhesive on the soles of our shoes. If Earth’s gravity ever fails, you won’t see McDonald’s customers floating off into space, because they have sugary soft drinks all over the bottom of their feet.

Most of these advances represent a measure of progress for humanity. Businesses are able to save money by deploying workers to more cost-effective tasks, like sitting at home unemployed and watching TV. Store patrons can take better command of their time, moving swiftly to complete their transactions or, in the case of the woman always in front of me at Texaco, talking into the gas nozzle like it was a telephone, trying to tell the clerk inside that she forgot her purse.

One place where I think the jury is still out on the issue of convenience is the grocery store self-checkout. No longer do you have to stand in line to have a cashier wave your purchases over a scanner. You can do it yourself at U-Scan stations. On-screen prompts and pre-programmed voice commands guide you through the steps necessary to complete your transaction and, when this fails, a store employee descends from her centrally located turret to explain how wrong it was of you to jam your credit card into the receipt printer.

I don’t mind pitching in with the operation of my local supermarket. My sore back prevents me from going to the loading dock to help unpack their trucks, but I’d be more than happy to sneeze on the produce as I’m arranging it on the shelves. It takes a lot of effort to run that large a business and I’ll gladly do my part.

If only I can figure how the U-Scan is supposed to work.

It’s a bit daunting when you first step up to one of these hulking machines. There’s a large touch screen where you start by selecting your language (English is my personal favorite). If you’re in the frequent customer program and can find the appropriate card to prove as much, you swipe that past the laser reader and hear something like “welcome BiLo Bonus Card customer.” If you’re just an average citizen looking to buy a pound of coffee, I think there are provisions allowing you to proceed, though you may need a special dispensation from the regional manager.

Once you’ve been identified as friend or stranger, you begin passing your items over the scanner, turning them every which way until the barcode is detected and a reassuring beep is issued from the machine. (If you’ve turned a carton of eggs upside down to find the code and the eggs come tumbling out onto the floor, don’t worry. The customer in line behind you is taking the job of “cleanup at U-Scan station four” this week).

After each beep, the pre-recorded voice instructs you to “please place the item in the bag.” Plastic sack dispensers sit off to the side, and scales beneath these detect whether or not you’ve complied. If you’re buying something too big to fit in a flimsy plastic bag, too bad. Just cram that lawn rake in there as best you can, or prepare to explain yourself to the authorities.

You repeat this procedure for as many items as you intend to buy. (Fujitsu, the makers of U-Scan, claim to be developing a new generation of machines that will scan your whole shopping cart in one fell swoop, though I suspect we’ll see a man on Mars first). When you think you’re finished, the machine wants to make sure, because it still remembers that time you bought $150 worth of groceries, then drove off and left them at the curb.

“Do you have any items under the cart?” it asks helpfully.

“I don’t even have a cart,” I answer because, on this occasion, I’m buying only three things.

Now comes the hard part: the paying. The touch screen shows an overwhelming number of options — credit card, debit card, check, food stamps, gift card, cash, voucher. I’m trying to find “barter” because I want to trade a box of old Beanie Babies for my two frozen dinners and a bag of chips, but it’s not there. Finally, I choose credit card, as I don’t want to go through the ordeal I once endured of trying to use cash. (“Please enter coins first, from smallest to largest denomination. If you enter more than one coin of the same denomination, tender these by the date on the coin, with the oldest coins first. When entering bills, do so in chronological order by the birthdate of the historical figure portrayed on the bill. And good luck finding either the coin or the bill slot.”)

I swipe my credit card at yet another monitor to the side of the touch screen.

“Is $12.37 the correct amount?” reads a new display. I want to say that it seems a little high, that I thought prices would come down a little now that I’m doing all this work for them. But I’m given no such option.

Past experience tells me that I now have to find a third pad to record my signature, using the specially designed stylus provided for the occasion. Or maybe not. Some stores no longer require you to sign for purchases under $25 while others want not only your John Hancock (born 1737, featured on the rare $30 bill) but also several forms of identification to prove yourself. I stand by waiting to be told what to do next, ready to obey any command short of “kill”.

Finally, a couple of printers kick into action, indicating my receipt is ready as is the raft of coupons for products the computer knows I’ll want on my next visit. This is where you see another advantage of today’s obsessive data collection by scanners and customer-loyalty programs. Because I bought a bag of nonfat potato chips, shown in tests to promote frequent diarrhea, the computer suggests I may want to benefit from a coupon on Pepto-Bismol in a few days. Very impressive.

I do a little scanning myself, checking each portal and terminal in the array before me to confirm that I’m indeed done and can now leave the store. I glance over at the attendant, and she gives me a reassuring nod, and I think I’m finished.

However, the bag boy at the cashier-staffed line next to the U-Scan area has a temporary lull in his workload, and thinks he sees an opportunity for being tipped by an aging gentleman unable to carry his parcel to his car. He approaches with an offer to help.

I politely decline, wondering how much longer his job is secure with the eventual development of Roomba-style robots to automatically carry me to my car.

A typical self-checkout machine, or possibly the controls to a nuclear reactor.

Desperate pharmacy patients turn to desperate measures

November 1, 2011

News item: Rock Hill was hit by another pharmacy robbery Sunday when two suspects demanded pills at a CVS drugstore, then fled with police in hot pursuit. The incident follows a rash of similar stick-ups in the area.

Another news item: Workers signing up for annual enrollment in their employer’s health insurance plans are reporting sticker shock at a hefty increase in premiums, particularly for prescription coverage.

* * * * *

For those tired of an unceasing spate of bad news about health care costs, a new option is gaining popularity: robbing the local drugstore.

And it’s not just junkies, pillheads and career criminals looking for ways to juggle expenses that are committing the crimes. Increasingly, the elderly, the disabled, and just plain folk are threatening violence if they can’t get their meds at a reasonable cost.

“I have to have my flu shot. If I catch the flu, I’ll die,” said 62-year-old Sarah Johnson. “My insurance (company) says they’ll reimburse me for the $25 but there’s paperwork involved and it takes weeks. For me, it’s just easier to brandish a weapon and demand the shot. Bob is my regular pharmacist, and he knows I won’t shoot him. But obviously, he doesn’t want to take any chances.”

Johnson showed up at her neighborhood Walgreen’s to get the vaccine last week when the human resources director holding her company’s benefits meeting said it would be free. Told by store personnel it was free only as a reimbursement, Johnson became agitated and left, then returned later with a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol.

“I held that gun on them the whole time they were prepping and  injecting me,” Johnson said. “It was tough because I usually shoot with my right hand, but the chair I sat at required me to get the shot in my right arm. Good thing I didn’t have to shoot because I’m wild as hell with my left hand.”

Johnson said her pharmacist was understanding but terrified during the armed encounter.

“I’ve known Sarah for years,” said druggist Robert Henderson. “She’s a regular customer and a good friend, so I didn’t pull out the Luger I keep behind the counter and kill her.”

A 32-year-old mother of three trying a similar technique at the Rite Aid wasn’t quite so lucky.

Marianne Burns said her insurance plan used to cover the allergy medicine her triplet second-graders needed, but the formula became generic during the summer. The over-the-counter variety costs about three times as much as what her insurance used to cover, so she arrived at the pharmacy last Sunday carrying an AK-47 modified to discharge armor-piercing bullets.

“I thought I might be able to just shoplift it,” said the former teacher from York County Jail, where she’s being held on assorted terrorism charges. “But one of my girls started crying, which drew the attention of the security guard. That’s when I had to start shooting.”

Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack, which prompted Burns to say the attempt “was worth it.”

“There’s a lot less paperwork to fill out when you’re preparing a defense on federal charges than there would be if I used my flexible spending account,” she said.

John Leeman, a 76-year-old retiree, faced a particularly daunting challenge on his trip to pick up a prescription. He’s lucky enough to be covered by health insurance from his old union job, but he’s also tapping into some Medicare coverage. The conflicts and duplication between the two plans were certain to be problematic, he thought.

“I needed my diabetes medicine. I wanted the EpiPen with the measured insulin dose and I was afraid they’d make me take the bulk stuff,” Leeman said. “So I brought my sword along.”

Leeman had picked up the souvenir saber during his service in Korea in 1952. It sat unused in a closet for over half a century before he realized it could be used in an armed assault.

“Sure enough, that’s what they tried to do to me,” Leeman said. “So I pulled out my sword and ran the pharmacy tech right through. As his lifeblood poured from the gaping wound, he staggered to the shelf and got me the EpiPen.”

“It’s just a pharmacy tech. No big deal,” said head pharmacist Andy Wells. “Now if it had been a cashier, that would’ve been different. But I know John — he’s a good ol’ boy — and he was just doing what he thought needed to be done.”

Pharmacy robber presents his CVS ExtraCare card to receive extra discounts on his haul

Getting creative with the grocery list

October 27, 2011

I am fascinated by other people’s groceries.

When there’s someone in line checking out in front of me, I always review their items and try to imagine the lifestyle they lead based on their selections.

I envy the discipline of the middle-aged woman buying Greek yogurt and pretending to like it. I’m jealous of the college student purchasing the 12-pack of energy drinks to maintain his amped-up schedule of partying, studying and bonking coeds. I yearn for the day when, like the elderly man grabbing a pack of adult diapers, I won’t have to get off the couch to go to the bathroom.

Similarly, I’m always hopeful at the end of the checkout process that I’ll accidentally end up with someone else’s purchases. For one thing, I rarely pick up more than a few items at a time and, for selfish reasons alone, I’d rather have their hundred-dollar haul than my single plastic bag of pretzels, gum and dryer sheets.

But I’d also like to have the experience of wading through a collection of random products I’d never buy myself, and trying to figure out how to eat or otherwise consume them.

This would be a great way to get out of the rut I’ve dug after decades of being a big boy who could feed himself. I bought only what I needed to re-stock the routine things I ate every day. Early morning meant a cup of coffee, a glass of orange juice and a blueberry breakfast bar. At lunch, I’d eat a turkey sandwich and three Chips Ahoy reduced-fat cookies. Occasionally, I’d mix it up slightly — substituting mixed berry bars for blueberry ones, for example — but that was the extent of my adventure.

I longed for the day when serendipity would be my menu planner. I’d pull out a Boston butt pork roast, some PopSecret popcorn and a box of Sylvania micro-mini CFL lightbulbs, throw them all in a big crockpot, and have the kind of dinner I’d never imagine on my own.

While picking up a few things from the nearby gourmet organic supermarket yesterday, I came upon what may be the next best thing to this bizarre fantasy. In the parking lot, I found a wadded-up grocery list some careless shopper had dropped on the ground. Perhaps I could use this as my guide to an exciting new life full of exotic consumables.

The handwriting was a little tough to read, but that’s about what I’d expect from someone more focused on grabbing existence by the throat than on penmanship. This was a person with places to go, people to see, things to do and — if I’m reading this list correctly — “sour crougat” to eat.

Across the top of the list, in all caps, was the word “WALMART”. Though it is a publicly held company, and theoretically you could snatch it up for its market capitalization value of $194 billion, I doubt this is what the shopper intended. (If it is, I sure hope they had some coupons.) Maybe this was just their next stop.

The rest of the list read as follows:

Swiffer Dusters 360°
Prunes
2 – Cape Cod chips
40 gurg raisen boxes
Sour crougat – in Pic 6 RSF
Nail clipper – good
Anch. persporarv can
Tooth paste
Vitamin D
Diet Coke ?

Many of the items that were legible are things I’ve considered buying in the past.

I’ve seen the Swiffer commercials (where a housewife’s first marriage — to a mop — comes unraveled and they divorce, though the mop continues to stalk her from the backyard) and they seem like a good alternative to my method of cleaning (moving into a new house when the old one becomes too dirty).

Prunes and raisins seem like sensible fruit choices, if I want my exhilarating new way of life to include regularity. I’ve always neglected the health and well-being of my colon, duodenum, semicolon, etc.; maybe now is the right time to make some changes. I’m not sure what the “40 gurg” means, though. Could it be “yogurt”?

I already have about a dozen nail clippers in the backs of various drawers around the house. Whether or not they qualify as “good,” I’m not sure. Goodness would seem to be a desirable trait, and I’ll keep that in mind next time I need some grooming tools.

I already buy toothpaste, having long ago given up the practice of buying root canals instead. I’ve never been a believer in vitamin supplements, though if I were to start anywhere, I imagine I’d start with vitamin D (to match the letter my name begins with and because, in my book, you can never get enough fat-soluble secosteroids).

I may opt to skip those products whose spelling I can’t make sense of. If I had to guess, I’d say “sour crougat” is probably “sauerkraut”. I’m not familiar with the kind that comes “in Pic 6 RSF”, though I’d hope that’s the additive that converts the pungent cabbage concoction into actual food. The “Anch. persporarv can” could actually be a can of anti-perspirant or, at the other end of the smells-good spectrum, anchovy perspiration. My own sweat smells bad enough, thank you.

As for “Diet Coke?”, it does seem like a good question. I’ve frequently considered switching from my beloved Pepsi to less-sugary soft drinks, but the fact that most taste like overly sweetened brownwater discharge has hindered me.

I’ve still got the list, and still wonder what I should do with it. It’s been fun using the battered sheet of paper as a window into the world of an anonymous gourmet. I was hoping for something a little more extensive, something with a little more meat on its bones, but this could be enough to get me started.

Plus, it did have a small grease spot on it.

Maybe I’ll just eat the paper.

Revisited: In search of the perfect toilet paper

October 7, 2011

Life used to be so simple. 

You’d get a call at the office from the wife, asking you to stop at the store and pick up some milk and bread on the way home. The milk was offered in two, maybe three, varieties: regular, skim and, possibly, expired. Bread was just bread, not whole wheat, not ciabatta, not hemp, not gluten-free. You’d get your two items, maybe sneak a quick peek at the babe on the cover of Good Housekeeping, and pay the cashier. With something called cash.  

You’d leave the store, climb into the driver’s seat of your giant Chevy without worrying about sissy seatbelts, light up a Pall Mall, and harbor a deep prejudice toward races other than yours. It was that simple.  

When I got a call from my wife the other day asking me to pick up some toilet paper after work, I practically had an anxiety attack. Even though she was very specific about the kind of toilet paper we wanted – Cottonelle Ultra double pack, the purple label, NOT the blue – I’ve been in the bathroom tissue aisle of the grocery store recently, and it’s a very imposing corner of the universe. The options are tremendous, as you can see from the photo below.   

TP as far as the eye can see

Choice is a great thing but it’s increasingly obvious that we in America have taken it too far. From ketchup to dog food to beer to right-wing lunatics, there are now so many options available in the modern marketplace as to be overwhelming to the uninformed consumer. Even though I had clear instructions – don’t forget: purple label, not blue – I thought I could better prepare myself for the assignment with a little online self-education. 

“Toilet paper is a soft paper product used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination,” Wikipedia tells us. “However, it can also be used for other purposes such as absorbing spillages or craft projects.” (Note to Wikipedia: This article may need to be edited to meet your quality standards. Not clear that these are three separate and distinct uses, and that TP does a poor job of “absorbing … craft projects.”) 

I learn that toilet paper products can vary immensely in the technical factors that distinguish them, including size, weight, softness, chemical residue and some frightening feature called “finger-breakthrough resistance.” I learn that a light coating of aloe or lotion or wax (!) may be worked into the paper to reduce roughness. I learn that so-called luxury papers may be rippled, embossed, perfumed, colored, patterned, medicated or imprinted with cartoon animals. 

Thus prepared, I enter the local Bi-Lo and find my way to aisle 11. Any confidence I may have gleaned from my studies is soon dashed. The huge expanse of options on display reminds me of the sea of faces I saw upon exiting the Mumbai airport baggage claim, each face either searching for a passenger, offering their porter services or looking for a handout. Except the Indians were less quilted. 

I found some paper called “Aloe and E,” which I assume contains both lotion and vitamin E, or else the user says “eee!” when they use it. I found Angel Soft, Supreme Softness and Charmin Sensitive, all for the touchy bum. I found a bargain label called Clear Value, another brand aimed at the Hispanic market called Paseo (which I think means “pass” in Spanish), and a store brand named Southern Home, with equally unsavory connotations. One product promised the feature of “tuggable huggable softness.” 

As you can see from the photo above, I also saw Spic and Span cleaning wipes, Ziploc storage bags and rubber gloves. I want very much to believe these were in the neighborhood by coincidence. 

I found an Ultra Plush, which is not the same as the Ultra I was looking for. I mentally cordoned off the aisle into four sectors, to better zero in on the specific label for which I was searching. I felt like the field archeologist exploring for the one femur bone that would confirm the existence of a previously unknown subspecies of early man. Only by being methodical and patient might I eventually succeed. 

Still, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I knew my fate if I failed to succeed. Like the ancient hunter/gatherer returning to the home cave with an antelope carcass when his wife specifically told him she wanted zebra for dinner, I would be vehemently chastised. “Don’t you listen to me anymore?” I’d be asked. “And I suppose you got the wrong tree lichen too.” 

I could call my wife and ask if there were any acceptable substitutes, but I hate those people who wander about the contemporary supermarket, cell phone to their ear and listening to a recited list that should’ve been written down. They’re always running over my foot with their shopping carts. I didn’t want to be one of these people. I’d rather buy a half dozen items that might be close — including Ultra brand razors and Ultra brand saltines — and hope to luck into the right purchase. I’d prefer to return the others later rather than come home empty-handed. 

Just as I was about to give up, there it was, in all its purple-packaged glory. The label said it was “new – even more cushiony comfort” and there was a picture of a napping puppy lying under what looked like a thick blanket, right below the Cottonelle name. (I assume it was a blanket; it looked about two inches too thick to be toilet paper). No wonder I had trouble locating the right stuff. My wife should’ve mentioned the puppy. 

I threw my prize into the cart and headed for the checkout. A sense of triumph coursed through me, as did the satisfaction of knowing that I was providing for my family. 

I headed for home, my stomach gurgling with the accumulated tension of the hunt. Within moments, I’d be happy I had found the right stuff.

Already, Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a competitor

September 29, 2011

Following the introduction Wednesday of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, designed to be a competitor to both Apple’s iPad and other recent tablet releases, I am announcing today that I too will be offering a handy new mobile device for sale.

The CinnaBox 5000, a cardboard-based technology powered by crunchy cinnamon multi-grain cereal, will be available just in time for the holiday gift-giving season. At $5.49, it’s priced significantly lower than the Kindle Fire, the Apple iPad or any other wireless communications equipment currently on the market.

The new CinnaBox tablet will soon be flying off the shelves

“It’s a little bigger and a little thicker than most of the tablets out there now,” I’m saying. “But the big difference in price, and the fact that it provides 25% of a person’s minimum daily requirement for thiamin, niacin and riboflavin, will — I think — differentiate the CinnaBox from its competitors.”

“Plus,” I’m adding, “because we’re calling it the CinnaBox 5000, that automatically makes it 5,000 times better than other tablets.”

The CinnaBox announcement comes only one day after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told investors his company was releasing the new Kindle Fire. The Fire features a glossy seven-inch touch-screen with a dual-core processor that will allow users to access more than 18 million pieces of content in the Amazon catalog. It also offers a web browser, gaming capacity, 8 gigabytes of memory and a free cloud-based storage system.

By contrast, the CinnaBox 5000 offers ten ounces of artificially flavored breakfast cereal and a requirement that users employ a vivid imagination to pretend they’re accessing the digital realm instead of simply pawing at a marginally successful Kellogg’s product.

“I bought a box of the cereal about a year ago. I tried it once and it wasn’t very good,” I’m saying. “I just stuck it up on top of the refrigerator and forgot about it. Then, when I heard about the Amazon announcement yesterday, I thought ‘Huh — maybe I can market the stuff as the latest and greatest entrant into the lucrative tablet market.’ So I am.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings users might anticipate trying to read a book or surf the internet using only a cereal box, many analysts said they thought there was a niche to be filled by the CinnaBox.

“Not everyone can afford even the $199 that Amazon bragged yesterday was such a good deal,” said Scott Devitt, a tech analyst at Morgan Stanley. “At a price point under $6, the CinnaBox should be able to gain a significant market share.”

“It’s got tabs on the boxtop, much like you’d see tabs allowing you to open different websites on a browser,” I’m saying. “It’s a little disconcerting to hear loose stuff shaking inside the box, er, tablet. I just use earbuds to blot that out.”

Unlike the Fire and Apple’s iPad, the CinnaBox does not require periodic recharging of the battery. That’s because it has no battery. All its power is derived from the user’s ability to visualize bright video images dancing across the face of the box, rather than the static photo showing cereal bits inundated in milk.

“That could be a huge selling point,” said Morgan Stanley’s Devitt. “People hate recharging their batteries, whereas they love to eat Cinnabon-flavored breakfast grains.”

The CinnaBox promises to be just the first release of this new push to re-market simple consumer products as high-tech electronics. In early 2012, many are predicting introduction of the CinnaPhone, which will use much of the wheat- and corn-based technology seen in the CinnaBox.

“I can envision the day when you simply go to the nearest Cinnabon, buy yourself a sticky roll, and you can hold it up to your ear and start talking and texting with your friends,” Devitt said. “Just be sure to wipe the sticky white icing out of your hair when you’re done. If that stuff dries, you’ll never get it out.”

Revisited: When “C” stands for “change” at the convenience store

September 9, 2011

A warning light recently lit up on the dashboard of my car. It was a bearded “U” with an exclamation point in the middle. Either I needed to stop immediately for a game of horseshoes with Zach Galifianakis, or else there was something wrong with one of my tires. I looked at the owner’s manual and found out the indicator was indicating I might be having an issue with tire pressure.        

I’m old enough to remember that you used to be able to pull into a gas station and have the problem checked out by a certified attendant. Nowadays, there aren’t many true “gas stations” left, since virtually everyone pumps their own gas outside a convenience store. You could ask the semi-toothed cashier if they would “check your air,” but their response would probably involve trying to sell you a pine-scented freshener from their wide selection of aromatic danglers.        

The modern convenience store really does live up to its name. As you’re fueling your car, you can also do a quick bit of shopping for those essentials you didn’t realize you needed until you came across them in the brightly lit bustle of the “C-store.” It’s like a mini-Walmart, with the scent of spilled gasoline ably playing the role of store greeter.        

At a single stop, you can buy Beanie Weenies, roach spray, steel wool, toothpicks, frozen chimichangas, Earthquake brand high-gravity lager, gloves, Axe body spray, a mechanical pencil, pliers, something called “gum-out,” a can of boiled peanuts, satin roses, Sasquatch big sticks (an extremely cured meat product), hotdog buns, Lunchables, Bimbo colchones or cinnamon-roll-flavored cappuccino. In fact, you can buy all of these items at the same time, though the guy in line behind you will be muttering something in Spanish about “tu mama” to his fellow landscapers.        

You can also buy a 12-pack of Dr Pepper, that comes in a box that brags “now with new packaging.” (Soft drink companies have apparently given up on tweaking the formula of their sodas, and now concentrate instead on how to make the box more appealing).        

Well, that’s not the only thing with new packaging at the convenience store where I do most of my re-fueling and impulse buying. The shop itself is being transformed, from what used to be called a “Petro Express” into something the new signage calls a “Kangaroo Marathon.” (That’s a race I’d like to see.)

The corporation that owns all of these names is called The Pantry. It operates over 1,600 convenience stores throughout the Southeast and is currently in the midst of converting its 67 Charlotte-area outlets to the company’s flagship Kangaroo brand. Aside from the external signs, and the change from offering Texaco gas products to those of Marathon Oil, there will be some minor modifications inside.        

“It’s going to be different by store,” said chief financial officer Frank Paci. “Some of the stores got Petro Express wallpaper and things like that, so obviously that will change.”        

“We definitely think there is an opportunity to improve the yield of that business,” added CEO Terry Marks, none too helpfully. “It’s about pulling a thousand levers a little bit better. It’s not about pulling one or two big levers.”        

During a recent visit to my favorite Petro-cum-Kangaroo, the conversion process was kicking into high gear. Workers outside had blocked off several parking spaces so they could install a large new billboard over the entryway. Inside, at least a dozen cashiers were tripping over each other behind the counter, watching a trainer explain the new check-out terminals. Wallpaper was being stripped above the coffee machines, as customers at the self-serve struggled to avoid getting dried paste with their cream and sugar. Convenience was everywhere.    

I had to park creatively, off to the side near the kerosene pump, because the construction was taking up so much room in the parking lot. Inching past a guy teetering precariously above the automatic door, which was in a constantly rotating cycle of open and close and open and close, I managed to get inside the store. The lunch-time crush was in full swing. I maneuvered back to the iced drink dispensers while my son checked out refrigerated cases full of canned sodas. We agreed to meet back at the candy aisle before reconnoitering how to approach the growing line of people waiting to pay for their purchases.    

It was especially hot outside, so I decided to indulge in a Coke Slushy. Unfortunately, there were no Slushies to be found. Instead, the whirling mass of partially frozen liquid now had a sign labeling it as an “Icee.” What the heck is an “Icee“? I wondered. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of modern transformative change, much like that first day at work after the new global computer system was installed, except thirstier.   

I went to check on my son and found him shaking his head as he pondered the canned drink selection. It looked to me like all the familiar brands were represented, maybe just in a slightly different order. And yet Rob appeared confused and disoriented. What was the problem?   

“It’s the doors,” Rob said. “When this was a Petro Express, the handle was on the right. Now, it’s on the left.” He paused. “I … I don’t understand how to get in to the drinks.”   

Normally, this is where I might summon a manager for assistance. But I wasn’t sure that’s what they called them anymore. What if they were now called “shift captains”? Or “team leaders”? Or “Purveyors and Expediters of an Exquisite Customer Experience”?   

I saw an alcove nearby that had a water cooler, so Rob and I got our drinks there. Recessed just behind the fountain were what used to be called the “bathrooms,” but were now some exotic locale known as a “restroom.” Gone were the signs indicating which door was for men and which was for women. Now, they were only accepting “ladies” and “gentlemen.” I wasn’t sure I had the proper level of refinement to wash my hands in such splendor, so I just wiped them on my pants.   

We walked over to the candy section and managed to find what we were looking for: Airheads for Rob and M&M’s for me. The world had at least temporarily returned to its proper axis, so we took the opportunity to approach the cashiers.   

As I mentioned earlier, the store seemed way over-staffed. Usually, you’re lucky to find three people working in the entire site — one at the register, one outside on a smoke break, and one lying mortally wounded after the latest robbery attempt. To see a dozen workers hustling behind the counter was totally foreign, especially since they were now wearing orange vests instead of the customary red polo shirts of Petro. Finally, one of the ladies broke loose from the pack and prepared to serve us.   

“How are you today?” asked the woman whose nametag identified her as “Hello My Name Is Marilyn.”   

How am I today? What happened to the traditional greeting of “Can I help you?” And what have you done with my usual cashier, who I’ve come to know as “Welcome to Petro I’m Marilyn”?   

The trainer must have sensed my unease, as he stepped forward to help us complete the transaction. While he patiently walked Marilyn through the proper process steps — take the money, look at the money, enter the amount in the register, etc. — his tone calmed us as well. We got our change, we got our candy, and we got the heck out of Kangaroo before the whole store turned on its head.   

Later that night, I saw a TV commercial for Marathon Oil. Everyday, genuine Americans were pictured going about the business of their everyday, genuine lives. They rode horses, drove convertibles, splashed on a beach, laughed and romped. In the background, you could hear the Marathon theme song, presumably sung by the same cashiers I met earlier that day:   

We’re proud to stand on our own
We’re proud to be home grown
A familiar face and a name you know
C’MON!
   

We know you, we know your needs
We know what being a neighbor means
We got a reputation to uphold!
   

Can you hear it?
Fueling the American spirit!
No matter when, no matter where
Marathon will take you there!
   

I had been reassured. Despite all the differences I’d seen earlier that day, they still knew me, they still knew my needs, and they still wanted me to “c’mon” and join them in this exciting new way to buy gas and snack foods. Much like the kangaroo, I was now eager to jump at the chance and accept the challenge to change. 

Kangaroo is “hopping” to keep your business, and also to amortize a $21.3 million write-off associated with the decision to convert Charlotte-area stores
Keeping customers happy is a marathon, not a sprint