The holiday shopping takes a bad bounce

Zapped microwave, dead toaster kick off shopping season

Special to the Observer

Egad! It's time to turn the baked potatoes over for the second half and the microwave quits. For good! 'Tis the night before Thanksgiving and our house is full of relatives, and the oven tanks. I accuse my sister-in-law of killing it. She denies it.

You may not realize how much you use a microwave until it dies. No regular popcorn in the house. After the first cup of coffee, subsequent cups need to be nuked. (No, leaving the coffee maker burner on does not make coffee stronger, it just burns it.). Leftovers? Forget it. And, it's not like we are entering the sweeps week for leftovers.

We make it through Turkey Day only because most stuff is cooked anew. Later that day we make turkey sandwiches to go with the Bucs game (we all hark from Tampa). I go to use the rarely used toaster and find it only toasts on one side of each slice -- the middle elements have died. I glare at Sara. She declares innocence again. Rotating the toast for a second cooking provides a temporary workaround, but another appliance will need to be replaced. Time to shop.


A Black Friday conundrum

As a logical person with few local shopping options I find myself in the usual conundrum. How do I make a good choice of replacement appliance? I draw upon my 30-year partner: Consumer Reports. I go online and find that I am lucky -- they very recently tested microwaves. But it would take me an hour or more to figure out what is actually available since model numbers frequently change.It's tough being a logical shopper. The entire economy is geared around advertising, impulse purchases, product placement, just-in-time (JIT) stocking, and bait-and-switch selling. Most people apparently find this just fine. I remember some years ago standing near a nice old couple choosing a TV. The wife asked, "RCA makes good televisions, don't they?"

Well, no, they don't. At that time their reliability and other considerations put them at the bottom of the list. The top of the list was populated by the likes of Sony and JVC. RCA is still dead last.

On Black Friday I would find that (no surprise) the desired microwave would not be found in Boone. All we have for appliances is a Lowe's, a Wal-Mart, a Sears catalog store and a Kmart. Most of these are stocked with cheaper models that did not rate well. I am not rich, but I can afford the top-rated model of some items, and I like to buy myself out of future maintenance when I can. That's why we drive Toyotas, for example.

So, I would be faced with the most tiring statement offered by clerks to frustrated shoppers: "We can order it for you."


Forced to order

I hate that. After all, in the age of the Internet, I can order it for me. This is the paradox for brick-and-mortar stores -- they cannot afford to stock all the items we want but online stores can drop-ship anything. JIT stocking, too, turns out often to be NIT-- not in time.

Another roadside bomb on my shopping trip: a model at Wal-Mart looks like the top-rated model I seek. But not exactly. Books have been written about Wal-Mart's strategy: force manufacturers to produce cheapened versions of their product.

In fact, the failed toaster had been just such a model. An identical unit I got for our Observatory house had also failed, but with a different problem. Sadly, those toasters were a "Best Buy" rated product in Consumer Reports. So, even logical shopping does not always work.

I ended up ordering it at Lowe's since once the dust settled on online shipping and taxes their price was lower than online.

Sara and her family would return each night to their own shopping tragedy. They had rented, by phone after shopping online, a cabin in a local development. Besides having a lovely view of an adjacent sawmill, their particular unit was obviously owned by a summer resident since it had no central heat. With lows near freezing it was an uncomfortable sleep for all. The proprietor offered no solution. Sara has her fix -- she will likely challenge the charge made to her card.

Somehow the cold mountain cabin seemed to fit in with the other events and certainly provided fodder for jokes. And now, shopping season is upon us.

I can hardly wait to start.