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An Ode to the Puritan Ethic

The Role of Bargain Shopping in Modern America

By Chana R. Schoenberger

My parents came to visit last month, bearing gifts of food. Three suitcases full of food, in fact, holding a 60-count box of instant fat-free hot chocolate packets, a box of 20 microwave popcorn packets, an oversized two-bag Cheerios box, a container of chocolate chip and Macadamia nut cookies, and a whole box of assorted dried soups. Not to mention the 1000 plastic plates to eat it on.

The stacked boxes take up one whole side of our suite's common room, giving it the seedy look of a stockroom. And that's not even counting the stuff in the refrigerator: several large jars of marinated hearts of palm, a jar of pasta salad and three huge containers of dried Deglet Noor dates.

I feed my roommates. I feed my blockmates, friends, neighbors and anyone else who drops by. (Adams Fentry, if you're hungry.) Perhaps this is the innate genetic manifestation of Jewish mother syndrome, but I don't think so. It's what I call Bulk-Discount Mania Syndrome.

In my family, we don't shop at ordinary supermarkets, except for milk or other items that should only be bought in small quantities. Instead, we head directly for Price Club, the warehouse to end all warehouses.

In an odd way, Price Club embodies much that is unique about the United States: the search for value that represents our inherited Puritan ethic coupled with the perennial desire to rise to the top and live the best life that we can. Translated into late twentieth century talk, that means buying fancy stuff on sale. Enter Price Club. In the cavernous, cement-floored Club, one can find all manner of goods known to humanity. Here, one buys in bulk; you can't get a box of tissues, but you can get 12 tissue boxes for the price of 8. If you have the storage space, it's a great deal.

And so is most everything else they sell. I've bought cassette tapes, flannel pajamas, four-pound bags of Tootsie rolls for my high school It's Academic quiz show team, and a Dustbuster. My parents bought a porch umbrella once. We regularly get crates of soda and enormous bottles of detergent.

While walking around, the discriminating shopper can munch samples of Club treats like gourmet lasagna or Haagen-Dazs ice cream. My sister and I usually consider this a meal, since by the time you've eaten your way through the food aisles and down one hundred yards to the electronics section, you're full.

Price Club is not just your one-stop consumer-goods emporium, however. For the inaugurated ones, it's a way of life. The ability to buy gourmet food and top-quality electronics, housewares, and even clothes at bargain prices is revolutionizing middle class suburban life by offering up to popular consumption those luxuries once only available to society's elites.

The leveling of social distinctions that Price Club facilitates represents a major sociological phenomenon that extends past Price Club into other areas of consumer purchases. In my area-the suburbs of Washington, DC-bargain stores aimed at people who want high-quality goods are experiencing a boom.

Tuesday Morning, which sells bargain brand-name gifts and housewares, only opens four times a year. This year my mother and I went on the third day of the winter sale to get a set of golf clubs as a present for my father. It was the first day that the golf clubs would be offered for sale, along with down comforters.

The store opened at 10 a.m. At twenty of 10, we managed to get the third spot in line. By a quarter of 10, twenty more people had joined the line; by the time the store opened, the line wound around the parking lot.

When the doors opened, the crowd jostled and pushed through the doors. We snagged the last of the golf clubs. All the choice merchandise was gone in the first five minutes.

This good-stuff-for-cheap mentality pervades the suburbs. In a country where getting a bargain is a matter of personal pride, stores like Price Club and Tuesday Morning abound. Only the most snobbish of shoppers are embarrassed when they see their acquaintances in Price Club's bread section, buying garlic-and-parmesan baguettes for a dinner party.

Value makes us happy, but not at the expense of quality or prestige. This insight afforded us through the study of Price Club might explain the unbelieveable success of a similar institution, Potomac Mills Mall, which may very well be the largest outlet mall on the East Coast.

Potomac Mills is always packed with shoppers pouring out of tour busses. The mall's appeal lies mainly in its ability to service value-seekers of all socioeconomic classes. For the pennypinching rich, the mall has Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, and Escada outlet stores.

Middle-class shoppers tend to prefer the discounted versions of Ann Taylor, Benetton, and Calvin Klein, where you at least have the chance to buy a piece of clothing for $15. The mall also has normal, no-brand stores for those who either don't care about or can't afford labels.

The madhouse that is Potomac Mills on a Saturday--especially in the middle of prom season, when every teenage girl in the area is there buying a dress and shoes with her mom--represents the future of suburban life. Suburbanites want to give elegant parties. They want to decorate their houses in style and dress their children correcty. They want, in short, to live above their means.

Places like Price Club and Tuesday Morning allow them to do just that--to buy what they can't afford at prices they can. This preserves the prestige factor while simultaneously protecting the pocketbook of America's most appearance-conscious class. What an odd heir to the Protestant Ethic.

Chana R. Schoenberger '99, a history concentrator who lives in Adams House, is a Crimson editor.

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