Off Target

TargetI’ve been shopping at Target for years. In fact, I’ve been kind of a Target freak even as I’ve railed against the “evils” of Walmart.

I know Target does a lot of the same “bad” stuff that Walmart does — fighting unionization, driving competing local businesses into the ground, forcing its suppliers to operate by its rules or lose their shelf space, skirting local taxes and ordinances — but Walmart has always seemed to be leading the “race to the bottom.” Plus, unlike Walmart, spending time inside a Target store can actually be a pleasant experience.

But the ostensible “savings” Target offers as a discount store do come at a price. Since a Super Target (a gigantic Target store with a full-service supermarket inside) opened near our home in late 2007, we’ve done almost all of our shopping there. SLP complains that their selection of many goods is lacking, and I’ve found some questionable pricing tactics (more on that in the next paragraph), but it hasn’t been enough to dissuade us from shopping there.

On the matter of pricing, here are some examples I’ve observed: Market Pantry (Super Target’s store brand) peanut butter inexplicably jumping up to become more expensive than Jif, after months of being substantially cheaper; Market Pantry milk gallons selling for $2.99 and then a few weeks later displaying a “Price Reduction” tag but selling at $3.29 (“marked down” from $3.49); 8-packs of Gillette razor blades selling for more than the price of two 4-packs of the same.

Essentially there are three tactics happening here: in the first case, Target relies on your assumption that store-brand items will cost less than their name-brand counterparts. And, in fact, they are cheaper… for a while. But then Target can, on occasion, jack up the prices on the Market Pantry items and most unsuspecting customers won’t notice. In the second case, they’re audaciously labeling a price increase as a price reduction by jacking up the “regular” price considerably, but then selling the items at a “reduced” price that is somewhere in between. And in the third case, they’re relying on the buyer’s assumption (based on years of experience) that larger quantities of… well, just about anything… will cost less per unit than smaller quantities. Most people probably don’t even check the price on the shelf, and even if they do, they’re probably not doing the math in their heads. And Target doesn’t offer price-per-unit information on those tags (unlike Cub Foods and a lot of other supermarket chains) to assist customers in making economical choices.

By the end of 2008, we were often shopping at Target 3 to 4 times per week, rarely dropping less than $50, and in general spending upwards of $1,000 per month there. Super Target counts on the fact that, since you can buy just about everything you need there, in fact you could pretty much just live in the store, you won’t be able to keep track of how much money you’ve been spending on whatever it is you’re buying there, and, you know, it works. I bought an iPod at that Super Target shortly after it opened, and on my bank’s website, the purchase was just lumped into the “Grocery” category. Even if you realize that’s what’s happening, unless you’re extremely diligent (and/or have a lot of time on your hands), you’ll probably just give up. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

So as 2009 was rolling around, an experiment was devised: we would live for one month without shopping at Target. At all. For any reason. I considered writing a daily blog about the experience; given the trend of people coming up with a random little experiment for themselves, blogging about it, and landing book deals, Oprah appearances, and whatnot, it almost seemed silly not to. But in the end, I decided there just wouldn’t be that much interesting to write about something that’s fundamentally not-very-interesting to begin with, so instead I would just wait until the end of the month, or near it, and then reflect upon the experience and the lessons learned (or not).

Today is January 26, and so far we’ve made it. It’s actually been surprisingly easy. And I’ve made some interesting observations:

  1. There’s a big difference between “if we had it in the house, we’d use it” and “we need it.” I had never released how much I was conflating the two before this. I rationalized that if it was being used in our house, it was more-or-less necessary, and if it was (ostensibly) cheap (or… oh man, on sale!) at Target, all the more reason to get it!
  2. Even if things cost more at another store, you still might end up paying less. How’s that? Well, it relates to the first observation. The individual items you’re buying at, say, Byerlys might cost more — sometimes, a lot more (the Barilla pasta sauce I was used to paying $2.09 for at Target is a jaw-dropping $3.49 at Byerlys). But if those higher prices discourage you from buying stuff you don’t really need, or less of the stuff you do, the net result might just be less money spent.
  3. There are much better places to get things than Target. We already knew this about certain things, like furniture and fresh produce. (In fact, Super Target’s pathetic options for fresh produce have long been one of SLP’s biggest complaints about shopping there.) But this experience has really reinforced that although you could live your life only buying anything you ever need at Target… why would you really want to?

January is almost over, and with it, our “Off Target” experiment. Will we go back to Target? Probably. We are starting to run out of some of the “we need it” items that, even after contemplating everything above, are probably worth going to Target for — mostly household items like dishwasher detergent and plastic bags. But will we go there less, consider our other shopping options, and/or just buy less stuff in general? I most certainly hope so.

Real cupcakes that I would like less than the “Cupcake in Bloom”

I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve discovered something even worse than the “Cupcake in Bloom” from 1-800-Flowers. I ranted about this a few weeks back, but in case you missed it and somehow haven’t seen ads for it plastered in every public space in your city, this is what it looks like:


Pretty bad. And for everyone I’ve talked to about it, the consensus is that we’d all prefer a $1 real cupcake to a $25 bouquet made to look like flowers.

That’s how I felt, for sure. Until tonight at Target, when I saw this:

They're cupcakes! They only LOOK like dogs! Isn't that cute and/or clever?

I stand corrected. And this is now the second time I’ve surreptitiously taken a photo with my iPhone inside the same Target store for use on this website. I wonder how long it’ll be before they have their stoner security guard start tailing me when I come in. Maybe I can buy him off with dog-shaped cupcakes.

The humble quest for cheap furniture

Last night was not unlike so many other nights in my household, although it was imbued with a special sense of purpose. Far more than the usual preparations had taken place: I made the great trek to the basement to retrieve the tape measure and actually determine with some level of accuracy the physical dimensions of a space in our house that we envisioned filling with yet more cheaply priced, cheaply made, pressed-sawdust-and-glue-with-fake-woodgrain-laminate-surface, some-assembly-required (OK, all-assembly-required, and-with-a-tiny-awkward-metric-Allen-wrench-at-that) furniture, courtesy of IKEA.

IKEA is a mystical place with a rabid cult-like following, and for many years SLP and I have counted ourselves among them. We pined for the big blue-and-yellow box when we left California, and we praised the heavens when we learned it would finally grace the adopted homeland of 99% of the world’s Swedish emigrants. (C’mon, what took so long?)

But I gotta say, the magic is wearing thin. Too many meals of dried-out overcooked meatballs and new potatoes for which the adjective can only be intended as irony. Too many cheap pieces that took way too long to assemble and then never quite matched anything else and eventually ended up in the basement, on the curb, or in pieces (for sport).

Alas, last night was just such a time. We were on a mission to locate and acquire at least five, perhaps more, short bookcases to line a knee wall below an angled ceiling in our upstairs. But the $20 “Kilby” (or was that “Billy”… or “Fjørnårsl” or some such nonsense) bookcases we had our eyes on happened to be 2 inches too tall. Oh well, at least we fed the entire family for under $11.

What to do… I know! Let’s try Target! 80% of the cheap, DIY furniture in our house may be from IKEA, but the other 20% is from Target, and the bookcases we already have and know will fit, which we thought we had gotten at IKEA, must’ve actually been from Target.

The problem is, Target’s gotten too big for its britches. In trying, admirably, to position itself in stark contrast to Wal-Mart, they’ve gone and done away with all of the basics, like the cheap, no-frills Sauder (slogan: “Good furniture made possible”… yes, possible!) bookcases and such that they used to carry for years and years. My wife constantly complains that Target is lacking this or that simple necessity, but for me, now, it finally hit home.

Faced with having my grand mission of obtaining approximately 25 cubic feet of book storage for less than $100 devolve into nothing more than a rambling trek along American Boulevard, with nothing to show for a wasted evening besides a mediocre meal and my son’s Blue’s Clues jigsaw puzzle (which just goes to prove Target Axiom #2*), I pulled out one last possibility.

Well… we could always try Menards.

Now you have to understand, I am deeply scarred from a lifetime of unwilling exposure to the Menards guy (yes, I was just as shocked as you are). He’s long since retired, but the mind-melting jingle (“Save big money at Menards!”) endures. I have nothing against the place, in particular; it’s just not a place I generally think to go to for… you know… anything.

But it just so happens that there was one a convenient distance from Target. On our way home, in fact. So, why not check it out? I was amazed. They had a mountain of just the cheap Sauder bookcases I was looking for… but a new model… wider… and on sale for $15.88! So we actually ended up getting more precious cubic feet and saving about $20 from what we’d expected to pay at IKEA or Target.

I was a bit disheartened, though, to notice the bookcases are apparently a part of Sauder’s “Beginnings” product line. Ten years of marriage, and we’re still stuck on “Beginnings.”

Anyway… tonight came time for assembly. Now I’ve put together enough cheap furniture (and then some) in my lifetime. I’ve seen so many of that particular sort of cam locking screw mechanisms (and the wooden support pegs that always seem to be paired with them) that I could probably put together something assembled with them without instructions… or tools… using my feet… while sleeping… in another house.

Sadly, it was not enough humiliation for them to simply call these bookcases “Beginnings.” No, no. The cam locks are gone, and in their place a new device of such cunning design, given the almost sinister appellation “hidden connector,” that I am convinced that the only reason Sauder still retains designers in its employ is to concoct ever more devious, counterintuitive, and downright impossible means of sticking two boards together. What’s so bad about, you know, a screw?

The hidden connector consists of a circular piece of brown plastic, about the size of a quarter and 1/4 inch thick, with two opposing holes on the edge and a large angled hole on one side. These are pounded with a hammer into circular holes that just slightly overlap the edge of the shelf boards. Then you insert special screws into the angled side hole and stick them through the edge hole that lines up with the place where the hole in the wood overlaps the edge (are you still with me?), although actually you should have put the screw in the plastic piece first… that’s easier.

Next, try to figure out a way to stick a screwdriver in the hole at an angle and actually make solid contact with the screw head. Good. Next, attach the shelf to the side pieces, and repeat for the other shelf… but don’t attach it too well, or you’ll never get the bottom bracing board, held in with four metal pegs, in place without having to use undue force and, in the process, scratch the hell out of the thin layer of laminated oak pattern lithographed paper that’s glued to the outer surface of the pressed-sawdust-and-glue boards that constitute this fine piece of furniture, the best you can buy for the price of a CD or an extra large supreme pizza.

OK, how long did that take, 45 minutes? Great! One down, four to go!

Ah, the things I’ll do to save a buck.

* Target axioms: 1) If you go into Target set on buying one small thing, and only that one small thing, you will still somehow end up spend at least $50 and needing one of those jumbo plastic shopping bags to hold your purchases; 2) Even if you are absolutely convinced that you will walk out of Target empty-handed, if only just this once, you’ll still end up buying at least one item.

Addendum (October 27, 2006): I’m sad to report that it appears the “Menards Guy” website is no more. As for the Menards Guy himself, I do not know…