February 3rd, 2007
How many of you would buy a pair of plastic/rubber slippers for $35.95? I observed this problem confronting a fellow in The Bay in Ottawa last week. While looking for a pair of rubber overshoes to confront the ubiquitous, briny East-Canadian slush, the fellow next to me was trying to determine whether $35.95 was really the sale price for these glorified flip-flops.
“Yes” the young salesman assured him, after some earnest database-checking, that indeed was the sale price. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I paid twelve greenbacks for a superior pair at a Florida outlet mall. Admittedly, mine were made by the vilified Third World sweat-shop exploiter Nike – so paying less did require a post-modern ethical compromise on my part.
I also didn’t mention that he could probably have paid half that price at the Ottawa Costco or, heaven forbid, Wal-Mart; depending on availabilty in the former, and in the latter, one’s willingness to rub shoulders with the great unwarshed. The concept of choice in retail has of course for many, as I allude to above, not been an ethically-neutral development.
Wal-Mart has been assailed on a number of fronts – for (again) selling foreign products produced under questioned working conditions, for resisting unionization and, most interestingly, for driving competitors out of business. The most commonly cited in the latter category are “mom-and-pop” stores, whose demise reputedly “guts” the downtown core of middle America.
The first two criticisms have been roundly debated, and significantly fielded by Wal-Mart’s defenders. The latter has been of broader scope, to the point of even awakening the public’s nostalgia for the retailers of yore.
CBC’s Basic Black did a feature years ago about Canadians yearning for the days when Eaton’s or The Bay were the only choice in town. They talked longingly about lining up for the “TransCanada Sale”, the one day a year Eaton’s would drop its “everyday low prices” to clear out their inventory. I recall similar Boxing Day sales at Sam the Recordman and A&A Records in Montreal – where legions would line up in the cold for a wrestle in the Pop or Rock sections. To me, these are not fond memories.
Today, the internet provides me with myriad choices in music, competitively priced and at my fingertips. If I want a bottle of ketchup, I can get the lowest price at Wal-Mart. If I want to try my luck, I can get lowest price, good quality shoes at Costco or elsewhere. Now, if I want, I can still pay more and be waited on in a shoe store by a purportedly knowledgeable salesperson. I can go to Harry Rosen’s and have a well-tailored, neatly groomed continental recommend shirts or suits at top dollar. Or I can buy the same suit from a larger selection at an outlet in Florida – essentially paying for my airfare by what I saved on the suit.
The bottom line is I have the choice. If you want to pay top dollar for ketchup, you can. And you can also buy $36 flip-flops at The Bay. Take your pick.