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Checkouts and Markups

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, November 27, 2009

It's that time of the year again. Time to feel like a fool. I started early this year, at Bed Bath and Beyond. Mind you, I love the store -- two shiny new floors of beautiful things that you don't have to try on. I'm a goner for candles and diffusers, not to mention cordless vacuum cleaners. And they even have beauty products and potato chips in the checkout line. It should be bliss.

It is, until I see everyone else heading for the register fingering their stacks of full-size coupons, each one good for 20 percent off.

I get coupons, too. They come in the mail once in a while, and I put them in a pile, and then they disappear. I have tried keeping them in my car, but they don't stay there, either. One way or another, they are rarely with me when I take the turn on Beyond Way (I'm telling you, it's a great store). And even if they were, how many would I have?

Before I moved this last time, I saved every one of the coupons I saw for weeks, and maybe I had six. Believe me, six is nothing compared to everyone else in line. The most I ever saw was a woman who had them organized by denomination -- some for 20 percent off, some for $10 dollars off, etc. For each item, she'd do the math and hand the cashier a coupon. She had a lot of items.

I asked her how she did it. My mother-in-law, she responded, and everyone nodded. They deliver piles of those coupons to apartment buildings around town that other women's mothers and mothers-in-law live in. I don't have either, a mother or a mother-in-law. I hear my mother's voice telling me that if only I'd done something different, she'd still be alive and living in a condo where women collect coupons for their daughters and daughters-in-law.

It's a slow process, with all the coupons. And it's hard not to think, as you stand there watching the person in front of you pay less for each item, that you are paying way too much. If they can afford to charge 20 percent less for every item in the store, they must be marking everything up by more than enough to cover those margins. And then you wonder: What kind of an idiot would pay full price for everything? Gotta be a complete fool.

That's my mother talking, and of course, she's talking about me.

Even when I have my "courtesy card" with me or can remember which phone number it's attached to, if I don't get the discount on the spot -- and often that's not how it works -- I'm likely to "lose" it, which is to say I'll misplace the money-off coupon on the register tape or the "reward" that comes by mail. And then it expires. And neither of my children will go with me if I am going to demand that they honor my expired coupon. So there I am, the sucker again.

I remember when one of the car dealers announced that they would simply tell people the price of a car. That's what I want when I go shopping. I don't want to have to bring a guy or a calculator. I don't want to have to work. Some people love to negotiate. I fight for a living. I think I'm very good at it. It's not what I do for pleasure. For pleasure, I like to shop, not calculate and negotiate.

It's bad enough when you travel and realize the people sitting next to you paid half of what you paid for the ticket. OK, they decided earlier. Fair enough. But why should I need a mother-in-law to buy great candles?

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