Sunday, February 26, 2023

Why Bed Bath & Beyond Is Bankrupt or Bed Bath & Beyond as Metaphor

This is the story of how I tried to buy two pillowcases at Bed Bath & Beyond and how it turned into an all-day ordeal. But it’s also a story of how the entire retail landscape has changed (and not for the better) and how that’s a metaphor for the economy in general.

In case you haven’t been following the news, Bed Bath & Beyond recently filed for bankruptcy and I think I know why. First, they spent God knows how many millions of dollars to renovate their Chelsea flagship store, which was an unnavigable warren of dead ends and the source of one of my favorite jokes. (“I just spent three hours at Bed Bath & Beyond. Not shopping, trying to get out.”)

That was a good thing.

The bad thing is that there’s now no merchandise in the store. No merchandise and no sales help.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.

Where there used to be an entire wall of sheets and pillowcases arranged by price and color, there’s now a wall of high-priced comforters and nary a sheet or pillowcase in sight. So rather than an array of $20 pillowcase sets, as I’m accustomed to finding, you now find one set of $80 pillowcases.

That’s the other thing that’s happened. There’s no merchandise and what little merchandise they do have is overpriced.

I asked if they had any Wamsutta pillowcases (Bed Bath & Beyond’s house brand) and they said no, and they wouldn’t be getting them in until June.


It’s February! I’m supposed to wait four months for pillowcases?!

And, by the way, it’s still as impossible to find your way out of the store as it was before the redesign (which is not entirely a bad thing because it means I can still do my joke).

Since there are a Marshalls and a TJ Maxx in the same building, I decided to try my luck there.

Woe unto the person who decides to enter either of these hellholes!

They’re both a hodgepodge of low-quality merchandise thrown together in no particular order. I had a flashback to the bargain basement establishments my parents used to drag me to. You know, the kind with bad lighting?

Needless to say, I hightailed it out of there without buying anything.

And what’s the difference between Marshalls and TJ Maxx, anyway? Why do we need both of them?

After I regained my composure, I attempted to do a Google search on my phone for “pillowcases near me.” (Why are there 200 kinds of anything you try to do a search for on Google?)

The closest thing I could find in my price range was Target. I saw that the Tribeca location had exactly one set of blue cotton pillowcases for under $20, so I rushed down there.

Target is another sort of bargain basement hodgepodge, and they also had barely any sales help. (They even make you check out your own purchases. If I wanted to work here, I'd apply for a job!)

But I did find my one set of blue cotton pillowcases for under $20, so I felt like my day had not been a total waste.

So why is this a metaphor for the economy in general?

Because the retail marketplace mirrors our economy at large, which is to say there’s a high end and a low end, but no middle.

Beyond that, there’s the sheer contempt with which the people in charge of these establishments hold their customers (hence the lack of sales help).

The whole atmosphere seems to say, “We only care about maximizing profits for our shareholders, and if you don’t like it, you can go someplace else.”

Except you can’t. If everyone’s doing it, there’s no place else to go.

So old farts like me, who like to actually see what they’re buying before they pay for it, are left holding the self-checkout bag.

So I guess I’ll be (reluctantly) buying my sheets and pillowcases at Target from now on.

Or at least until June.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Great American Gluttony and Violence Festival

The Super Bowl may be the most American institution we have because it embodies two core American values: gluttony and violence.

Everything about the Super Bowl is absurd, if you looked at it objectively. From the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” to the Air Force flyover to the game itself, it’s almost an object lesson in self-parody.

Let’s start with the national anthem and aforementioned flyover.

What’s that all about? Are we pledging allegiance to the Super Bowl? Is there some connection between football and our armed forces? The implication is that football is somehow tied to our national identity and if you don’t like football, you’re somehow unpatriotic.

Then there’s the game itself.

Let’s talk about what we’re really watching: a bunch of 300-pound men throwing themselves at each other and trying to cause as much damage as possible without actually killing someone. (I suppose that’s what all that padding and helmets are for.)

But a few weeks ago, the nation watched a football player go into cardiac arrest on prime time television.

For a brief moment, it seemed as if the powers that be might actually stop to consider the dangers inherent in this sport. But I knew from the outset that nothing would actually change. There’s too much money involved!

Which leads us to the other feature of the Super Bowl and the main reason why people like me (who don’t give a shit about football) might actually consider watching: the commercials.

Here’s yet another example of what makes this game so American. It’s all about selling people shit they don’t need and can’t afford.

But, hey, at least the commercials often feature celebrities because we are, after all, a celebrity-obsessed culture. So even if you don’t care about football, we can still bond over our mutual love/hate relationship with celebrities.

Then there’s the half-time show, another exercise in excess but, again, at least it gives non-fans like me another excuse to watch.

Last night I caught part of a documentary about the making of the last half-time show. There was lots of backslapping and self-congratulation to go around. You’d think they’d just cured cancer. (OK, even I would have to admit that the logistics of organizing all those people, sets, and special effects is some kind of accomplishment, but give me a break!)

Oh, and I almost forgot the gluttony part.

How ironic is it that we celebrate an athletic event by gorging ourselves on pizza and chicken wings? And then we act like we’re the ones winning even though we're sitting on our couches stuffing food down our throats!

So, yes, I will probably be watching today’s Super Bowl.

But only for the material.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Why Most Americans Think Our “Good” Economy Is Bad

According to a recent Gallup poll, half of Americans say their finances are worse off now than a year ago.1 That’s despite record-low unemployment, massive job growth and declining inflation.

But if you’re a temp, freelancer or contract worker, like I am, you might be one of those people. That’s because if you’re a temp, freelancer or contract worker, you have no job security (not that any job is really “secure,” as thousands of tech workers—and others—recently found out). On top of that, you probably have no health insurance and, chances are, you can’t afford any, even with the so-called Affordable Care Act.

Furthermore, while inflation may be declining in some areas, it’s increasing in others. When the price of eggs at my local deli went down to $7 from $9, I was so excited I took a picture of it. But then the next day, The New York Times announced that it was increasing the price of its daily newspaper from $3 to $4.

You can’t win!

My salary peaked in 2015 and has actually been decreasing since then. And that’s not accounting for inflation, which, even if it was only 4% per year (and it was much higher last year), would mean that prices have gone up 32% in the last eight years!

Then there are things like natural disasters (which have increased since the advent of climate change) and medical emergencies, which can wipe out a family’s savings (assuming they have any) in one fell swoop. We’ve now had over 40 years of trickle-down economics and, guess what, folks: it hasn’t worked.

Our so-called “safety net” isn’t always enough to sustain people until they can find another job and some people don’t even qualify for that safety net.

Meanwhile, technologies like ChatGPT are set to further erode the job market, and retirement for many people (including myself) is nothing more than a pipe dream.

This is why it’s so frustrating when I keep reading and hearing people (I’m looking at you, Jerome Powell) say that low unemployment and high wages are bad. It’s as if the Fed is actively trying to make things worse.

It’s even more frustrating that we live in an age of social media, where everyone pretends that everything is great all the time.

Well, I have news for you, people: it’s not.