Pacific Northwest | April 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 18, home
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The One-Stop Shopper
If you know what you want, why sell out?
WHEN I WAS a kid and went somewhere with my father, I was surprised by how impatient he was with salespeople. My father knew what he wanted and didn't want to exchange social niceties with the staff.

If he needed a tool or a particular piece of clothing, he went to the store where the stuff was sold. He would tell the clerk what he was there for, and, if the clerk was smart, the clerk would tell him where to find it.

This was a pure business exchange between two guys. One person needed something and the other had it or knew how to get it. I don't think my father wanted to know about the specials the store had going on or the quality of the stuff he was buying. He didn't want to chitchat about the weather or talk about what was happening in the neighborhood.

When I was younger, I thought my father was rude. My mother taught her children how to exchange pleasantries with folks, asking them how they were, maybe noting some item they happened to be wearing ("My, that is a lovely orange vest," she might say), then thanking them profusely when they pointed us in the correct direction.

I followed my mother's advice for most of my life. But in the last few years, I've found myself being more like my father. I call it the Jack Webb approach to shopping. "Just the facts, ma'm, just the facts," Webb would say in his best Dragnet-detective growl, "and point me to the underwear."

Unlike the Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston, I never go into a store to "shop." When I go into a store, whether it's a hardware store, department store or grocery store, I have a product in mind, a product to find and a mission to accomplish. I don't want to look around and compare things. I don't want to talk to someone about other products.

I think my father had reached a point where he figured that life was short; there was a lot to get done and not enough time to do it all. If you know what you want, why fool around looking at something else?

(I must digress here. Awhile back, Mrs. Johnston decided I needed a new suit. We went to a suit store and Mrs. Johnston steered me toward the fancy-pants three-piece suits that she thought would look nice on me.

(After setting me up with a salesman, she said she was going to a store next door to "shop." When Mrs. Johnston returned in 15 minutes, I was by the front door. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her I was waiting to go home. She asked about the suit, and I said I picked one out, got measured and paid for it. That took five minutes. Then I picked out a tie and pair of socks. That was another five minutes. The salesman said I could pick up the suit in a few days.

(I spent the rest of my time standing by the front door. Mrs. Johnston said I should have "shopped," but I said I couldn't think of anything else I needed. Besides, I had been in the store beyond my usual attention span. We went home. I am through digressing now.)

Mrs. Johnston and I used to shop together, but she insisted on doing things that I thought wasted time, like trying on the clothes before you bought them. I figured if you liked something and you knew your size, you looked for that style and size, and then you bought it. That drives Mrs. Johnston crazy. She will ask me if I want to see something else, maybe a different style or different color. I tell her I would be happy wearing the same thing every day until all that was left were ragged strings hanging off my body. Then I would go to the store, where I could purchase new clothes, pick them out and go home.

I rarely throw out stuff. I have clothes in my closet that are so old they are coming back in style. Now that is what I call smart shopping.

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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