Saturday, May 05, 2007

Seek and ye shall find

One activity I've enjoyed a lot since arriving here in San Francisco is shopping. Suddenly, the experience of going to the corner shop for a pint of milk has been transformed thanks to all the unfamiliar brands, weird products and surprising... er, surprises I find there. I used to buy semi-skimmed milk in the UK, for example, but here I have to work out if I want skim, 1% fat, 2% fat or even "half & half" (which it turns out is actually half cream, half milk and therefore nothing like semi-skimmed at all).

And all this is before you hit the big chain stores. I went to a branch of the general-purpose chain Target the other day. Alongside the normal escalators in the middle of the shop it had extra ones designed to carry your shopping trolley up and down between floors for you. Escalators! For trolleys! You just can't buy entertainment like that.

Added to these mundane thrills, the Bay Area is home to a whole heap of genuinely quirky and downright weird shops. There's one just round the corner on 17th Street that sells only door knobs. And then there's the McSweeney's-related pirate supplies store over on Valencia Street. In fact, Valencia seems to be almost exclusively filled with intriguing shops touting quirky second-hand books, furniture, curios and clothes.

There are also some incredible bargains to be had (especially for me, thanks to the exchange rate). But here I have run into a problem. I recently bought a pack of riculously cheap blank CDs (100 TDK 80-minute CD-Rs at Circuit City for $10.99 - get 'em while they're hot). So what's the problem? Well, although I am now the proud owner of a towering pack of very budget discs, I need to find some sort of cases for them, and I just can't bring myself to pay more for a thin plastic sleeve than I did for the CD it's supposed to be protecting.

So yesterday I spent the day touring SF's electronics and stationery shops in search of these elusive cheap prophylactics for my unprotected shiny discs. And, as I toured shops such as CompUSA, Best Buy, and OfficeMax, I was struck by two things.

The first was that they all had lots of aisles filled with single products. I've noticed this phenomenon in the UK too, particularly at similar barn-like branches of chains such as Currys. My local one in London had an entire row stocked with just one type of scart cable. They were all exactly the same price, colour, size, price and brand, row upon row of identical blister-packs. What is the point in having thousands of the same product on offer? Why not offer a variety of brands, some cheaper, some gold-plated and expensive? Y'know, choice?

Yesterday, besides browsing for CD sleeves, it was USB extension leads I kept finding displayed like this (I know, I know - the glamour! the excitement! the geek!). Every store was selling exactly the same $20 Belkin cables, and each had hundreds in stock, but no alternatives. So I went home and bought an unbranded one from eBay for four dollars instead.

The second, and slightly less nerdy, thing that struck me was that my browsing was essentially pointless. I had been to all these shops before, and pretty much knew they didn't have what I wanted. So why did I go back? Because there was something weirdly comforting about the experience. Sure, they stock some different products, but in the end barn-like shops here are essentially the same as barn-like shops at home - and now these were shops I was revisiting, so they felt like they were mine somehow, they were part of my territory here in San Francisco. And even the strange products are becoming comforting and, well, familiar.

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