A visit to the 99¢ Store

by Mark Frauenfelder

I had a friend named Ralph who bought almost everything he needed from a 99¢ Store. He would brag to me about the deals he'd get on instant coffee, condensed milk, beer, cigarettes, and frozen pizza. "You get a lot for your money at that place," he'd say, handing me a plate of ersatz Oreos. "There are some real bargains there." But the only times I'd consume instant coffee, condensed milk, beer, or frozen pizza were when I was at Ralph's apartment, so I wasn't really able to tell if the 99¢ products were as tasty and wholesome as the kind found in a real supermarket.

There's a 99¢ Store in North Hollywood, about ten minutes' drive from where I live. I've passed by many times on my way to or from the airport. I've always been tempted to stop in for a look, but since I'm either in a hurry to catch a plane or burned out from traveling, I kept putting off a visit. Then one hot Saturday afternoon in July, I decided the time had come. I got in my car and headed for The 99¢ Store.

On the way, I began wondering how these stores are able to survive. I mean, they've been around for years, but they haven't yet become The $1.49 Store or The $1.99 Store. With inflation -- even the single-digit kind we've had throughout the '90s -- profit margins must shrink every year. Maybe the owners simply fill the shelves with cheaper junk. Ten years from now, The 99¢ Store's inventory will be limited to bags of twist ties, wire coat hangers, and little plastic cheese and cracker packages with cheese so old that it's turned white.

Then again, maybe The 99¢ Stores are the dumping grounds for the inevitable spillover of an economic system that must continuously grow larger, producing more, consuming more, or else collapse into economic depression. Perhaps, then, a well-stocked 99¢ Store is a leading indicator of a healthy economy. Instead of "new housing starts" and "durable goods" indices, maybe The Wall Street Journal should be running little charts and graphs indicating the number of 99¢ Stores recently opened across the country.

My train of thought was cut off, however, when I realized that I had suddenly crossed an invisible border into a foreign territory. I started to see people walking around with the "mullet" haircut, the kind that's short and spiky on top and long in the back. This was a sure sign of being in the North Valley. If you ever visit this area, don't expect to find a florist, antique store, eyeglass boutique, or cafe like you would only a few miles to the south. In the North Valley you'll do your shopping at The Shower Door Doctor and Work Boot Warehouse. You'll relax at the Silver Saddle Motel, which sports peeling paint flakes the size of potato chips all over the walls and a weather-beaten, life-size replica of a horse on the roof. Yes, this is 99¢ Store Country.

Before I reached my destination, however, several pretenders to the sub-dollar shopping-market throne tried to lure me into their parking lots. One was called 98¢ Plus, another was called 98¢ Up, and another was called the 98¢ Minimarket. I was momentarily tempted to park my car and visit them, since what could be better than a knock-off of a store that sells knock-off products, but the urge quickly faded. I wanted no part of these stores, for they broke the cardinal rule of sub-dollar shopping by offering some products that cost more than a dollar. This, in my book, ruins everything. How dare these establishments try to trick me into giving them business! Any store can be a plus store. K-Mart, Target, and Walmart -- they're 98¢-Plus stores; Hell, they're 25¢-Plus stores. Call me a purist, but I insist on the real thing, The 99¢ Store, where I'm promised that absolutely nothing has a price tag over ninety-nine cents. That's the place for me.

When I rolled into the parking lot of the promised land, I saw that the sign on the building read "The 99¢ Only Store." That's telling Œem! The store had a nice big parking lot, and thanks to the metal posts installed around the door, it was impossible for customers to push the shopping carts into the parking lot, thus eliminating the need to maneuver around a bunch of carts stranded by customers eager to hurry home and use or eat their new purchases.

Apparently, visiting The 99¢ Store on a Saturday afternoon is a group activity for many families, because the place was teeming with children. Most of the youngsters were hanging around the candy or toy sections, fighting with their siblings, or running over to their mothers, waving something they'd grabbed from the shelves, whining, "Mom, can we get this?" The store isn't very big, nothing like a Safeway or Target. It's more like the size of a B. Daltons. But it is crammed to the gills with merchandise. The aisles are narrow, and I often found myself waiting for a crowd of shoppers to disperse before I could push my shopping cart somewhere. Plus, there are boxes of inventory stacked on the floor, blocking the aisles and making it even more difficult to get around. Mounted on the ceiling are many rows of naked fluorescent bulbs. The bright lights and the absence of Muzak in the background gives the place a stark and panicked atmosphere. You might even falsely believe that the customers weren't there to buy a shopping experience, judging from the way they were grabbing things off the shelves as fast as they could, loading up their carts with products, and getting the hell out, dragging their crying kids by their wrists. But a cursory examination of the store's offerings convinced me that the joy of shopping is what this place is all about.

The simple way to describe the inventory of The 99¢ Store, of course, is to say that it consists of products that cost less than a buck. To describe the material used in the manufacture of the products sold there is only slightly more complicated. I came up with a general rule: if you can't eat it or drink it or rub it on your body, then it's probably made of plastic. If not plastic, then cheap stamped metal, the kind of metal that's really shiny, but the shiny part is just a layer that will quickly peel off, exposing a dull gray metal that is probably poisonous. The only thing I remember being made out of wood was a rat trap.

I was hoping to find some really odd toys, the kind with instructions written by Asian people with a poor grasp of the English language, but I was disappointed with the offerings in the store's toy section. It doesn't compare to the toy section of the Dollar Store I went into when I visited my parents in Colorado a couple of years. There I bought a Chinese toy in a plastic bag with a label that said the toy was a "fulchau." What was it? A tube-shaped plastic whistle, with a long spring coming out of it. At the end of the spring, there's a Barbie Doll-lookalike head. And inside the head of the doll, there's a lightbulb. A battery fits inside the whistle. The only thing I can guess about this toy is that people in China blow the whistle part and light the head and swing it around at parades or celebrations. I bought three of them.

But I had no such luck at The 99¢ Store Toy department. There were a couple of fake Barbie Dolls; an "Ashley," with an unusually broad forehead and Jackie Kennedy far-apart eyes, and a "Rebecca," sort of a younger, chubbier Barbie. But they weren't worth buying. I did buy a couple of plastic drinking cups shaped like rocket ships, at 2 for 99¢.

Next, I worked my way over to the personal care products department. It was much more interesting. This is where I discovered that there are five categories of brands at The 99¢ Store:

1. Soundalikes Large companies spend a lot of money to make their brand names household words. Many 3rd-rate companies parasitically absorb the strong reputation of established brands names by using similar sounding names. I found "W-Tips" ear swabs ("W" for the wax they'll help you extract?), "Roaster's Choice" instant coffee, and a spray can of "Possession" cologne. Possession ("Our version of Obsession" states the label) is made by a company called Elite Parfums Paris, but upon reading the fine print I learned that the contents were made in the USA, while the can was made in Finland. (Maybe since Paris is sort of in between the two countries they picked it as the company's "average" location.)

2. Lookalikes The look-and-feel copycat packaging at The 99¢ Store is quite effective at subconsciously fooling you into believing you're getting established brand name products. If I were illiterate I'd probably really believe that the "Deluxe Care" line of baby shampoo, lotion, and powder were Johnson & Johnson products. They've got the typeset, color scheme and container shapes down to a T.

3. Problem Children There are products for sale at The 99¢ Store that have recognizable brand names. But unless the item is small and cheap to begin with, then something is going to be wrong with it if it is for sale in this store. For example when I discovered a bin overflowing with Arm & Hammer Tartar Control Dental Care toothpaste boxes, a grabbed a few, thinking I was saving a bundle. When I got home and proudly showed my bargain purchase to Carla, she pointed out that the toothpaste was "Importado El Gel con Bicarbanato de Sodio." Yeah, so what, I thought, it is still the real McCoy. Carla then discovered the real problem: "EXP5 96." The stuff had been rotten for a couple of months. The boxes of toothpaste probably sat in a warehouse in Mexico for three or four years, and when they hit the expiration date, they were sold to The 99¢ Store and reshipped to the US.

I also bought a bunch of Reach toothbrushes, since I wear them out really quickly, and when I got home, I noticed a black sticker had been applied to the back of every box. I was able to peel one of the stickers off enough to see a little of what was printed on the box. Just a drawing of the brush with arrows pointing to the brush's unique attributes, and a bar code. Why did they have to cover that up?

I didn't think Jordache was still in business, but they are, and they're licensing their trademark to the distributors of some of the foulest perfumes and colognes my nose has ever had the misfortune of sniffing. I was only able to work my way through three different fragrances -- "Wild Potion," "Wild Emotions," and "Fidelity" -- before calling it quits. Somebody else with a stronger stomach will have to uncork "Cicero Man," "Night Rhythm," and "Yacht Club," but please make sure I'm not in the same room when it happens.

My favorite problem child product was the Coors baseball bat-shaped beer bottle, a brown glass monstrosity that looked more like a caveman's club. Also, as I recall from my beer drinking days, Coors is unpasteurized, so it needs to be refrigerated or it'll spoil. The Coors clubs at The 99¢ Store were just stacked on an unrefrigerated shelf.

4. Party Crashers Here we have products with brand names that weren't created to look like an established brand, but instead try to look like they belong to a well-known line, only you haven't heard of them before. Food products such as cookies, crackers, tea, are prime candidates for the party crasher brands, sporting English royalty names, Scottish-plaid and curly-cues on the box covers.

5. Nonames Finally, we descend to the murky bottom of The 99¢ Store food chain, littered with product packages that don't try to be anything other than containers for the substance they hold. This kind of packaging was popular in the late '70s, during the "generic" product craze. Those stark white boxes and cans with black all-uppercase block lettering screamed from supermarket shelves: "My manufacturer wasted no money on costly packaging design and is passing the savings on to you!" Of course the cost of designing a logo becomes inconsequential when you spread it across millions of units of a particular item, but the ploy worked anyway, for a while at least. The generic brand fad is gone from supermarkets, who have long since moved to packaging their cheap store-brand products in rich brown-and-green colored "designer" packaging. Not so at The 99¢ Store, land of the 15-year time warp. I bought a 12-ounce pull-tab can of noname-brand Luncheon Loaf, containing pork, chicken, salt, flavorings, sugar, milk protein hydrolysate, water, sodium phosphate, and sodium nitrate. There's no expiration date anywhere. As far as I know, this particular can may have sat on a Safeway shelf in 1978, only to be shipped and stored in a warehouse for 18 years, until popping up in The 99¢ Store. I'm not about to open it and take a guess at the age by examining the contents.

I spent most of my time looking for oddball items. I was hoping to find electrical appliances, but the only things I could find were Jesus nightlights and various sports ball nightlights. What better way to illuminate your bathroom than with the very symbols that illuminate the spirits of "church & football Sunday" folks who shop here?

One of my favorite things was a greeting-card style rack of shrink wrapped floppy disks. For ninety-nine cents, you can buy a word processor, spreadsheet, database program, or dozens of other programs. Are you an executive who wants to move up the corporate ladder? Then buy the "Managing People" program, and learn how to "Get the most out of your employees and yourself and become a better boss." Are you ill, and experiencing physical discomfort? Don't go to a doctor, get a copy of "Non Medical Pain Relief." Looking for a little action? Try "Dare to Dream," a program that lets you "live out your wildest dreams." Not a bad deal for ninety-nine cents!

I also wanted to find the single heaviest item for sale. The winner, at 9.9¢ per pound: a 10-lb bag of kitty litter. The best perceived value award goes to the "LeWorld" LCD watch, with "Quartz Accuracy." The watch is made in the Darth Vader style, black and chunky with useless bevels and protruding knobs. What appear to be four screws around the perimeter of the watch are merely painted-on screw heads. Best of all are the illustrations beneath the crystal indicating the three activities for which the watch can be useful: soccer, leaning sideways, and sitting on a bar. Also printed on the watch's face are the time differences between major world cities, and a red fish. I like my 99¢ watch, and only have two problems with it. One, the watch face says "WATER 100FT RESIST," but the package it came in says "This is not water resistant." Two, the watch loses about 40 minutes a day.

Even though there were many things left to investigate -- clothing, kid's furniture, 3-packs of off-brand beer -- I was starting to get my fill of The 99¢ Store and needed to go. But before I left, I wanted to buy one of the many different kinds of porcelain figures for sale. Clowns, squirrels, barnyard animals -- so many to choose from! I finally settled on a cow laying on its side. The cow is painted entirely black and gray, except for garish pink udders, which poke out of the side of the cow in a way that makes me think more of malignant growths than milk teats. I took my cow (which has a "Made in Brazil" label printed in mirror-image type) and headed for the checkout counter. The guy in front of me had one of the best mullets I'd seen all day. He was buying 4 bottles of Coors beer baseball bats, and a set of hacksaw blades. His friend, who was buying a walkman-style headphone set that came with a vinyl carrying pouch, glanced into my basket and noticed what I was getting: potted meat food product, rocketship drinking glasses, a quartz watch, a bunch of toothbrushes, and a clay tumoral cow. Then he looked up at me, smirked, and nudged his buddy, silently signaling him to "check out the weirdo." Even the checkout girl gave me and my purchase a second look. I thought "anything goes" would have been the motto of The 99¢ Store. But that was silly of me to assume. I was here for a different reason than the other customers. They were shopping for things they really believed they needed and I was researching this article. Still, our differences were only superficial. We were the same, deep down. We were all fellow travelers at The 99¢ Store, pushing our squeaky carts through blindingly-lit, linoleum-paved aisles, gawking at ridiculously low-priced products shipped in from around the world, flabbergasted to be somewhere where buying the experience of shopping costs next to nothing.

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