Where Mass-Market Consumerism Goes To Die...
Do you ever have those moments where you’re walking through a department store, and you see something so astonishingly out-of-date that you wonder how anybody in their right mind would consider purchasing it? Maybe it’s an Angry Birds chew toy, or maybe it’s a tee-shirt dedicated to Charlie Sheen’s crippling drug dependency issues - when you see it, you just know it’s going to be off the shelving in a matter of months, unlikely to ever be viewed by human eyes ever again.
Ultimately, this leads to another puzzle of sorts: where exactly does that instantly dated crap go once it’s ushered off the aisles of America’s big box retailers? Does it get trucked out into the desert and buried in mass merchandising graves, or do they get air-mailed to Zimbabwe as part of some tax-write off or something?
Well, if you’ve wondered about the whereabouts of the discarded crap middle America no longer wants, wonder no more: when mass marketing goods die, they don’t go to heaven or hell, they go here:
What, you’ve never heard of Big Lots before? Clearly, you’ve never been poor in America, then. Big Lots, essentially, is that missing link between Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store, the retailer version of Sasquatch, if you will. The store is an operation that specializes in hawking surplus or overstocked products. . .as well as just mildly damaged and irregular products, too. In other words? It’s the veritable purgatory for mass marketed, American consumer goods.
There are things you’ll find in a Big Lots store that you probably won’t see ever again, unless they somehow resurface on eBay ten years later. The place is basically a repository for stuff that you couldn’t give away for free, the sort of junk that has cluttered the very bottom of America’s bargain bins for years and years. Amidst copies of unsold L. Ron Hubbard and Ron Paul tomes, you’ll find all sorts of recently anachronistic goods, from about a million jillion holiday food sets (if you need Bubble Yum candy canes, they’ve got enough to last you until the UEFA Finals) to stuff that would almost be neat if it wasn’t for the fact that the versions on sale are heavily damaged and stained (alike an animatronics “Abominable Snowman” from the Rankin/Bass “Rudolf” special that, despite having a moving mouth, lacks the capacity to make any sort of sound.)
I recently took a trip to a nearby outlet, and decided to peruse through the (mostly bent and rusted) shelves of the neighborhood Big Lots, in an attempt to spot the most ridiculous - and in some instances, socially damning - items on sale. Needless to say, there is some exceptional, exceptional crap on tap if you’re interested.
First up, how about an entire assortment of foodstuffs endorsed by a stand-up comedian that has a routine where he mocks starving African children for having flies circling around their swollen eyeballs? Oh, and he’s also the voice of a talking tow truck in a popular series of family films, as well - how could I forget.
This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes Big Lots not only a graveyard of sorts for mass market-capitalism, but in some ways, a cemetery for soon-to-be forgotten pop-cultural items. I, for one, had no idea that this stuff existed, let alone why anybody would want it to. Somewhere, at some point in time, some marketing guy said that the white trash, probably racist comedy-fan demographic was large enough to make an instant-fish batter assortment viable as a product - which, admittedly, gets me way too excited for the prospect of some hilariously stereotypical goods hawked by Carlos Mencia a good five or six years down the line.
And speaking of things that really screw with the whole space-time continuum, here’s an entire display dedicated to a line of “retro” 7-Up sodas. Needless to say, these packages - many of them partially shredded and dusted in a brown crud I can only presume to be feces of some undeterminable origin - have seen better days before getting hoisted on the shelving here. The thing that really struck me about this was that, despite being a huge soda aficionado, I don’t think I recall ever seeing these on the store shelves of any legit retailers in my part of the country. The reality before us? Not only are these most likely expired beverages, they’ve probably been trucked and maintained in room-temperature storage for several months before being placed in the middle of the aisle - non-refrigerated, of course - at this particular store.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when that picture entails Power Rangers-themed macaroni, you’re looking at a Tolstoy in the making. There’s not really a whole lot you can say about this one, I guess. . .although if it gives you indigestion, you could always get super-cute and yell “TYRANOSAURUS!” will struggling through a particularly tough dump, I suppose.
Although there is a TON of weird-ass items in the food section of the store, the toy aisle is perhaps even more messed up. For starters, what kid out there WOULDN’T want an action figure modeled after a dude world renowned for getting liquored up and making racially insensitive remarks about deceased pro wrestlers from the ‘80s? The fact that this thing doesn’t have a talking voice chip is one of the biggest missed opportunities I’ve ever seen for anything…
To prove that 2010 happened to future generations, I reckon, there’s a board game modeled after “The Jersey Shore” on sale, too. Admittedly, I’m not really sure why this and the Seinfeld version of “Scene It?” are in the kids section, but whatever. The sooner they learn about nihilism and crude Italian stereotypes, they better they are for it, I surmise.
Hey, what do you get the person that has everything? Well, how about some Black Eyed Peas mugs? With that in mind, what do you get someone you really, really don’t like? The exact same thing. Hell, with 64 fluid ounces of alcohol in me is pretty much the only way you could convince me to listen to their “music” anyway.
And that, I assure you, is just the tip of the moribund iceberg. There’s an electronics section in there too, but since there’s really not that much exciting about Dharma and Greg DVDs, I decided to skip it and run my way through the food section one more time. Hey, those Jolly Ranchers-flavored sodas aren’t going to be on sale forever, you know.
Needless to say, my waltz through the local Big Lots was about as depressing as a jog down the cancer ward. From a sociological perspective, it’s kind of interesting to peer at all the stuff that’s obsolete for “mainstream” consumers - which, conversely, is the stuff the poor and the downtrodden in this country have no option but to purchase. A couple of things surprised me about my visit, most notably, the surprisingly large section dedicated to Hispanic foods. It seems like every single aisle was capped by a display for hot sauce or traditional Mexican candies, which makes me ponder a many things about who the real target audience is for overstock stores of the like.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat it; browsing through these aisles is like ambling down poverty row and experiencing the miseries of just about every underserved minority in the nation. Poor whites, blacks and Latinos shuffle in and out of these buildings all day long, jamming their buggies with beat up cans of salt-speckled vegetables and melted candies to take home to their no doubt malnourished children. And if they’re lucky, they might just get that Guitar Hero action figure lodged between the lukewarm Jones Soda and Cocoa Peebles cereal bars. Well, probably not, but their parents kind of mulled over it, anyway.
Most of the time, when I tell you people about my adventures, I do so because I want to give you a template so that you can try out your own psychosocial experiment. In this instance, however, I’m not really sure I would advocate stopping by a Big Lots for any real reason - unless, of course, you’re one of those sorts that really gets a kick out of watching people shamble about with no discernable reason to live anymore.
Granted, we all have our curiosities about the end of mass-marketed consumer goods’ life cycles, and while you do see exactly that at Big Lots, you’ll also end up seeing a whole lot more stuff you probably don’t want to - like the huddled, hungry masses, being particularly hungry and huddled. If nothing else, Big Lots is your welcome mat to the very tail-end of the American consumption cycle - and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a tail end that stinks to high heaven.