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Why Is Shopping at Discount Stores So Humiliating?

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A Super Cofix branch in Tel Aviv.
A Super Cofix branch in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

It was a recent Friday morning, at about 8:30. I was passing by a branch of Good Pharm, the new chain that’s been dubbed “the Cofix of cosmetics and toiletries” – a reference to the chain that sells coffee, and everything else, for 5 shekels ($1.35) – on my way to the Carmel market. There was terrific yellow kiwifruit at the fruits and vegetables stall near the entrance to the market, on the right side. I remembered that I needed hair conditioner. Having hair at my age is a miracle in itself. I don’t take it for granted. I cultivate the plumage. Hair is my source of strength. It’s what sets me apart from sweaty, fat, balding Israelis. I don’t know what I will do if a hair falls out. I will kill myself. My headstone will read: He had hair, and now it's gone.

King George Street was deserted. The Good Pharm branch was completely empty. For the past two weeks there had been huge, unending lines to get in. Like the famous bread lines in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. People pushed to enter, trampled one another for goods that were all being sold for a uniform price of 10 shekels. Desperation was writ large on their faces. They entered in despair and came out with joy, carrying yellow cloth bags stuffed with tampons, sunscreen, deodorants and dental floss. All of it dirt cheap.

They’d experienced a religious enlightenment. Like the members of a low caste who are privileged to kiss the feet of their guru for the first time. And the guru in this case is a 10-shekel coin that glints in the neon lights of the Good Pharm branch. Oh, 10-shekel coin that brought us out of the darkness of Super Pharm! Good and beneficent coin, show us the way to the good life and to Dove hand cream.

Right now there’s no one in Good Pharm. The coast is clear. To go in or not? That is the question. And if someone were to see me? No, no, I can’t allow myself to be seen going in. It’s not my style. It’s not what I want people to think of me. I am not cheap. I am a guy with prestige. And it’s well known that a person is his supermarket. I don’t buy in low-cost chain stores. It’s not classy. To go into Good Pharm? Who do you think I am? A beggar? A chronic cheapskate? Someone who’s bankrupt?

The very thought embarrasses me. In fact, it embarrasses me so much that I stand on the other side of the street, looking at Good Pharm, but unable to bring myself to cross. My hands are perspiring. My pulse is racing. I feel nauseous. Just thinking about going in and paying 10 shekels for hair conditioner makes me feel humiliated. But what’s the deal – don’t I deserve to be able to buy hair conditioner at an exorbitant price, just like the tycoons and millionaires? Am I not as good as they? Am I less successful? Not as smart? Less normal? What, am I a poor wretch?

Illustration. Credit: Sharon Fadida

Money is a humiliating and embarrassing commodity. It’s a constant reminder that we all live in an economic system. We are not autonomous agents. Money minimizes us to the level of givers and takers, buyers and sellers. It turns us into a means of exchange, its replication. It emphasizes our wretchedness; it doesn’t need us, we need it. It is the master. We are dependent on it, cling to it as a symbol of our nullity – the creature that attacked its creator. How does one fight such a creature? There is only one way: ignore its existence. Waste it as though it has no value at all. Don’t count each shekel, and definitely don’t save. Don’t make a big deal out of every penny.

Mock it. You thought you controlled me, money? Think again. I scatter you to the winds, like bits of paper that have no true significance. I toss you out like a piece of garbage. People who have huge debts and bank overdrafts think they have vanquished money. You can’t vanquish money. The wealthy are those who have allowed money to vanquish them.

I am no richer than the people who patronize Cofix and Good Pharm. I have nothing with which to lord it over them. We are all victims of the economic system. We are all trying to survive. We are screwed from the day we are born. We wallow in the dunghill of the low and middle classes. We have zero chance of getting out of there. Even if we improve our condition – 1,000 shekels here, 10,000 shekels there – it won’t be enough. Because it’s never enough. We are all in the same cul-de-sac. And occasionally we all need Cofix and Good Pharm. It’s the soup kitchen of those who have a bit less or a bit more. Even my partner sometimes buys coffee or carrot juice at Cofix. She tries not to do it when she’s with me.

There’s something in Cofix that repels me, even sexually. Am I supposed to sleep with a woman who drinks gruel-like espresso for 5 shekels? We were educated to be fastidious and told that best is the most expensive. Our self-worth is measured in terms of the value of money and its purchasing power. Ten shekels? I’m worth a lot more than that. I’m no coin. I am a free human being.

Well, maybe that’s what’s embarrassing and humiliating – the knowledge that we’re imprisoned within a culture of lies. As though there’s a difference between the cheap chains and the expensive ones. It’s a false hierarchy, which creates imagined differences. In the end, it’s all the same crap. Mass-produced inferior merchandise that exploits cheap labor and uses substandard raw materials. And when that merchandise is sold at a true price, at its real value, the lie is suddenly exposed. And when you catch someone in an act of fraud, you’re embarrassed. The fraudster doesn’t know what embarrassment is, because he has no shame. But we, the consumers, understand that we’ve been had and lied to and defrauded. That is insulting and sad and painful and embarrassing and demeaning, because all these years we just threw money away, and in fact we threw ourselves. We are suckers and fools, and it’s too bad we didn’t move to Berlin, because there the lie is a lot cheaper.

I need conditioner for healthy, full, lustrous hair, so I decide to take the plunge. I will overcome the embarrassment and the humiliation. Yes, I will do it.

I do it. I take a deep breath and charge at the doors of Good Pharm, like an American paratrooper in the Normandy invasion. Geronimo!!! Here I am at the shampoos and conditioners shelf. And just as I take a bottle of conditioner, a woman I know comes in. She radars me. I radar her. She looks at me. I look at her. She knows what she knows. I know what I know. We know there is no choice but to be there, at this moment, in this place. I lower my gaze to the floor. She walks with head erect to the toothpaste shelf. I get confused and forget what else I wanted to buy. I hurry to the checkout counter, hand the cashier a 10-shekel coin and hightail it out of there.

I go to the market to buy yellow kiwifruit, sweet and tasty. Forty shekels a kilo.