Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Shopping Detective: I Say Tomatoe You Say?

So there I am, basically minding my own business and pretending to be just another tourist shopper in Fredericksburg, Texas-- shopping capital of the Texas Hill Country. We pop into an adorable house turned hospital turned store named Kuchenladen because, afterall, with a name like that, it's got to spell food. Fredericksburg celebrates its German heritage, so you need to do a little translating or sounding out with many store names. (Kuchen means cooking or kitchen.)

After the basic 'howdy, ya'll' and the explanation that the space is very deep and that each of the many, many rooms is devoted to a different type of cooking art, I moved away from the front desk and began to ooohhhh and aaahhh and then stagger backward at the top of the line prices on the top of the line merchandise.

Perhaps the prices were not any higher than normal, but then, I don't normally shop (seriously) at regular retail. The thought that I could have had a a new 401K instead of a stash of Le Crueset pots and pans was a frightening one. I never seem to get the investments right...or I did great when I got 'in' as early as I did, since I could never afford this stuff now.

What I am saying is, there was nothing in this store I could afford.

And then my eye was drawn to a series of farm-stand style bins in the corridor, each bin held what appeared to be a cheap plastic imitation fruit or veg-- tomato, onion, lemon, garlic bulb, etc. On further inspection, I went wild with delight to discover that each of these molded plastic items was a 'saver'.

Having just wrapped a portion of a precious Heirloom Tomato in a baggie and said a tomato prayer for it's survival, I was over the moon to plunk down $5.98 for a Tomato Saver. Other savers were priced at $4.98.

The savers are made by a company named Hutzler in Connecticut; I'd give you the web site but I can't read the tiny writing on the side of the tomato. They can be washed in the dishwasher and while, yes, they are made in China, probably the tomatoes are too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Shopping Detective: Smartitag

One day, many years ago, I was on a prowl through Century 21 in Lower Manhattan, and in some odd spot between housewares and luggage, I found a tree of luggage tags-- large, glossy, circles (I'd say 3-4 inches in diameter) in assorted colors, organized by letters of the alphabet. They cost $4.98 each, so I bought a few. Not enough. I made an S of myself, but I should have gone further.

Ever since then, I have been looking for the world's best luggage tag, something that will not only i.d. my bags if lost, but will help me find my valises as they spin around on a carousel. Red string or ribbon is way over-done, trust me.

Last week in Wal-Mart, I found something that will accomplish one of those goals and possibly both. I bought a chrome yellow, laminated piece of paper called a Smartitag Luggage and Key Locator. The card is not much larger than a bookmark, yet on its tail are three dog-tag sized medallions and above that, two smaller tags-- those are the ones for your key chains.

Each tag has its own pin-code. Once you have purchased the card of five units, you go online ( and register your pin-code...the pin-code is printed on the back of each tag, along with the toll free phone. If someone finds your bag, he calls the toll free number then enters the pin-code. All five tags have the same pin-code...the same one you have already registered. Within seconds you can be re-united with your luggage (or keys).

If you want more than five tags, you may order more with the same pin-code from the web-site.

The Smartitag locator card costs $8.98.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Shopping Detective: Don't Drive & Cook

My mother taught me to bake a ham by spiking it with clove buds and drowning it with Coca-Cola. Indeed, Coke is used in many recipes and even French chefs have begun to play with the concept.

I have seen wire contraptions that allow you to insert a can of Coca-Cola into the framework and have also seen this same structure used for beer cans. But never before have I seen a Borracho Chicken Machine like the one I just found at the H.E.B.

For those not from San Antonio or South Texas-- borracho is Spanish for drunken and the H.E.B. began life as a supermarket but is now more like a hypermarche and is the icon we all worship in South Texas.

The Borracho Chicken Machine works on the same principle as devices invented years ago but is double barreled (two cans of beer, two chickens) and very sturdy so that it sits on top of your grill. You can place this int he dishwasher to sober it up (the machine, not the chicken). The item costs $9.99. Beer not included.

Monday, April 6, 2009

TheShopping Detective: The Ice Man Cometh

When I am not out on the road and blogging about my travels, I will try to write chapters I call THE SHOPPING DETECTIVE, LOOK WHAT I FOUND!

In most cases these will be about new merchandise and trends that I discover; sometimes there were be shopping tips...which is where we start today. Next up I will be reporting on The Boracho Chicken Machine (yes, I am serious about this!)

In the last few days, as I have returned to my home in San Antonio, I have devoted a lot of time to acquire a refrigerator since my last one was put to pasture when I rented out the house to a tenant who couldn't be parted with his own fridge.

Candidate number one came from Craigslist and was delivered to my kitchen for $250 with the guarantee that it has been working and if it doesn't work now, a refund would be mine. That was a bust so I am still waiting for the pickup and refund. But the owner was pleasant and willing and I expect a happy result here.

Then I went to Home Depot to begin serious research. Essentially, a new 22 cubic foot fridge (in biscuit) could be mine for $1100 and up; delivery would be made according to my zip code and the rotation of the delivery trucks. If I bought two GE appliances, I could get a $500 gift card to Home Depot. I was certain I did not need two more refrigerators. I wondered if I gave them the $250 used model if I could get a $250 gift card instead.

I went online, I clipped from the newspaper and searched out a brand new Sear's Outlet that my step-mother told me about. On the phone they told me they had 300 fridges and many were in biscuit. They were located in a strip mall I knew very well because there's a TJMaxx next door and a Wal-Mart behind. The space until recently was a Circuit City store.

We did the whole smart-shopping business routine: compare, search, touch, inspect, look for egg holders set into the door; butter dishes, etc. All of the merchandise in the store was 30-40% less than a new and similar product. However, they were all returns. Sears claims they have a liberal return policy-- no questions asked and the machine has been tested before it goes out on the floor.

This is a case of putting your values on the line and wondering just how good the light is in a showroom (not very is the answer)...or if a biscuit can be a lemon.

The side by side I chose (a Kenmore, Sear's private label brand) was delivered about two hours later by a private contractor. When he put it in place, he taught me a number of valuable lessons.

The new frigo (this is the French word for refrigerator and one I use because it's easy) was much more dented, damaged and scratched than the one I had inspected and I feared a bait and switch. The Gentle Giant (delivery man) told me he hears this all the time; he said that the routine in a store while appearing to be very efficient is meant to leave the perception that you have inspected when in fact, you've seen very little.

He said you should never buy anything from a warehouse situation without putting your own secret, private mark on it-- a mark that only you know about. He suggests that you always have a Sharpie or marker in your handbag and put a dot on the rear ...or do something so that you will know if you are taking possession of the exact same item you have purchased.

In the end, I decided that life was too short to fight City Hall. And a lovely, plastic egg holder had been thrown in to sweeten the deal. I arranged my collection of refrigerator magnets to artfully cover all the cosmetic damage and am glad to have saved $400 and had instant satisfaction.

But then we come to the question of the very basis of satisfaction. I was happy with the savings, happy with the quick delivery and willing to compromise in this imperfect world. Compromise is very much part of this equation.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rest in Peace

I am one of those people who goes to the airport three hours before the flight, just in case. I can't stand being late; I hate getting lost and I totally freak out if I am lost when up against the clock.

So we left for the funeral at an early hour...just in case.

As we took Exit 202 of I-35 in San Marcos, Texas and headed toward the cemetery, I noticed we were about a half hour early. I wondered if it was appropriate to use the expression 'kill time' when headed to a funeral. And that's when I saw-- to my right-- that we were passing a strip center with a Ross Dress For Less and a Marshall's. God, it was a hard choice, but I made it like a grown-up (who had just been to five factory outlet malls in a week).

We soldiered on to the funeral.

Mary was there waiting. The soldiers were already there,too... standing at attention just past the grave site. My brother had asked me what Mary's parents were named so I told him what I knew from my childhood: her mother was named Mrs. and her father was named Colonel. The Honor Guard and white gloved salutes were enough to make anyone weep.

At the funeral I learned he was Lt. Col. Sterlin Moore -- never called Dr. Moore that I knew of during my years of growing up-- although he had indeed earned a PhD. I remember him from our childhood. In our adult years, Mary and I would debate which one of our fathers more resembled The Great Santini.

Our friendship survived what will soon be 50 years not because we went to John Nance Garner Junior High School together, but because we were both brought up with very exacting fathers and were bound by the voice in our heads that told us to turn out the lights. Sterlin Moore was six months younger than my father and lived a year and a half longer.

He left behind 3 beautiful (and blonde) daughters, six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Many redheads. When we took pictures, Sarah and I put Mary in the middle because that is her birth order in her family.

We all cried a little and hugged a lot and then the family went back to 'Dad's house' for lunch. Sarah and I excused ourselves to head back to Exit 200 of I-35, the San Marcos Factory Outlets.

I'm not sure what it says about a funeral when the first thing you want to do at an outlet mall is find the Ferragamo outlet to see if they have the same shoes one of the family members was sporting at the cemetery. Maybe it says more about me.

Before we had even parked, as we drove under the highway and sailed into the parking lot, I began to see signs that said TRUE RELIGION. "Ah, Texas," I thought to myself. Once I parked, I realized the jeans maker True Religion had just opened an outlet store. Give me that old time religion.

After lunch at Johnny Rockets, dessert at Auntie Anne's and a Starbucks, we moved into the stores. The restaurant I remembered, I think Lone Star Cafe, was gone and few eateries had popped up, although Auntie Anne's does have a little pretzel truck that drives around the parking lot. (And Gucci runs a shuttle bus.)

No, Ferragamo did not have those shoes. I almost set up house-keeping at the Pottery Barn- Williams Sonoma outlet, so large and gorgeous and well-stocked and comforting. I truly had to force myself out of there. I left behind a 1930's style push-button telephone for $29.99 that I may never forget.

At a certain point in a week filled with outlet shopping, they all get to look alike. The Neiman-Marcus Last Call was not as good as one visited earlier in the week. When we got to Saks Off Fifth, we just shrugged with boredom and decided to concentrate on the outlets we hadn't seen recently: Yves Delorme, Victoria's Secret, La Perla, Gucci, Bath Junkie, etc.

The San Marcos outlets are good because there are two different builders with two different centers across the street from each other. Both Tanger and Premium Outlets have set up shops. Tanger has the more moderately priced merchandise, but among their stores is Aerosoles, Old Navy and Le Crueset. Premium has many names that you can find at their other outlet malls and several names you rarely see in an off-price mode.

Then we headed back toward San Antonio for a stop at Garden Ridge, which used to be one of my favorite stores in the world. Alas, poor Garden Ridge, I knew it well. I don't know if there are new owners or times are so bad that the good stuff is going to other discounters, but this was just pathetic-- all three warehouses of it were so bad we felt like crying. In fact, this too was like losing an old friend.

Rest in Peace.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Oy Vey

My grandma Jessie (yes her again) assured me that 'oy vey' was French, so pardon my French as she would say.

We have arrived in San Antonio; on the first day here some charming hot rodder bashed into the car and took off the front half.

Sorry i haven't written; know you understand.

Tomorrow we go to our last outlet and yes, the funeral.