The temperature was a crisp 30 degrees. I layered first in a tank top, then a long-sleeved shirt, and finally a puffer jacket before stuffing my head into a hat. Next came the socks, and then I slipped my feet into a furry pair of clogs before heading out to my car.
It was a Saturday like any other. Only maybe it wasn’t. Maybe a malevolent air had wafted in like fog upon the moors. That’s right: it was the holiday season, and shoppers were out for blood. Nevermind that I was headed to REI, the retail equivalent of rainbows and gumdrops, where everybody is patient and generous and – yes – even jovial. Nevermind that I arrived two and a half hours in advance of the members-only garage sale, making friends and earning my space at the front of the line. Once the store opened its doors, the hoards flooded the aisles, and chaos ensued. It’s a wonder I wasn’t trampled.
Rewind. It was cold. Period. Full stop. It was the kind of cold in which someone with Raynaud’s shouldn’t be wearing cotton socks and open-backed slippers (oops). It was also the kind of cold perfect for trying out a new pair of heavy duty mittens (yay!), which – for the record – proved successful. (One more piece of gear off my list. Whoopie doo!)
I had called several REI stores the day before to try to get a feel for what might be available at their garage sales. I ultimately settled on the Arlington, VA store because the employee I spoke with said they had an abnormal number of bicycles to sell, and my friend Caro has been in search of a new bike for a while.
In calling the stores, I had learned that, while the Fairfax, VA store hands out tickets to early arrivers prioritizing them to shop the sale first, the Arlington store offered no such tickets. One had only to wait and to enter the store in line order upon the store’s opening. At the time of my phone call to the store, this approach seemed reasonable enough. If only I had known.
Caro and I spent our hours in line chatting with fellow shoppers, exchanging stories and talking gear. One woman I spoke with is an experienced ultramarathon runner. When I expressed my awe, she reflected the same at my intention to hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s funny, though, because I’m utterly impressed by people who can sustain that kind of intensity in what they do.
I’m more of a plodder, a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of person. For example, over the past couple of years, my friend Chris has pummeled full steam ahead through a jam-packed midwifery program at Columbia University – studying the first year to become a registered nurse and the second year to become a nurse practitioner midwife. I daresay she barely had time to sleep. We would always stare at each other mouth agape, I for her stamina and she for my endurance (working full time and going to grad school at night for three years). I view hiking the Appalachian Trail similarly. I will likely never go quickly, but I will endure, as is my nature.
My morning was going splendidly – fine and dandy, if you will – until approximately 10:00am and 17 seconds. REI opened its doors, and almost instantly it occurred to me the terrible downside in the store’s not handing out tickets. All at once, people rushed the aisles and swarmed the discount goods. Hands grabbed at sale items left and right to stake claims and only later assess their value. Not only that, but the Arlington store didn’t set up all sale items in one cordoned off nook like the Fairfax store did. Instead, bikes were to the left, packs to the far corner, and all clothes and other gear were in the back warehouse.
I didn’t stand a chance. I was completely overwhelmed by the crowds and didn’t know which way to turn first. I bee-lined it to the warehouse in the back but quickly felt the urge to curl into a ball. What happened to my friendly REI where fellow shoppers generously ask me what I’m looking for and help me comb the sale racks?
By the time that I made it to the section with the packs, the selection had been ravaged. I’m literally talking a matter of five or less minutes. Having circled back with Caro, a distraught look upon my face, I had resolved to drop my basket and leave. None of my selections were worth the sinking feeling in my gut. And it wasn’t that I hadn’t found the pack I was looking for. No, it was that REI had failed me. But I love you, REI! You know how hard it is for me to trust a store. You’re not supposed to be like the other retail experiences. How could you do this to me?! I thought I meant something to you!
Luckily for this story, two things happened:
- Caro found a rain jacket that fit me. I’d already purchased rain pants but was lacking for my upper half. It’s an REI brand Ultra Light Hooded Jacket. Waterproof and windproof with zippered ventilation under the arms. Originally $80; I paid $25.
- When I was in line to buy the rain jacket, Caro wandered around the bike section. She found a beautiful women’s fit road bike, clearly never used, that originally cost $760 but was priced at $189.
As much as I was still reeling from the shopping experience, I was glad to have found the rain jacket and for Caro’s golden find in the bicycle aisle. And still, I didn’t want to end the day with REI on that note. I felt like giving it the silent treatment would have been counterproductive to a healthy relationship. So instead, I drove out to the Fairfax store to sift through the dregs of that store’s garage sale. As I had intuited, there was nothing I needed among the picked over selection.
Since I was there, I ended up going up to an employee at the checkout aisle to ask about a pack I’d been wanting to purchase. I’d checked online, but the pack I’d wanted was backordered. Also, I’d used a 20% off coupon on a fairly inexpensive shirt and was hoping to return it so that I could use the coupon for the more expensive pack.
When I explained the situation to the employee, he checked the system and found only four packs in my requested size and color available in one warehouse in the entire country. They had just arrived a day or two before. When I said I wanted one and offered to run to the car to get my shirt to return, he brushed my concerns aside and told me it was not a problem; he’d give me the 20% off on the pack anyway.
And just like that, REI and I made up. It was our first fight ever, and I’m glad it ended almost as quickly as it had started.