I accompanied my daughter to the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim last week and was blown away by the enormous array of products, people, tastes and sounds. By day 3 I was operating on sensory overload and couldn’t coherently digest much more, literally or metaphorically. I have been to food shows before – the National Restaurant Show in 2011 (and will go again this year) as well as the KeHE Specialty Food Show Chicago 2011. But this convention was by far the most remarkable, mind-blowing experience on earth – it is a must for anyone involved in any aspect of the natural foods and products business. The world of natural products is a far cry from the stressful, politically fraught, backstabbing work environment in which I toiled from 2004-2011. I met some of the nicest folks at this show and whether any of these encounters translate to business deals in PR or brokering is secondary. My daughter already has an impressive clientele list for whom she does demos and independent sales – and boy was I impressed with her networking skills.
This is not the Pier 1 Imports of my youth – that was a store with intriguing, inexpensive knick-knacks from foreign lands and eclectic candy and snacks to boot. Today, the Cost Plus World Market is somewhat reminiscent of the Pier 1 of my childhood – great food section and a lot of cool knick knacks that won’t break the bank. I fondly remember shopping at a Pier 1 that was across the street from my elementary school – now the site of the Lincolnwood Public Library. I would pick up Botan rice candy and other little things for a total tab of a dollar or less – my mom never guessed that on occasion I saved my lunch money to treat myself to these delights. The Pier 1 Imports of today is not inexpensive and many of the housewares resemble the tacky wonders sold at Hobby Lobby. In December 2010 I received a surprisingly ugly holiday gift from an ex-colleague that I returned to Pier 1 for a merchandise credit. More than a year later, I decided to trade in this credit for some goodies – there is no longer a store near me, but I discovered one close to my parent’s house in the Village Crossing shopping mall. Well, Jeff and I were hard-pressed to find anything that tickled our fancy. There was a beautiful, heavily textured colorful rug from South America reduced from $49.99 to $34.99 – still way too expensive for a 16 x 20-inch throw rug. And I fear that our cat Pepper would have wreaked havoc on it anyway with her back claws.
I frequent Hobby Lobby for its respectable selection of arts and crafts supplies – and always take advantage of the 40 percent off coupons they offer just about every week. But I have to say that my jaw drops open every time I enter this store. I have never seen such ugly, kitschy, eyeball-rolling home decor and furnishings … or pardon the expression – objet d’arts – in my life! On clearance these faux antiques and what-nots are relatively cheap, but at full price some are pretty darn expensive. All of these pieces are extruded en masse in some factory in China where people earn 5 cents an hour.
I am pleasantly surprised by a new charity-related resale store that opened in Arlington Heights in January and always happy to give a shout out to new and worthy businesses. There isn’t much information on Humanity United Group; no website as of yet and just a couple of articles in TribLocal and the Daily Herald. Proceeds benefit homeless women and children in need in the Northwest suburbs. HUGS was formed to operate the resale store according to the Chicago Tribune article – a bit of an unusual approach, but certainly entrepreneurial. Typically, a charity exists first and a resale store is established later as a venue for fundraising.
Many years ago I donated all of my unsold collectibles, antiques and better household goods to Clearbrook’s Practically Perfect Resale Shop. That is until their prices became too high and many of my donated items never saw the light of day on the sales floor. While it is still possible to score a bargain now and then at this store, it is so cluttered with beat-up furniture and tightly arranged displays that browsing is difficult. I recently had a close call when I nearly impaled myself on a sharp clothing rack end that was in way too close proximity to the shoes. And as far as those shoes – it is refreshing to see that they dropped the price on shoes from $4.00 to $3.50, but the shoes have been disgusting and outdated of late. In the past I actually scored a pair of Finn Comfort shoes, really cool red and black cowboy boots, and several other nice pairs.
Dunkin’ Donuts at 3350 Kirchoff Road in Rolling Meadows has lost my business – not that it matters since I frequent that location 3-4 times a year at most. I was over in that plaza yesterday to go to the post office and get my hair cut, so I thought, why not? I had in hand a 2 donuts for 99 cents coupon. As I approached the counter, the female clerk immediately asked what I wanted before I could browse the donut selection. The mistake I made was presenting the coupon to her before ordering. She burst out laughing – I looked around and nobody else was in sight so this must have been an inside joke. Yeah, the joke was on me. She stood on her tiptoes and nearly strained her back, reaching all the way to the back row of jelly donuts to grab the puniest munchkin-size donuts ever made. After I looked inside the bag in my car, I realized that this location obviously shafts customers with coupons. These donuts were half the size of the donuts in the front of the tray and really pathetic.
I have never seen such fervent shoppers in my entire life as this morning at the Goodwill store grand opening in Des Plaines. I could barely get in the door – when I succeeded, I was pushed and shoved and within 30 seconds a rude woman slammed several heavy wood serving trays into my side. I couldn’t figure out why there was such an enormous crowd – the checkout line snaked all the way around the store. I stopped counting at 80 people waiting to buy used merchandise! Many of these shoppers had items piled high in their carts and were bound to be waiting for at least an hour for the privilege of buying these irresistible goods.
I have come to the conclusion that for-profit thrift store chains are among the grungiest and most disgusting places in Chicagoland. I have frequented enough stores to theorize that thrift stores that benefit a cause put far more time and effort into choosing and displaying items with some care and forethought. The exception to this rule – the Salvation Army Family Thrift Stores which I previously blogged about. The Village Discount thrift store chain receives my top grunge award for surpassing the helter skelter, dirty slammin’ style of the uniquely sleazy Unique Thrift Store chain. It truly Takes a Village to put the VD back into thrift. The shoes in particular look like they are crawling with VD – I should have worn a Hazmat suit when I visited the store yesterday at 2032 N. Milwaukee. Most of the workers who stock goods wear masks and rubber gloves – I’m not kidding. I saw one worker snarling and looked disgusted as he threw items back onto a shelf in the electronics area. Pardon the expression – more a tangled pile of mainly broken, unusable goods from the looks of it. Most of the items are indeed cheap, but consider that many should be thrown out …
The Unique Thrift Store chain is a far cry from the cool store on Lincoln Avenue of my youth. After I graduated from high school a semester early, my mom and I would go on junking and photo documentary jaunts down Lincoln Avenue. Among my favorite places was a Unique Thrift store a few blocks north of Irving Park. It is there that I picked up this super neat, albeit still not terribly valuable old Kodak camera for a pittance.
Too many thrift stores these days sell merchandise that I would be embarrassed to give away to charity or put out at the curb – dirty stained clothing, broken appliances, chipped/cracked pottery – and often at ridiculously inflated prices. But every so often I am very pleasantly surprised by a hidden gem of a resale/thrift store. Such is the case with Community Threads, a delightfully refreshing store in Buffalo Grove. I say delightful because you won’t find grimy, threadbare, worn-out goods here. Quite the opposite – the selection here is very tasteful and the displays show an enthusiastic commitment to making recycled merchandise enticing to the consumer. A few weeks ago I picked up two pairs of gently used Italian leather loafers for myself at a very reasonable price – I guess I can forgive that there was a wad of gum on the bottom of one sole. Most items here are reasonably priced, with the exception of the furniture and better jewelry sections which have a few pieces priced unrealistically high. The antique furniture and cased collectibles tend to be the priciest, but are very classy and for the most part in impeccable condition. An antique dresser priced at $875 is really out-of-place at a resale store and would even be considered overpriced at an antique store or show. The slightly bruised antique furniture priced in the $150-$275 range is still quite high for a resale store, but may be within the budget of the upscale shopper. Some of these pieces need a little bit of loving care such as minor retouching and a coat of fresh Watco Oil.