Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Wanted Everything (Not Supermarket Sticker Shock)

I heard about the Easter bunny
Presents under a Christmas tree
It was dreaming and fantasy
There was no Mom or Daddy
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
--"I Wanted Everything" (The Ramones)

I remember the impact 
that this song made on me, so long ago, when it first appeared on Road To Ruin (1978). Like so many of the late Dee Dee Ramone's lyrics, the mood is one of an emotional ice age and isolation. There's no pulling of any punches, let alone any light relief. The narrator knows the cavalry isn't coming. All that's left is disappointment curdling into icy despair. The answers that he reaches are anything but comforting...which is what made him such a great lyricist, then and now.

I thought about that song again during one of my latest grocery shopping trips. With The Squawker sidelined by health issues, the task fell to me, and the $70 I'd transferred into our bank account last week. So I duly went out and did my duty, figuring that -- while I'm waiting on payment for a couple recent editorial projects -- I can at least acquire the building blocks needed to make our kitchen table hum a little bit.

By the time I finished, I ended up with 59 cents...cue up the cost of living jokes, right? But when the issue hits so close to home...it's really not that funny, especially when you feel that canned laughter being aimed in your general direction.

I had the world on my shoulder
But I was getting older
Knew I was ready for it
Some kind of employment
I wanted everything...
I wanted everything...I wanted everything...

Then again, I wasn't terribly surprised by that outcome. The continued upward spiral of food prices -- and downward pressure on pocketbooks -- isn't a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is seeing the tactics that mainstream grocery stores are adopting to scoop up the few pennies that you're still allowed to take home. For instance...

...on this trip, I noticed a new trend: fewer and fewer choices, with "all or nothing" emerging as the dominant pricing strategy. You either buy that 30-ounce mayonnaise bottle for $3.58 and up, or settle for its piddly, half-size cousin that still winds up costing around $2.39.  Want carrots? Well, two-pound bags run around $2 -- although I've seen some stores in my town pushing the $2.50 envelope -- but you can't get around by buying a one-pound bag. That's now $1.29, instead of 99 cents (quite a steep markup, by any measure). Might as well just cough up that two-dollar bill, eh (if that museum piece is burning up your pocket)? To add further insult to injury, you'll typically see that item going on sale...at the old price.

Another phenomenon is the increasing empty air that you feel in most packaged items. A 28-ounce bag of French fries, for example, is only about 75 percent full; same goes for a bag of rippled potato chips, or chicken strips...if you go in for that sort of thing. Other times, I've noticed the actual sizes being downsized, particularly on in-store brands (such as from 28 to 26 ounces on those French fry bags).

Watch your life flash
before your eyes...along with your food budget...

All day working on a truck
Bringing the groceries up
Not much of a salary
No tip for the delivery
I wanted everything
I wanted everything
I wanted everything...

There's no success for me
Involved in a robbery
There's money in the supermarket
And I'm going after it
I wanted everything...

Like most shoppers, naturally, the Squawker and I have had to rethink some of the strategies we used to beat previous price spikes. The presence of more grocery stores doesn't necessarily translate into a break for your pocketbook, as we saw a couple of summers ago when the Meijer chain opened a new store within six miles of our home -- sparing the need to trek across town and shop at its sister location. However, the highly-anticipated pricing war never materialized (despite a lot of tongue wagging around town). A couple years ago, someone tried to start a food co-op here...only to abandon the idea when she couldn't get enough people to sign up. Apparently, not enough of our fellow townies are fed up enough with paying $1.69 for a 15-ounce can of stewed tomatoes...but I digress.

Meijer and its local rivals seem to have reached a gentleman's agreement to keep their prices within line of each other, and most of their sale items are typically focused on the processed crap that Squawker and I can't absorb into our gullets. For example, I always see Ekrich bologna on sale...always, always, always...but never any of the higher-grade meats, whether they're packaged or cut at the counter. In those cases, you'll either cough up $4.50 to $7 per pound, depending on your needs.

And that's what makes those extreme couponing shows so annoying -- watching all these perpetually bubbly suburban moms racing to fill up an armada of shopping carts with boxes of macaroni and cheese, jars of peanut butter and other questionable choices is a surreal experience, to put it mildly. Fed up with the whole spectacle, the Squawker and I have turned to Asian and Mexican groceries as an alternative -- which seems to be paying better dividends (so far, anyway). Instead of worrying if we can splurge $7.70 on a cooked chicken, we can easily get about 2.5 pounds for the same price....which lasts a bit longer, and allows us to plan two (or even three) meals. On the flipside, it means quite a lot more cooking from scratch, which ensures a longer evening.

The Oxfam blog link below lays out the big picture pretty well, for those who are paying attention: "The early research suggests price rises are bringing about social change by stealth, as people and their relationships to food (and each other) are being commodified faster than ever before.  Policymakers seem oblivious to these changes, obsessed as they are with changes they can measure."  That last sentence is overly charitable...personally, I suspected that they were half asleep.

It's tempting to imagine how Dee Dee might react to these pricing trends today, if he were searching for a few items to inspire his latest  songwriting...judging by the scenario that he lays out in the last verse, it's fair to say that minimum wage work and the cost of living didn't quite agree with him. The Squawker and I will continue to strategize as best as we can, but it's fair to say that we're not looking at a pretty picture...at least, in the short run.  -- The Reckoner

Links To Go (The Cost Of Living Strikes Again)
Oxfam: From Poverty To Power:
Squeezed: How Are Poor People
Adjusting To Life In A Time Of Food Price Volatility?:


USA Today:
Rising Food Prices Pinching Consumers:


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