Impulse Control

My husband might point out that one of my most economical and endearing traits is that I simply don’t shop.  Almost all of my clothes come from a trusted online catalog; I have a limited roster of clothes that are best described as a uniform of black pants, white top and a selection of cotton Henley shirts, or perhaps a linen jacket.  I can’t remember the last time I went to a mall to just look around, but when I do shop, I am all about the impulse buy.  My most consistent weakness is the craft fair, where I am a sucker for a bracelet or necklace made from beach stones.  Last summer I went to a large flea market with my friend Sally; the ostensible purpose was to find vintage board games, but I was eager to be surprised.  So I could hardly pass up the vendor who was selling very squishy, but IMG_0065nevertheless lifelike breasts.  Oddly he was only selling them as a trio, so for the low, low price of five dollars I was the proud owner of three squeeze-gook breasts.  Another time I went to an art fair with my friend Margot with no intention of buying anything and came back with a large primitive art piece that looks like a bird roost filled with misshapen clay birds.  Nick was a bit skeptical of this impulse, but hopefully he also remembers that I only get my hair cut every couple of years.


Christmas, of course, is all about impulse purchases and the check out lanes are crowded with trinkets and other last minute shit.  This Christmas, I actually went to Bed, Bath and Beyond to get some flannel sheets for a legitimate Christmas gift, and as I entered the store, I was excited to see what impulsive stocking stuffers might tempt me.   As I made my way toward the cash register, I was confronted with a whole display of Pez candy dispensers, the perfect stocking stuffer gift.  I remembered Pez from my childhood; it was a particular favorite of my brother Ralph.  In the 1960s Pez was just a sugar pill with a little dollop of fruity flavor, and I remember Ralph carefully loading his unadorned Pez dispensers every Christmas morning.

As I found out later, Pez was originally developed in Austria as a breath mint and the dispenser was specifically shaped like a cigarette lighter.  The combo was marketed as a smoking cessation product.  Pez was first marketed in the US in the 1950’s where the strategists quickly shifted their focus to the children’s market and started adding heads, like Popeye, to the dispenser.  Pretty soon it was all about the dispenser.  The sugar pills retreated into the background, similar to the dreadful cardboard pieces of gum included in the packet of baseball trading cards.  In 1992 a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser became a Impulse Seinfeldcultural icon when it was featured on an episode of Seinfeld.  Jerry puts the dispenser on Elaine’s lap and she starts laughing uncontrollably, disrupting a piano recital.   Now there are recognized chapters of Pez collectors, who host yearly conventions around the country.  Pez is not stupid and is only too willing to feed the collectors’ habit by introducing yearly “limited editions” of dispensers.

Bed Bath and Beyond was now displaying their 2012 holiday Pez collection, which featured the members of the glam rock band Kiss, one of whom is that guy with a pink tongue as Impulse kisslong as an anteater.  I was more interested in their US President’s collection, Volume III.  On a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in WashingtonDC, we noticed that we knew absolutely nothing about our presidents in the run up to the Civil War.  And now here they were adorning Pez dispensers, along with a few workable facts on the back of the packaging – James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, a group of absolutely anonymous guys who led our country between 1845 and 1861.   Unbelievably the box suggests that Pez can be used as an educational tool in class, urging teachers to get a companion Pez calendar of fun facts, and suggesting that the entire collection of Presidential Pezes could be displayed throughout the classroom as a motivational tool.  “Students will enjoy snacking on their Pez candies as they write their reports.”   I believe that an impulse purchase with a good back story is a true gift, so I was pleased to throw Presidential Pez into my cart.

Impulse presidentsThe impulse purchase in my sporadic shopping contrasts with the challenge of the impulse at routine trips to the grocery store.  Here I am desperate for some sort of novel impulse, but unlike stores where the inventory reliably changes, at the grocery store the inventory is the same year after year after year – you’ve got your dairy, pork, beef, poultry or fish, and your basic vegetables.  I crave an impulse, and the grocery store is eager to oblige me.  They have spent a good chunk of advertising money to get me into the store in the first place, and once I’m in their tenuous clutches, they desperately try to get me to abandon my shopping list for all sorts of “unplanned purchases.”   They have recruited every imaginable expert to probe the elusive mind of the shopper – urban anthropologists, sociologists, economists, psychologists – all have given advice on how to seduce the innocent shopper.  And their methods are downright sneaky and manipulative.  The staples, such as dairy products, are always located at the back of the store, and to get there the store will funnel you through their deli, which has the biggest mark-up.  Items at eye level sell the best, and wholesalers will pay for the privilege, even offering to restock the shelves to save the grocery store labor costs.  As I enter the grocery store, I am reminded of all the backstage scrambling at Christmastime when the kids were little – organizing Christmas décor, frantically wrapping presents, carefully arranging the presents beneath the trees– and then the look of delight and joy from the kids who think that everything appears by magic.   Alternatively, I am also reminded of a lamb going to slaughter.

The basic disconnect for me is that the grocery store’s idea of an impulse purchase is perhaps an extra bag of chocolate chips to make cookies, a pint of decadent ice cream,  maybe an artfully labeled bottle of salad dressing or perhaps one of their prepared meals at the deli counter.  But none of this really appeals to me, because what I’m really looking for is something novel to eat, and not just the typical fare packaged in a brighter box.  This Christmas Frances gave me a cookbook devoted to root vegetables, and as I looked through it, I realized that I was the problem – if I want something entirely new to eat, I need to spend more than the typical 20 minutes in food preparation.  The impulse has to start in my kitchen.  So the other night I picked out a recipe for Japanese turnips.  I decided I would buy the ingredients at Whole Foods, the absolute palace of impulse purchases.  I wanted to see if I could stick to my grocery list and not succumb to any of the easy-fixes that Whole Foods is famous for.  My goal was to buy nothing located in the impulsive eye level displays, but to only purchase items that were shelved below my knees.

I was immediately assaulted in the Whole Foods vestibule by a display of mango salsa.  It was a cold dreary day, and even though the salsa was sitting in a chilly tub of chipped ice,impulse mango the yellow mango cubes flecked with red onion and cilantro looked so perky and peppy I just had to have some.  And then how convenient – Whole Foods thoughtfully included the chips as part of the display.  Score 1 for Whole Foods.  As I entered the store I was dumped into the fresh produce section, some nice odor was probably wafting over me, and perhaps there was some nice background music.  I don’t really remember since I was still entranced with my mango salsa.  I found my turnips, and might have been tempted to impulsively buy the fresh turmeric or salsify, but I had no idea what to do with them.  Here is where Whole Foods failed; they could have sealed the deal if they had displayed a recipe for these obscure root vegetables, complete with a map of where to find the rest of the ingredients.  I then asked the attendant where I could find the next items on my list – miso paste and Japanese Mirin, which is some sort of sweetened sake.  He directed me to the Asian aisle, and not only were these items below my knees, they were at ankle level.  The strategy seemed clear, Miso paste was never going to be anyone’s impulse purchase, so why waste eye-level shelving?  If you need miso paste, you’re going to be willing to bend down to get it.

I studied the eye-level options, and saw several rows of microwaveable Annie Chun Asian entrees.  Along the top row, just out of direct eyesight, was the similar looking Snapdragon brand, definitely sucking the hind tit in terms of product placement.  I guess the Snapdragon rep didn’t fork over the big bucks to get the premium shelf space.  As I walked through the store, I noticed what else was at ankle level – sun dried tomatoes, sauerkraut and polenta – studies must have shown that these are never eye catching impulse purchases.  In contrast, chocolate covered pretzels were displayed in several prominent places throughout the store, including one coveted eye-level end-aisle display.

My shopping was complete and I headed toward the checkout.  Suddenly the aisles were reconfigured at an angle, forcing me into the high-margin wine and prepared food sections.  But I resisted, held my head high and pressed forward.  I was ready to be bombarded as I idled in the checkout lane, but I was pleasantly surprised.  There were no racks of candy bars, but instead, like Starbuck’s a few carefully selected CDs by artists that I’ve never heard of.  I left feeling that Whole Foods and I had battled to a respectful draw.  True I had succumbed to the salsa, but that seemed to be a small price to pay for the inspiration to come back with intriguing recipes for salsify or turmeric.  I can’t be entirely passive here – I need to bring the impulse to the store.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  The word in asterisks is one of the anagrams, and thus give you all the letters to rearrange into the missing words.   Scroll down for answers.

So many hum drum grocery runs for dairy and bread, but all the while

I just wanted to be ******* from boredom as I walked down the aisle

I realize that I’ve succumbed to some decadent seducer in the deli case

Because the rep paid big money and ******* this eye level space

He knows anytime that I have to bend over or reach up too high

It ******* the chance that I’ll pick his product to buy.









Rescued, seducer, secured, reduces

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