Saturday, December 17, 2011

The First National Bank of Kmart

By now everyone has seen the news about "Layaway Angels."  This is a phenomenon in which people are anonymously paying off the layaway purchases of Kmart shoppers.  It's a Christmas miracle.

Yesterday in response to a thread on facebook, I made a snarky comment about this.  While I thought it was humorous, it drew the ire of several people I don't even know.  Ain't facebook grand?

I will quote my comment here, though it will probably just serve to enlarge the angry mob I incited yesterday.  Here you go: 

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that though I think this is great, it seems that the best thing you could do for the K-mart layaway customer is buy them a basic course in life skills. You know, teach a man to fish instead of smoke with his kids in the car.

I've been thinking about this comment, and the response it got a lot since yesterday.  This morning I woke up early thinking about it.  I'm sorry I wrote it because I think I spoiled the Christmas buzz people had gotten by reading the associated article.

However, since this is my blog and I can do what I want, I think I'll put my comments in context.

I used to work for a company that provided retail assembly services to all the big chains.  Mostly I assembled bicycles.  I regularly worked at Target, Walmart, Shopko and Kmart.  Most of the time I worked at stores in Utah, but on three occasions I was sent out of state to work.  I worked in Detroit, Chicago and Fairbanks.  (Interesting tidbit: the Fairbanks Kmart sold more bicycles than any other store in the chain.)

When you spend a lot of time at these stores, you start to notice things.  They all look the same, no matter where you are.  It's like LDS meetinghouses.  For example:  Target stores are generally cleaner, the lights are brighter, the aisles are wider.  Employees are everywhere.  The shopping carts roll smoothly.  Shopko is generally a little less presentable up front, but with a homey vibe, while their warehouses are much smaller and less organized.  Kmart is at the bottom of the spectrum.  Aisles are narrow and often cluttered with boxes.  Employees are scarce and not very helpful.  Merchandise looks as if it's been thrown on the shelves by an angry teenager who didn't want to clean his room.  The shopping carts are old and rusty, their wheels a good way to teach three-year-olds about shapes other than circles.  Fluorescent lights flicker from a ceiling of crumbling yellow-stained acoustic tile.  The warehouse is a dank dungeon from which light cannot escape.  I hated working at Kmart.

The interesting thing about this is that even though the stores sell a lot of the same crap, they attract a very different clientele.  (In fact, the bicycles at Target were among the worst.  They had a brand there that made Huffy look decent.)  This isn't to say that all of the stores fit my descriptions.  These are generalizations after all.  But real trends are readily observed, and these trends are established at a corporate level, where the suits set their sights on their "target" customer.  (This is why I find the name Target appropriate if not a little "in your face.")

I used to wonder if Kmart was just overseen by a bunch of idiots.  But I believe that there is a method to the madness.  They attract a certain clientele because of their seeming ineptitude, not in spite of it.

This brings me back to the "Layaway Angels."  I believe that at best this is misguided giving, which is still giving and therefore good, right?  But at worst, this is one of the most brilliant viral marketing schemes ever.

Think about it for a minute:  Layaway is a program which provides numerous advantages to the retailer, and very few to the consumer.  Best of all, layaway shifts the risks of the loan back onto the head of the lessee.  Imagine borrowing money to buy a car, paying the loan origination fees, downpayment, and any surcharges they might invent at the time of purchase, then having to leave the car at the dealership until you have paid off the loan.

Kmart loves layaway.  By providing a Layaway program, Kmart effectively becomes a bank.  And not just any bank either: they become a bank like a pawn shop or a payday lender.  They make short term loans at absurdly high rates of return with almost no risk.

Here's how it works:

When you make a layaway at Kmart, you can choose an 8 week or 12 week plan.  If you are buying Christmas gifts, this means you are committing to buy those gifts from Kmart in September or October; well before any holiday sales begin.  Kmart wins.

Next you pay either a $5 or a $10 service fee.  You also pay a down payment.  No matter what happens, Kmart keeps your service fee, and your down payment covers the cancellation fee if you default so Kmart will never have to spend a penny on collection.  Kmart wins.

You then make payments every two weeks to pay off the balance.  Each time you do so, online or in store, Kmart has the opportunity to sell you more stuff.  Kmart wins.

If you are more than a week late, Kmart returns your would-be purchases back to the shelves and you forfeit a $10 or $20 cancellation fee.  You can get a refund for the remaining paid amount.  Kmart wins.

At the end of your contract you can take home your purchases.   

Imagine a person makes a $200 8-week layaway.  If they don't default, Kmart makes only $5 (in addition to the profit they made on the merchandise).  Seems like a fair deal.  Actually though, if you calculate that money as interest, the annual rate is 16.25%.  A similar 12 week layaway yields 21.66% APR.  That's a really high yield considering that Kmart had no risk other than the expense of taking your shopping cart full of stuff and sticking it in the warehouse for 8 or 12 weeks.

If you default it's even better for them.  They don't have to repossess anything.  The merchandise in question is still brand-new, and they triple their return by withholding cancellation fees from your refund.  A customer can default in as little as 3 weeks.  A $200 purchase on a 12 week layaway defaulted in 3 weeks means you paid Kmart over 115% APR on a loan that wasn't really a loan in the first place because goods never changed hands.
Is it so hard to save up a little, buy what you can afford, and hide your gifts until Christmas?  Clearly there is little benefit provided to the consumer that they can't obtain for free with a locked closet and a modicum of self-discipline, while Kmart reaps huge rewards.    

This is why I said that people who use layaway would be better served by being given a free course in life skills instead of by "layaway angels."  This type of program encourages people to buy more than they can afford, and works even better for the retailer when the "loan" goes bad.  And now with the rumors of "layaway angels" swirling (real or fabricated), you can bet Kmart will be laughing all the way to the bank.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I haven't posted in a long time.  Sometimes I sign in and stare at the blinking cursor for a while, then sign out.  A week or two ago I signed in and read a bunch of my old posts.  It was actually pretty entertaining for me.  I had forgotten a lot of what I had written and it was fun to remember.

This Summer was good.  Business was good.  The challenges and the frustration at work were good.  I had a few really great vacation experiences-- two with family, one without.  I read some good books.  I finally finished Catch 22.  I read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.  I'm working on The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando de Soto.  I read J.D. Salinger a Life by Kenneth Slawenski, along with re-reading Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.  I've just begun reading The Elements of Computing Systems by Noam Nisan and Shimon Shocken (an introductory Computer Science textbook).

But I haven't written much of anything.  There's that cursor taunting me.  I have so much to say, but most of it should probably be abandoned in a journal somewhere.  Privacy, Shame and Tact have all conspired against me and the parts of my life that would make the most captivating narrative are all held hostage by those three old spinsters.

It has been a good year.  I've been blessed with a lot of positive changes in my life over the past two years.  I came pretty close to dying.  I was strengthened by abundant blessings and prayers.  I have seen God's hand at work in my life.  Miracles have been frequent and profound.

A few days ago I was sharing some of my thoughts with an addiction recovery group I attend.  I told them about some of those miracles.  I know that Jesus healed the blind and the lame, the leprous and the possessed, the adulterous and the afflicted.  I've read of those miracles and been touched by those accounts.  But those miracles are no more real nor greater in magnitude than the miracles He has worked for me personally.  Those are the stories I would tell here if I had the courage.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I discovered U2 when I was in 7th grade.  I had heard they were good, and I thought that socially it would probably be a good move to get into them.  I asked a friend in my English class (whose brother was a confirmed U2 fanatic) to get me a mix tape of their best songs.

The tape was a winner.  It had all the best tracks and even some deep cuts ranging from their earliest work up to Wide Awake in America.  I listened to it at night while reading The Chronicles of Narnia.

Later The Joshua Tree was released and I purchased it on Vinyl.  Rattle and Hum was the first CD I ever bought.  Achtung Baby was the soundtrack of my entire senior year of high school.  I think I listened to it at least once a day.

When I went on my mission one of the things I had a really hard time with was letting go of my music.  I was afraid that I'd come home after 2 years of no popular music and find myself hopelessly out of touch with musical reality.  (This from a guy who completely missed Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the entire Grunge scene because he was listening to Mysterious Ways 10 times a day.)

Once, as a missionary, we had dinner with a young family who had a large Pink Floyd collection on display.  The father of the family was a huge fan.  My own exposure to Pink Floyd had been fairly limited due to my fear of anything remotely associated with long hair, black T-shirts, and drugs.  (Bono's mullet notwithstanding.)  But I knew that their Dark Side of the Moon album had broken all kinds of sales records, so we made conversation about it.  I left there meditating on the sad state of people who stagnate on tired-out old bands.  "Luckily for me," I thought, "I'm into U2 so that will never happen."

Tonight I went to see Arcade Fire.  It was a great show.  I have to say though, that a lot of douchebags have discovered them since I saw them play at Thanksgiving Point a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Notes on Crystal to the Rescue

My sweet little daughter loves to draw and write stories.  When she hangs out with me at the shop she takes all the printer paper, the stapler, and a box of markers and gets to work binding her own books.

The story below was one of my favorites but it just about broke my heart.  I fear that she feels she is always left behind.  I worry about what might happen to her.

Just this morning as she told me about the outfit she was putting together for the day, I looked at her eyes and was struck by how bright and clear they are.  I said a silent prayer that nothing would ever happen to her to darken those eyes.  Yet I know that those things happen in all our lives.  And I know that those things can turn for our good.  Yet I pray that nothing ever darkens her bright eyes.  And I hope against hope.

Last night we were having ice cream and she said, "Daddy, if I died would you be sad forever?"

I answered, "Yes, sweetheart."  But there are no words to express the grief that would consume my every waking moment.

As I prayed this morning, I thought of how the Savior entreated us all to be as little children, and I imagine he means that our eyes should be as my daughters eyes, bright and clear.  But doesn't it also say somewhere that we should wise as serpents?  I don't know how to reconcile that.

I just want my daughter to always be safe.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crystal to the Rescue

Crystal to the Rescue

I am a girl that always gets left behind.
One day I saved someone 'cause I have wings.  The only one with wings.
Mister Pratt had everybody wear fake wings.
Now I'm called a fairy.

The whole school made a statue of me when I died from cancer.
The end.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Las Vegas High Rollers Scooter Rally 2011

For the past ten years or so, with only one exception, I've been attending a ridiculous event called a scooter rally in Las Vegas, NV.

To be honest, the first few years were really fun for me, the rest have been somewhat disappointing.  But I keep on going in hopes of it being fun again.  I'm no different from the feeble, nicotine-stained old women that play the slots for hours on end.  We all keep hoping for the big payout, and we all keep losing.

I hate Las Vegas.  I think it's one of the worst places in the world.  There's no reason a city should even be there, yet it persists, like a gaudy, artificial oasis.  Its imported palm trees are a metaphor for the whole damned place--fronds bathed in soul-sucking neon light, roots littered with leaflets advertising payday loans and prostitutes.

I go there for the rally.  But always within a few hours of arriving I feel like one of those trees and I can't wait to leave.  Some argue that it's a great place due to the wealth and low taxes, but with something like 80% of Las Vegas homes currently underwater, it's clear that the wealth is an illusion.  The city is an empire built on the backs of addicts, strippers, and illegal aliens.  Its economy is a house of cards.

Still I go.  And I have fun.  We ride our scooters around, head out to Red Rocks, or Hoover Dam, down the strip to the "Fabulous Las Vegas" sign.  We eat at buffets and try to get some sun.  

This year our family also had a legitimate reason to go there.  My mother-in-law married and moved to Las Vegas a few months ago, so the rally presented us with a good opportunity to visit her.  They were gracious hosts and my kids really enjoyed visiting and riding their horses.  

Speaking of animals, that brings me to the real reason I started this post.  I know you thought I was just going to trash on Las Vegas until all my relatives that live there hate me.  Well the joke's on you because most of them never liked me much to begin with.  But seriously, my wife is from Las Vegas, so it can't be all bad.

Actually the real reason I started this post was to complain about our dog.

See, when we left for the rally we had to find someone to watch him.  After some arm-twisting my wife convinced her brother to take him in.  I'm not saying her brother is dangerous or anything, but if anybody stood a chance of accidentally poisoning him with a strange herbal concoction, he's the guy.  He even mentioned he had a good remedy for Midnights bad breath.  I was ecstatic.  The kids would never forgive me for getting rid of the dog myself.  Though he has bitten me more than once I'm stuck with him.  But if it was an accident. . .

I've realized that though I'm not generally touchy about germs, when It comes to dogs I'm a total germophobe.  Like today for example, my mom wondered what the puddle of sludge leaking out of her car was, so I tasted it to see if it was brake fluid, motor oil, or anti-freeze.  No problem.  But just knowing the dog has rubbed his abcessed gums on our area rug makes me think twice about even entering the room. 

For someone like me, a dog is a miserable lose/lose proposition: On one end a snot-nosed, stinky dishrag of a face, and on the other a furry anus.

Sure, our dog looks like a teddy bear, and teddy bears are cute.  But if your teddy bear started walking around your house pooping real poop and eating vomit, you wouldn't let ol' Teddy Ruxpin lick your mouth, you'd kill him with fire.

So the best part of the weekend-- the thing that kept my spirits up in the city I call Satan's Armpit was that for two days I harbored a warm, glowing hope in my heart that maybe, just maybe, my brother-in-law would accidentally kill our dog while we were gone.

Much to my chagrin, when we returned to pick him up, not only was Midnight still alive, but he had just foraged through my brother-in-laws trash and eaten a poopy diaper.

He happily got into our car, snuffling and snorting, his doggy beard glistening with diaper crystals, and tried to lick me.  

I almost threw up but I didn't want to give him a treat. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why does Facebook hate my blog so much?

I'm trying to get my blog to import to Facebook.  It used to work, but I played with the settings in hopes that I could get it to show my whole posts and not just the first paragraph.  It turns out it was a blogger setting I needed to change, but now I can't get my blog connected to facebook again.

I'm actually just writing this post to test things.  Sorry if you've read this in hopes of something more interesting.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Today sucked.  Here's why:

I woke up extra early and found that my son, Sir Wipesalot, had clogged the toilet-- again.

I proceeded to unclog the toilet using our plunger that just can't ever get a good seal on the poo-hole which always means a good splash or two before it finally goes down.

Then I went to court.  I won't go into any detail on that because discretion is important.  That sounds strange when I just used the word poo-hole in a sentence, but I do have my limits.  Suffice it to say that I have to defend myself against the allegations of a drug-addict poo-hole I had a dispute with.

After the humiliation of court I went to work.  At work I've been working really hard to get some dents out of a scooter I'm trying to restore by the end of the month.  I'm way behind and I'm hammering and sanding my hands off trying to catch up.  Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, someone hit my van and put a nice dent in it.

On the way home from work my freshly-dented pig of a van ran out of gas.

Today was great!  Here's why:

I woke up extra early and found that my son had clogged the toilet.  I love that kid, even if he has no concept of appropriate toilet paper usage.  I'm grateful for my kids.

I was able to unclog the toilet with fairly minimal collateral damage and it was pre-shower so I got to scrub down afterwards anyway.

I went to court and saw a divorcing couple enter pleas for hitting eachother, and be sentenced to anger management and parenting classes.  I'm glad that I'm not in their shoes.

At work my wife hit my van with her van.  My van got dented.  It's not too bad.  I love her, even if she has no concept of space when she's in a hurry behind the wheel.  I'm grateful for my wife.

On the way home from work I ran out of gas but my wife was able to rush over with a can of gas and get me going again quickly.

When I got home my wife had prepared a nice dinner.

I still have a couple of cookies in my secret stash.

I guess my day wasn't that bad after all.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The first time I laid eyes on a Vespa it was 1994.  Until then, I had never heard of Vespa scooters.  I must have seen them in pictures or on the streets, but I couldn't have picked one out of a lineup.

It was my brother Tom that inadvertently got me hooked.  He was a senior in high school and persuaded our parents to let him sell the family's old 1978 Toyota Corona station wagon in order to buy a 1979 Vespa P200E.  It was $400 if I remember correctly.  When we brought it home it was in pieces, but I was able to quickly get it running.  It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Tom and I had had other vehicles growing up, from go-karts to mini-bikes, to a Honda Aero 80 scooter, and we enjoyed them together, but our individual connections to them were distinct.  Tom had a much more balanced life with lots of friends and other hobbies.  I had difficulties connecting with my peers and found myself talking about go-karts non-stop, obsessing about various repairs and modifications. A kid like me has trouble making friends, but a kid like me with wheels can get by.

Anyway, this project followed the same pattern as other projects Tom and I had as kids.  He acquired the vehicle because he had the taste and the social skills to do so.  I repaired the vehicle, with Tom handing me tools and helping out along the way.  Then we struggled to work out a joint-custody arrangement.

We finished that restoration just a few days before I entered the Missionary Training Center to begin a two-year mission for my church.

This is what it looked like when we were finished.  Fall 1994.

When I got home from my mission the first thing I was dying to do was to ride the Vespa.  I ransacked my room until I found the envelope containing keys that Tom had hidden for me before he left for his mission.  It would be a year before Tom came home from Brazil.  During that time I rode the Vespa everywhere.  In addition to being basic transportation it was a decompression valve, and a key that opened doors for me socially that I had hitherto been too clumsy to lockpick.

When Tom came home I handed the keys back over to him.  By that time I had begun fixing Vespas for other people.  I had also begun work on my 1963 Ford Galaxie.  I was getting my life underway.  College was going well.  I had a good job.  And I enjoyed fixing Vespas on the side.

I remember eating at a Japanese restaraunt with a friend (whose scooter I was helping to restore) and he began talking to the waiter about scooters.  When the waiter expressed interest in getting a Vespa, my friend introduced me to him as the expert.  I was floored when the waiter said that not only had he heard of me, he had my name and number in his wallet.

I restored and repaired a lot of other scooters during that period.  I met a pair of businessmen who, in addition to buying and selling used Levi's, had made a trip to Italy and returned with a container of classic Italian scooters.  With these now in local circulation, demand for my help increased dramatically.

We formed a scooter club called Brigham's Bees.  It was amazing to me to go on rides with ten or twenty other Vespa owners.  We'd line our scooters up in front of scenic mountain vistas and take pictures.  I would secretly count off the ones I had repaired or restored.  It gave me a great sense of accomplishment.  I had found, and forged, a community for myself.

I've tried to count the scooters I've restored.  I should have kept records and pictures of all of them.  I know I have restored at least 15 scooters since that first P200.  All of them for other people.

On July 28, 2004, I bought a Vespa for myself.  A shop in Austin, TX had a 1961 Vespa GS150 project.  Price $2000.  One of their employees was heading to Denver for the Mile High Mayhem scooter rally, and my friend Kent was also going to that rally, so between the two of them I was able to get it transported to Orem for free.  I wish I had pictures of it pre-restoration.  It was pretty ragged but full of potential.

I quickly took it all apart and took the body to a painter.  I ordered many of the parts I would need.  When the painter finished I began reassembly.  As at other times, with other aspects of my life, I got off to a good start.  Unfortunately I soon slacked off and the scooter began collecting dust.  

The process of restoration is pretty interesting.  It's a heartbreaking hobby.  Any time you undertake to fight entropy, you end up losing.  Just look at Joan Rivers.  Things deteriorate.  It's a law of nature.  trying to make things go the other direction takes a tremendous amount of energy, and when you stop putting that energy in, entropy reclaims its prey.

Restoring a vehicle is challenging on a few fronts.  First there's the problem of rust.  Rust is like a cancer that eats metal.  It gets into microscopic pores and seams in sheet metal.  It's very hard to eradicate.  There's also the problem of dents and dings.  Those kinds of scars require skill to remove.  On cars most of the sheet metal only has one exposed side, so you can get away with using dent fillers more liberally.  But with scooters much of the sheet metal is exposed on both sides, so filler very quickly makes it look too bulky and thick.  Also the sheet metal on a scooter body is exposed to more vibration and flexing, which can cause heavy filler to crack and flake off.

These are just a few of the problems.  Others include scarcity of replacement parts, repairing the mechanical parts like the engine and suspension, and refinishing the various parts in the appropriate finishes (chrome, polished alloy, paint, etc.)

When I first started with this hobby I had no qualms about having a scooter painted any color, or using whatever new parts were available for a restoration.   Gradually I've grown to appreciate original colors and refurbishing old parts, even when new ones would look nicer.  I like to try to preserve some of the history and character that come with age, rather than just making it look showroom new.  It's funny to me that I feel this way now, but I do nevertheless.

I have finally finished restoring that 1961 Vespa.  I guess it's a good time to have it finished because it's turning 50 this year.  This is the first scooter I have done for myself.  I think it turned out nicely.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

I once read about a study of unrequited love in adolescents.  One of the findings was that young men reported much more heartbreak over unrequited love than young women.

On the surface this might seem puzzling given that women stereotypically are much more affectionate and emotional.  But it was obvious to me.

As a young man, I couldn't have explained why it was obvious, but having had my heart stomped on by more than one indifferent young woman, I knew it was true.

But I think I could explain it now.

For women, being connected is socially acceptable.  Women hug and kiss and hold hands in public with other women.  Women engage in social activities with other women that would be comical for men to do together.  For example, women go to the bathroom as a group activity, it is socially acceptable female behavior.  Another example I see in my line of work is female motorcycle riders.  Two women on a motorcycle or scooter is cute, two men on the same motorcycle is embarrasing for all involved.

What's this got to do with unrequited love you ask?  I think that men aren't wired so differently from women.  I think that men experience the same emotional needs for acceptance and connection as women do.  And as boys these needs are met by mothers and fathers, big sisters, brothers and extended family.  Nobody is uncomfortable with it.  But at some point before puberty boys are made to become ashamed of affection. We are set adrift in a sea of competitive isolation wherein we founder aimlessly until we strike upon some foreign shore of love and affection.  Sometimes this is a safe harbor, but often it's an island inhabited by cannibals.  Because the women who become the objects of our affection are not as needy as we are, we eat ourselves alive.

For adolescent men, disconnectedness and isolation are the norm.  Everything from football to pornography reinforces this disconnectedness.  The way we are expected to relate to both men and women is infused with aggression and alienation.

So of course young mens' hearts are more often broken.  Young women have eachother, and the undivided attention of young men who don't even know how to approach them.  Young men have only their confused selves and their raging loneliness.  (An argument could even be made that their loneliness rages harder than their hormones, but I won't go into that here.)

Unfortunately all of what I've just said is anecdotal.  And any serious research would be thwarted by the very problem I'm trying to describe.  Men wouldn't admit to having these feelings, because these feelings are not manly.

Years ago I was introduced to a girl who was in a Women's Studies program in a prestigious university back east.  She looked down her nose and saw the grease under my fingernails and proceeded to tear me apart for being a manly man.  That's all I was to her, and all I would ever be.  Her contempt for me was clear, and her ability to talk circles around me left me speechless.  I felt I'd been run over by a trainload of sneering, superior, articulate women and I hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise.  In my impotent frustration I behaved exactly as the troll she saw in me.  Our one-sided conversation turned into an argument that culminated in me dropping her off at the curb and squealing my tires as I sped away.

I couldn't express my feelings at all then, and "manly" anger took over, but what I wish I could have said to her is that her course of study was not liberating her femininity, but rather it was arming her with the same weapons of self-isolation that are standard-issue for all ten-year-old boys.  I would have explained to her that both men and women are bound and gagged in boxes and that liberation will not come in the form of one gender tightening the shackles of the other.  I would have told her that we need to free eachother as people in order to be truly free.

Unfortunately, had I had the sense to say those things, I probably would have used them as pick-up lines.