Friday, October 7, 2011

Cheap Spate

My mother was a coupon fanatic. Before they were bar-coded she would sneak coupons that had expired or for products she hadn't purchased into the giant stack she foisted over to the checker at the Ralph's (double coupons!). On April Fool's Day once I had a friend call her pretending to be the Ralph's manager and ordering her to cease and desist with the coupon shenanigans. She hung up in his face and took her business to Von's. Mom always kept a special stack of things she accumulated waiting for me on Fulton Ave. There were samples, junk mail and coupons which I'd sneak around the side of her house and dump in the recycling. I knew that my parents thrifty habits were a result of coming up during the depression. Up until a couple of years ago our income increased a bit each year and we assumed that this would always be the case. We discovered with a big bang that it is not. The new frugality has become tres chic but for us it's a necessity.

While I don't clip coupons from the newspaper I get a thrill when Fresh & Easy and Costco coupons arrive in the mail. I'm an avid user of Groupons and the similar Amazon connected program called Living Social. I pick up ten buck Groupons for a lot of neighborhood ethnic places which are great for the kids to use. I also purchase Groupons for a few sit down restaurants for family outings. I snatch a Groupon to an Indian restaurant in Pasadena after confusing the name with one we'd been to before and liked but it turns out to be a different one. Why are there so many Indian restaurants in Pasadena?

Spuds and I head to Akbar in Old Town on the day the Groupon expires. I suspect a crowd on the last day the coupon's good so we arrive before 6 p.m. and snag the last table in the house. The lady at the next table starts talking about the death of Steve Jobs and says she is waiting for her son and seeing Spuds says that it must be a mother-son dinner night which conjures the “Motherboy” episode of Arrested Development. Her son arrives, a big blond brute, much older than Spuds and he demands vegetarian food prepared without onions and not hot. He orders, “mango milk” and when the waitress suggests he means “mango lassi,” he snarls, “whatever.” When the food arrives he asks if there's some sort of sauce for it, maybe curry but not spicy,” and becomes sulky when the waitress says that they only have chutney which has chile. I think I got the better deal in the son department. By the time we finish eating there is a long line out the door. It was obvious that the staff is slammed and it takes quite a long time to get the food, which is edible but average. I paid $20.00 for a $45.00 Groupon. From what I understand, Groupon gets about half of that so the restaurant take is about $10.00. The staff works their tails off and the till is probably empty at evenings' end.

Groupon is one of the fastest growing companies in history and a spectacular IPO was anticipated. I would be very surprised, now that the data is in, if the stock offering actually comes to pass. I have picked up a few Groupons for places I know and like and would return to regardless. Most of the others were for restaurants that have decent reviews on Chowhound or Yelp. I purchased one for a natural foods market that I found to have grossly inflated prices and complained to Groupon and promptly got a full refund. With regard to the untried restaurants, I enjoy the cheap meals but have no incentive to return and pay full price when I can just use another Groupon for another new place. I think a lot of merchants participating in these coupon offers aren't building from them the loyal following they'd expected. Research shows that Grouponers also tend to be Yelpers. Perhaps it's due to mediocrity, or maybe the surge of customers a Groupon creates overwhelms a restaurant and food and service fall apart, but there is a definite correlation between Groupon offers and negative Yelp reviews.

I'm not sure how long Groupon, at least as it is now, will last but to my kids Groupons are more familiar tender than the green stuff. I was derisive about my mother's use of coupons but my own kids are accustomed to relying on Groupons and it is normal to be thrust one when they ask for clothes, shoes, electronic and food items. They are also used to helping me split orders at the Fresh & Easy so I can make use of additional $10.00 coupons for $50.00 purchases. There are usually union representatives in front of the Eagle Rock store. Fresh & Easy is owned by the huge British conglomerate Tesco. The union states that they have an employee majority in favor of joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union but Fresh & Easy claims their workers are happy and has one standing in a kelly green Fresh & Easy shirt at the door, right next to the union organizers, handing out $5 coupons. While my parents were paragons of thrift, neither would ever cross a picket line. They were pretty apolitical but I think the legend of the Triangle fire and other labor horror stories recounted by their elders insured that their generation of Jews were unquestioning union sympathizers.

Unfortunately, I am able to stretch my own food budget by shopping pretty exclusively at non-union purveyors because the prices are dramatically lower. I feel guilty to some extent but I also can't ascribe to my parents' blind obeisance because it has become clear that the efficacy of unions is now suspect as they wield, and frequently abuse, so much political power. That said, I wish all workers in the U.S. had the same protection that most unions afford their members.

My sister and I resented my parents parsimony and our attitudes about money were definitely shaped by this. The economy ebbed and flowed while I was growing up but my dad's business seemed to improve continually and my mom got a raise once or twice a year so it seemed silly that they'd drive an extra mile to save a penny a gallon on gas or rush to arrive in time for early bird specials. My own kids weigh even the smallest expenditure. They've seen their dad become a wreck as his employer downsizes personnel and relentlessly heaps more and more work on the remaining staff. They've seen me lay off employees who've been with me for decades and are as close as family. They are well aware that we are more fortunate than most but after witnessing our insecurity over the last few years there's nothing to make them believe that it's going to get better.

The conservative press has made light of the Occupy Wall Street protests and nationwide spin-offs, blowing the movement off as a rudderless pothead blip on the radar. Joe College indicates that some of his fellow students will be camping out over this holiday weekend at City Hall and I ask if he's going himself. He says those things never do any good and I tell him that those things stopped a war and while he didn't rush out to the garage for his sleeping bag, at least he chewed that around some.

It is Erev Yom Kippur and the beginning of my annual 24 hours without coffee draws nigh. I will attend services, perhaps accompanied by grumbling members of my family or perhaps as a solo agent. This is the day when if we come clean, and not just about our own shortcomings but on behalf of the whole community, we get sealed in the Book of Life for another year. In the middle of the whole shebang there is a Yitzkor service when we remember the souls of the dead. I'll try to catch the sermons and reflect on my many shortcomings as well as society's but this year, as part of the 99% and the mother of cynical children, the figurative beating of my breast feels inadequate. I live in a country where 1% of the population control more than 38% of the wealth and the chasm bodes only to grow larger as health, education and other social welfare programs are decimated. I will go to services, more than likely alone, but I hope my prayers and meditations are a springboard for some action that will counter my children's cynicism. This seems like a more fitting way to honor the dead than reading names off a memorial board and chanting the Kaddish. I'll break the fast with a cup of coffee so big I'll have to take a Xanax before bed. Then I'll join my work weary husband and my soon to be less cynical children for a break-the-fast meal. Thank God I have a Groupon.

L'Shanah Tova, Shabbat Shalom and Power to the People

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I come bearing citations! NYT on recent delay in Groupon IPO due to "aftermarket costs." Mother Jones on "All Work & No Pay: The Great Speedup" as corporate profits are up 22% since 2007 and productivity in a "jobless recovery" at record highs (check the related sidebar charts).

MJ (yes, they are still around in some form) with equally revealing charts on "It's the Inequality, Stupid", and as for "Occupy Wall Street," a rather lackluster PC version of a Declaration, but perhaps more relevant than the one in 1776 if far less rhetorically eloquent.

Think of the small blessing of being free from grumbling me contributing to "rightsizing" and "rationalization" for my employer tonight, and have a proverbial easy fast. You coffee-less? Well, thank g-d it's once a year that such rending of garments and cries of woe emanate from our kitchen.

L'shanah tovah tikatevi (feminine ending) & may you be inscribed in the Great Big Blog of Life. xxx me