Other Bill and I, sadly, spend more time than is probably healthy at Big Lots. It only makes sense for two people who are both gluttonous and cheap. Why spend $6.50 on two bags of vanilla Oreos at Publix when you can get three bags at Big Lots for less? Sure, the expiration clock is ticking faster on the Big Lots cookies. And it’s quite possible when you open the bag that all the Oreos will be crumbled into a sticky powder, but that just makes the cookies more amenable to serve as an ice cream topping instead of its intended use as a milk-dunking dessert.
It’s not rocket science to figure out why some things end up at Big Lots, otherwise known as the next-to-the last-stop-on-the-retail-train-to-the-dumpster. Things like chili con carne in a mylar envelope, and pumpkin-banana cake frosting were obvious losers. Hormel and Pillsbury are only human. Not every idea in the world food market will catch fire and sell like Starbucks. And things like half-priced giant bottles of Advil that expire tomorrow are only a natural for the store of the desperate and destitute. It’s always hit-or-miss with Big Lots. You never know what they’ll be stocking, which makes that the ultimate draw of the store. Maybe this time I’ll find those tins of anchovies for 60 cents again! Something that you can always depend on Big Lots to stock, however: Pop Tarts. That’s right, they always have a huge assortment of flour-encrusted jam slathered with jawbreaker icing. At radically-slashed prices.
At our Big Lots there is always one area in a dark corner under the $2 gallon jugs of white vinegar known as the Reduced For Quick Sale shelf. As if it’s not bad enough that you end up in Big Lots, this shelf always makes me a little sad. Products there look like they have been in trailers where domestic violence is the norm, and they have been returned to pay for bail. Boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix that look like they’ve been hit with a rolling pin. Dented little cans of Young and Early peas. So heartbreaking. Wrinkled, dirty bags of egg noodle crumbs. Sometimes I have to buy stuff from there just to show it a little love for products that lived a tormented life of abuse. Give the food a little dignity, for crying out loud!
When we were there recently, one of the first things I noticed was a huge box of rainbow-colored unknown chunks that looked like those tooth-cracking candy hearts with love notes on them. Only these were much smaller and asymmetrical and had no messages on them. They were in clear plastic cellophane bags with matte-finish, generic black and white labels. It looked like something that fell out of a government-issued military MRE.
Their labels made them seem almost as pathetic as the Reduced for Quick Sale items, but not quite. First of all, they were placed in the front of the store looking so colorful they caught the customers’ eye when they first came in. But you’d think they would have some fun and jovial name like Zip-Zaps! or Krazy Konfetti! (exclamation points not optional.) Sadly, whatever happened to these things, they never even made it to the marketing department. The label read, simply, “Asst Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits.” Not very appetizing, is it? And a far cry from creative.
Naturally I had to buy a bag, because a) I didn’t have my phone to take a picture of it, and b) They were only $1.25. And besides, you never know at Big Lots. You turn your back on something they have half a store’s worth of, and in no time, some kid who ran off with his mother’s SNAP card has whisked every one of them out of the building. You know this because the next day there’s a picture of a parti-colored, comatose child under a headline that reads, “Boy, 9, in Hyperglycemic Coma after Marshmallow Bit Overdose”, which would have been more eye-catching if it had instead read “Zip-Zap Overdose.”
So I blame the marketing department of these Bits. I picture a scenario where the national sales director gets on the phone.
“Look, Biff. I’ve got 620 thousand units of this rat-bait rotting in the warehouse. When are you going to get your marketing guys to come up with a goddamned name for them?”
“Just as soon as we can hire another marketing director, Maurice. You didn’t hear that Kevin emptied his desk and walked out without notice last week?”
Maurice does a face-palm and pops a Xanax. “This is the third marketing director in 5 months! Why can’t you keep someone in the job, for Chrissake? What was it this time? Pay, hours, or benefits?”
“Neither,” Biff says. “He wanted his office painted a different color, but corporate denied it.”
"Asshole Millennials," sighs the sales director.
"Asshole Millennials," sighs the sales director.
Three weeks later, and Maurice is on the phone to Biff again.
“Goddammit, I told you months ago to get a name for these tooth-rotters, and—”
“How about Tooth Rotterz? You know, with a Z,” Biff suggests.
“What? Are you stoned? You can’t call them that. They’ll never sell. Mothers will be livid.”
“Yeah, Maurice? Well, what about Screaming Yellow Zonkers, or, or Fizzies, or Trix? What about those, Maurice?”
“Look you little weasel. No Tooth Rotters. With a Z or an S. Either you come up with a name by close of business today, or I’m just going to order them labeled ‘Assorted Dehydrated Marshmallow Bits’, and you’re gonna take the fall for their failure.”
And then, six months later, they end up at Big Lots, with a dwindling “Best if Used By” date.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to buy wholesome, fresh snacks at Whole Foods, and purchase name brand toilet paper that doesn’t dissolve on the first wipe, and cranberry juice I’m not pressured to drink before expiration, and drugs I’ll consume without symptoms because somebody should take these!
Until then, there’s Big Lots.