Confessions of a Shopping Addict

I stood in a line that wrapped around the block for an hour and a half with hundreds of other women. I'd like to say that we were lining up to vote, to donate clothes to the needy, or maybe even to see "March of the Penguins." But I can't. It was a Thursday night and we were the lucky ones who had been invited to a special pre-opening shopping party of the clothing chain store, H&M.

For months, women in San Francisco were abuzz with the news that H&M was finally opening its doors in our city. Low-cost yet fashionable clothing would be ours! Ours! If you aren't familiar with H&M, it may difficult to understand the excitement this store causes in women across the board, whether they are hard core shoppers or not. I think it would be best if I illustrate this point with a personal example.

It was in New York City last summer that I discovered the delights of H&M. I was in town to cover the Republican National Convention and happened upon the store in my off hours. I only buy clothes twice a year and for me, shopping at H&M was like freebasing crack -- except it was cheaper and I got to buy really cute outfits. I was hooked and all of a sudden, nothing else mattered, not even the fact that at the exact moment I found and was trying on the perfect black knee-length floral skirt for $20 -- $20! What a bargain! And it wasn't even on sale! -- I was supposed to be covering a protest outside the Fox News building.

H&M won't make you lie, steal, or kill, but it will make you do crazy things like stand in line for an hour and a half, get into fights with people who try and cut in front of you, and squeal at ridiculous window displays. I never thought I'd be the type to stand in line just to hand over my hard-earned cash to a big chain store, but there I was -- and just hours after seeing Robert Greenwald's new movie, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."

The movie documenting the evils of Wal-Mart is currently showing at small screenings across the country, and I was lucky to be at work when there was a free screening of it at San Francisco State University. While the film doesn't expose any earth-shattering information about Wal-Mart, it's very effective in hitting home the negative effects of the big chain store on communities, local economies, workers, and the environment.

The movie was still on my mind when I finally made it through the doors of H&M, and it made me question how much they were paying their employees. What benefits did they receive other than a 25% discount? As I tried on a black canvas pea coat with a fur hood for $60, I wondered who had made it and what hours they were forced to work. I picked up a wooly green knit cap priced at $8 and thought about all the small mom and pop stores that had closed because of Wal-Mart. Would anyone in San Francisco suffer because I purchased this hat at H&M?

In my mind I started walking out the door and away from the store. Everything within a three block radius was chain store after chain store. If a Wal-Mart opened in downtown San Francisco, it wouldn't be mom and pop stores that would suffer because they had already been run out of the area. Instead, it would be a retail battle of epic proportions, where Wal-Mart is Godzilla and Macy's is Mothra and all the people who have just stuffed themselves at the Cheesecake Factory are trampled and eaten as these two monsters battle it out. Similarly, H&M is taking business away from Gap, Express, and Urban Outfitters, not the local mom and pop stores. Would I shed a tear if H&M stomped the life out of Gap? Not likely.

Then I thought about my friend who owns a small boutique in the Mission neighborhood five miles away. I should spend my money at her store instead of H&M, but she didn't carry knit hats right now and when she did, they were much more expensive. This may come as a shock, but being the editor of a non-profit website isn't exactly the most lucrative profession. Shopping at small expensive boutiques, especially with rising housing and gas prices, isn't in my budget.

At the same time, being a 31-year-old working professional means that I need clothing other than t-shirts from American Apparel. Admittedly, the knit hat would be an unnecessary purchase, but the gray zip-up sweater top and the canvas pea coat were items I needed. Of course, when I say "needed" I don't mean that I would die without them, but they are necessary for performing my job in a professional manner. Kind of like a laptop, staples, and stickies.

Last year after I watched "Super Size Me," I stopped eating fast food. It wasn't hard, actually, because there were so many alternatives. I started bringing my lunch or would eat only at independent delis, taquerias, and chinese take out places. But after watching the Wal-Mart movie, I still don't know what the alternatives are. There isn't any other place where I can buy affordable, fashionable clothing.

In the end, with visions of Wal-Mart employees getting hours erased from their timesheets and Chinese workers getting locked in factories, I took my purchases up to the cash registers. What else could I do but carry my bag of H&M clothing out of the store and start walking home?

It was dark outside and I was a few blocks from my apartment when a car pulled up next to me and started honking. I was scared and quickened my pace, but the car continued to follow me. I looked around for help, but not many people were on the street. Then I glanced behind me and realized the car had three women in it and they were yelling at me. At first, I couldn't understand them, but then they pointed at my bag. "H&M!!! Is it open yet??"


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