Saturday, December 13, 2008

Where Have All the Bread Makers Gone?

My dad mentioned that he was thinking of replacing their old bread machine, which was the very earliest model made. It's large, cumbersome, and noisy, and it makes weird cylindrical loaves that are awkward to slice. So my sister and I decided to give them a new bread maker as a Hanukkah present. Simple, right?

Not so much. The Troll and I visited four different stores that one would expect to carry this kind of small appliance: Sears, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and PC Richard, a big electronics/home appliance store. We saw all manner of microwaves, coffeemakers, convection overs, rice cookers, and "portable wine cellars," but not one single bread machine. It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone--every bread machine on earth had suddenly ceased to exist, and we were the only ones alive who knew that there ever was such a thing. We could find any other type of electrical appliance imaginable, including some that we'd never imagined (an electric wine-uncorker?) but not the one we were looking for.

I called up my sister and she started searching the Web for stores that would have it in her area. Since she lives in the big city, she ought to have more shopping options, right? Well, not exactly. She found exactly one store that carried a bread machine--Williams-Sonoma--and they only had the fancy $200 model, not the modest $60 one we had in mind.

So then I figured I'd have to order the bread machine online. My parents wouldn't get to unwrap the machine itself, but we could at least present them with a description, printed out from the Web, of the new toy that would eventually show up on their doorstep. A quick Google search turned up several sites that had the right model listed for around $40 (plus shipping, of course). Unfortunately, every site I tried to order it from said the item was out of stock or on back order. One of them initially claimed to have the machine in stock and allowed me to place an order, only to e-mail me back two hours later informing me that the item was out of stock and apologizing for any inconvenience.

At last, I came to realize that, if I was ever going to succeed in my mission, I was going to have to resort to truly desperate measures. It chilled me to the core, but I knew I had no choice.

I would have to go to Wal-Mart.

Please understand, I had never set foot in a Wal-Mart before, and I had more or less sworn that I never would. I hate just about everything about that company, from its labor practices to its predatory pricing to its insistence on selling bowdlerized versions of popular music. (The list goes on and on and on... PBS made a whole documentary about it, and Brave New Films did the same.) So I had always viewed the Big Blue Box as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American capitalism, and while I was willing to admit that the other big boxes where I shopped (Target, Home Despot, etc.) were probably far from virtuous, I had always considered Wal-Mart the one place where I absolutely drew the line. And now that line was about to be crossed.

I must admit, once I gritted my teeth and stepped across the threshold, the whole trip was quick and really quite painless. It took us probably ten minutes to find what we wanted on the shelf, take it up to the checkout, and walk out again. In fact, after all the rigmarole I'd gone through trying to find this machine elsewhere, it was almost laughable how easy the trip turned out to be. All the same, I still felt kind of dirty afterward. I consoled myself with the thought that I really hadn't given Wal-Mart my business in preference to any other retailer--there simply was no other retailer willing to sell it to me.

I can't help wondering, though: if this bread machine is so popular that all of the online stores have it backordered, then why was Wal-Mart the only bricks-and-mortar store that carried it?

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