Capitalism At its Best

by Joe Dobrow ©1994


It is a brisk Saturday morning, the kind best spent lingering in bed for a while, but today I have a mission: I must get to the computer store by 10 to buy a laser printer.

This sense of urgency might sound but a bit odd, but I know what I am doing. I have spent a week shopping around and checking the ads, and I know conclusively that the best price on a Hewlett-Packard IIIP Laser Printer is at MicroCenter in Vienna. In fact, it’s not even close: somehow, the “perfect information” world of capitalism has broken down, and these folks are selling the IIIP for $767, a full $128 below anyone else.

Yesterday — the third day in a row I had called — the salesperson on the phone told me that they had run out of that day’s shipment of IIIPs by noon, but that a new shipment would be arriving overnight and that I would be advised to show up at 10:00 sharp. And so, feeling just a bit foolish, I decide to leave my house in Falls Church at 9:35, knowing it will take only five or 10 minutes to get to the store. Anticipating that I will have to wait in my parked car for MicroCenter to open its doors, I bring along the newspaper.

I have no need for it. When I arrive, I am stunned to see a large crowd arleady milling about outside of the store. My first thought is that they must be having some sort of big sale today, for I have occasionally seen this sort of pre-opening crowd at department stores and ticket outlets in the past. I remain in the car for a couple of minutes. But more and more people arrive, and they’re actually running from their cars to join the line. Could it possibly be that we’re all…? I jump out of the car and join the rush.

In line, the mood is convivial as it becomes apparent that yes, incredibly, all of us are here to get the IIIP. There are young couples, senior citizens, parents with their children — the full mix of American humanity, all with pressing laser printer needs and the determination to save $128.

The 40ish man next to me huddles inside his down jacket and jokes with the lady with blond hair ahead of him in line.

“This is my third trip here this week,” he says with the grim pride of a combat veteran.

“Oh my heavens,” she says, “have you been here this early every time?”

No,” he says, “I go to work at 7 a.m., but I’m not going to be turned away again.”

I have been in line for just two or three minutes, but already there are 20 people behind me. This is astonishing.

“What is this, Russia?” cries one young fellow behind me, and we all laugh a little bit. Laughing seems to keep us warm, and that’s important since, unlike the first 50 or 75 people to arrive, we are a few feet outside of the heated vestibule formed by the outer and inner automatic doors.

I listen to a fragment of this conversation, a tidbit of that, and it becomes apparent that somehow, unaware of each other’s existence until this very moment, we have all been leading remarkably parallel lives for the last week. Everyone has been to CompUSA, to PC Warehouse, to Printers Plus. Everyone can reel off the respective prices of the IIIP. At lesat half a dozen people have the “common knowledge” that the overnight truckload delivered to MicroCenter contained 75 IIIPs. Amazingly, the 40ish man in the down jacket and the blond haired lady and the young guy behind me — we have all been dancing the same dance for a week.

The line behind me is now easily 100 people long, and in sinuous motions it has taken on a life of its own.

A represnetative from the store comes out to tell us that they will be opening the doors in a couple of minutes, and that they would appreciate our courtesy and cooperation. They don’t know how many IIIPs they have (funny — we do), but they’ll try to serve us one at a time. Their main concern is that upon entering the store we don’t trample each other. That sounds reasonable enough. We don’t want this to become a Liverpool soccer rally.

Readjusting to the parameters of our world, our little lined-up society, a caste system starts to develop. Those who have been here before, such as the man in the down jacket, are looked upon with — well, reverence. We direct our questions to him. “How does the IIIP compare to the IV?” “Does MicroCenter do repairs?” Those who are behind us in line, especially those who are way behind, we consider to be lazy and not worth a second glance; they, after all, didn’t arrive here until 9:55.

For my part, I start thinking back to business school, to economic concepts that might explain this: queuing theory, and some such nonsense. All I know is that it is cold, very cold, and since my chances of getting into the store before all the printers are sold out are questionable at the moment, I would gladly pay someone ahead of me in line $50 to change places. In fact, I might be willing to pay $127. Capitalism really does work.

At last the doors open, and we patrons are indeed courteous and cooperative. We file in one by one — not like those mobs we have seen on TV in Eastern Europe. Then again, we’re getting laser printers, and they’re just trying to feed themsleves or get toilet paper.

Inside MicroCenter’s vast store, the employees perform with the precision of a halftime marching band. This person hands us shopping carts. That person directs traffic flow. Over in the “peripherals” department, they’re tossing toner cartridges and printer cables to each other like an oldtime “fireman’s drill.” Before I know what has happened to me, I have a shopping cart in my hands with my long-awaited, much-coveted Hewlet-Packard IIIP laser printer neatly packed inside. I’m through the cashier and back outside again in five minutes.

As I’m walking back to my car, soaking in the envious stares, of all the people still in line, an old man in a derby hat passes me, headed for the line.

“All of this for a freakin’ printer!” he mutters.

Yes, I think. All of this for a freakin’ printer. And 128 bucks.