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Book Review: Retail Anarchy: A Radical Shopper’s Adventures in Consumption by Sam Pocker

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It takes slightly over 200 pages to get to the core principles of Sam Pocker’s Retail Anarchy. When the “stand-up economist” ultimately does describe his model, it rings exceptionally hollow and sounds incredibly naive. Perhaps working in reverse through the book would further clarify the central aim, but somehow that seems doubtful.

Pocker, who constructed the Your Mileage May Vary documentary and created the YMMV Radio program, is a “professional bargain hunter,” but he is also a man with a heart. His documentary and radio show are dedicated to helping people save money, sometimes earn money, and really stick it to retailers.

Pocker’s book claims to hold the answers to a variety of questions, such as why “grown men sleep on the street overnight to buy video game systems” and “why does no one blink when they are charged three dollars for a cup of coffee.”

The “answers,” insomuch as they can be called informative in any fashion, are buried underneath Pocker’s sprawling, narcissistic, dishonourable writing. He offers a “Disclaimer,” noting that the book will be full of “contradictions” because it was written by a person “just like me.” Pocker is telling a “story about people and money,” it says, and that apparently excuses a lack of actual supportive data.

It is fair to say that Retail Anarchy is baffling, remarkably tangential, excessive, habitually vindictive, desperately crude, and unenlightening wholly by design. Pocker frequently leaves the back door open in order that he may hobble away from some of his harsher statements, much like the teller of an especially pitiless “joke” expects the postscript of “just kidding” to cover his or her tracks.

The author begins by telling us that he is an economist. He is not. It is entirely possible that Pocker is simply making a point about the snare of branding. He is, in effect, self-branding based exclusively on a vacant assertion. This comes into focus later when he tells us that Wal-Mart’s “Every Day Low Prices” slogan is just a slogan and that those with “Genius” written on their T-shirts at the Apple store are not, in fact, authentic geniuses. So there we are: branding can be dishonest and we shouldn’t trust it.

Why, then, should we trust Sam Pocker?

To say that the aforementioned question ran through my head relentlessly throughout reading Retail Anarchy would be an understatement. As I read through mean-spirited tale after mean-spirited tale about how retail workers are the scum of the earth, how Cheesecake Factory hostesses are sluts and prostitutes, and how the Chinese government has so many people that it can’t kill them off fast enough, I was troubled by the query.

Pocker’s basic simplicity and unkindness exposes his ignorance as to the genuine problems of consumption. His design of anarchy in retail scarcely scratches the surface of the problem of globalization and narrow-minded consumerism, electing instead to effectively piss off retail stores and outlets as much as possible.

That Pocker admittedly takes such pleasure in “flipping out” on underpaid, over-worked retail workers is astonishing. That he continues to brood over why his “ass is not being kissed” by minimum wage workers with no health care benefits, no fair wages, and no union protection is just flat-out conceited. That he continues to drive the sequence by progressing mass consumption and all but ignoring the vast role the corporations play in the final dynamic is beyond perplexing.

Pocker’s basic claim when it comes to retail is that the customer should get what he or she pays for. This is a fair principle that few would argue with.

Retail Anarchy features various stories about how Pocker combined a coupon with another coupon and a rebate or another discount and wound up with an alarming amount of products that they (“the manufacturer”) paid him to take. At one point this leads Pocker to purchase an alarming amount of Pepsi, finishing the deal by dumping 48 cans of the mud down the drain after not realizing that they “go bad after time.”

Interestingly, Pocker never seems to see this as mass consumption because he utilizes coupons or is paid “to take the merchandise.” Because he does not spend money consuming various name-brand products, he is somehow not contributing to the problem of rabid consumerism.

Pocker frequently posits that the fundamental reason most consumers do not use coupons or rebates is because they are harassed by retail workers or peeved cashiers. The evidence to back this claim appears to be his personal experience, made all the more fascinating by his debasing approach towards retail. It couldn’t possibly be true that the reason he faces so many irritated cashiers is because he obviously and persistently looks down upon them, could it?

Retail Anarchy is arranged somewhat like a series of blog posts, with some relating to one another and others simply existing so that Pocker can get a “joke” in. He spends extensive time discussing restaurants, mocking the “cesspool of human failure” waiting for tables at the Cheesecake Factory.

It is incredibly ironic that he decries the generalization of people and encourages us all to sing and hold hands together as we’re all “human.” Apparently we are supposed to overlook his despicable assessment of retail workers as Special Olympics athletes and fail to notice his strangely racist invectives, often precluded by the disclaimer "Not to be racist, but…"

Retail anarchy is, according to Pocker, the conception that "nobody is in charge." This isn’t entirely true, though, as he undoubtedly states that the consumer is in charge and ought to be. This comes at the expense of everything else, with not a care in the world given to equality, to driving the machines of consumption, to driving up cost by increasing demand, or to the retail or factory worker.

Pocker informs us brusquely and without examination that other paths don’t work. Boycotting products, for instance, "does not work." We aren’t told why. He explains his anger at supporting stores that pay cashier’s appalling wages, but continues to move products from their merchandise with the deduction that he is costing the retailer money . How livid can he possibly be if he continues to propagate the problem and obstinately heaps derision upon the precious cashier at the same time?

This book really rebrands consumption under the pretext that coupon shopping is somehow anarchic.

When Naomi Klein argues, rightly, in No Logo that companies are more interested in their brands and logos than their products, how exactly does Pocker’s solution to devour copious brand name products help resolve the problems he claims to be concerned with? The products are moving off of the shelves and sometimes down the drainpipe, opening space (demand) for even more products.

Not falling into the trap of consumption does work, as do boycotts and protests. Supporting Pepsi by consuming it sends endorsement to the company that dumped pesticides into the product in India and did business with Burmese military juntas in the 90s. It simply does not matter if Pepsi “pays” you to consume their product, either.

So while Pocker tells us that this is Retail Anarchy and that this is the way to rock the boat of consumerism, what he’s not telling us proves more interesting. Any part in mass consumption, any senseless expenditure of avoidable products, and any support to immoral brands, companies, or practices reflects implicit agreement for what those charlatans stand for.

Pocker’s “anarchy” is self-serving and preoccupied with getting the best deal possible no matter what the supplementary costs may be. It leaves the culpability with retailers and low paid workers, choosing a path of rudeness and offense over deeper thinking, education, and structural change.

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About Jordan Richardson