One of the universal truths of living in Twisp (and even more so in Winthrop and Mazama): there are a few consumer goods that are not locally available. Therefore, there arrives a time when one needs to journey over the Loup to Omak to hit the box stores and stock up on household and personal items.
This weekend was one of those times — my kids needed new sneakers and instead of squinting at a screen trying to find a great deal online, in the right size, and wait for them in the mail, we headed to Big 5 in Omak in real time. Shopping beyond Hank’s Harvest Foods and Ulrich’s Pharmacy is a bit of novelty to my kids. It’s not a common activity that we engage in or enjoy. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have taken them clothing or shoe shopping together — it’s twice — and the last time was during the 2017 smoke season as a way to escape the air. It was a kind of special treat.
Online shopping can be limiting. There are certain items that don’t make economic sense or just aren’t satisfying to shop for online. Touching the fabrics, picking up the tool, or seeing the electrical display on an appliance — size, weight, color, texture — these are the tangible qualities of retail shopping that just don’t work well online. Also, there’s the impulse buys. Items you just happen to see but didn’t think you wanted until you are right in front of them. For me, this was bag clips, the clamps that hold potato chip bags closed. Necessary, no. Handy, yes.
Online retailers still haven’t quite mastered that art of the impulse, but retailers have it down to a science of its own. Even with the intelligent logarithms that tempt you with the links to “similarly bought items” or pop-up ads that are eerily too accurate, the three-dimensional experience of browsing can’t be replicated — at least not yet. I imagine there will be virtual department stores soon where people can walk through the aisles with Google goggles or whatever, but until then, we drive to Omak.
A trip to Omak with kids would not be complete without a stop to the Dollar Tree store. Nowhere else can a dollar earned go so far. Inside the store, my son gazed upward and noticed a strange “cage” erected on the ceiling and inquired, “what’s that cage for?” The clerk informed him it’s usually filled with helium balloons, but given the global shortage of helium, it’s too expensive for them to supply for a dollar. In fact, she said some places are selling balloons upwards of $20.
Here’s another universal truth of living in Twisp: When there’s a global shortage of an important commodity, we might not be aware. I had no idea. The clerk then went on to attribute the global helium shortage to “the situation in California.” I was skeptical. It seems like the fires are blamed for a lot these days.
Sure enough, there is a global shortage of helium gas. It has nothing to do with wildfires. It has everything to do with the U.S. privatization of helium reserves that was legislatively mandated in 1996. I am no macro-economist, but what I understand is the United States once held 75 percent of the world’s helium in underground reserves in pipes running underground from Texas to Kansas, which has been depleted. The privatization act required the sell-off of helium gas by 2015 at a certain quantity that was not market-driven, and therefore was too cheap at the time, resulting in the current shortage. While privatization should have theoretically increased competition and driven down prices, the rate of sale of a certain quantity over time resulted in squandering of this non-renewable resource. The market is now adjusting, resulting in volatility.
Helium, as it turns out, is not just used in balloons. It’s used in medical imaging such as MRIs, aerospace industries, arc welding, and lots of physical scientific research, like particle accelerators. These uses are obviously more important than birthday and graduation balloons from the Dollar Tree store, and therefore the market for who gets the dwindling supply of helium is uncertain, leading to radically different priced balloons. Take for example, right next door at Safeway — there were Valentine’s Day helium balloons filling the airspace of the floral section, no shortage it appears. Ulrich’s price: $1.25, or $5 for the large ones.
So, it just goes to show, that you never know what you will learn when you get outside the valley for a short shopping trip — insights into global markets for one. With cold temperatures unlikely to ease up, another day trip for shopping at nearby box store sounds almost enticing.