Complaining that the superstore invasion is turning our sacred city into a suburb is practically required proof of residency in these five boroughs. Loehmann’s in the venerated Barneys building in Chelsea?! Kmart in the middle of Astor Place?! Then we discovered Martha Stewart’s 200-count cotton sheets at Kmart for less than a pillow sham in a SoHo boutique and unwashed denim jeans for a tenth the price of Helmut Lang’s. Let’s face it: Bargain hunting is the city’s favorite extreme sport. We already pay through the nose in rent; we deserve a deal on toilet paper. So for a change of scale and some serious discounting, treat yourself to one of these outer-borough monster marts with extra-wide aisles and acres of parking (and no small amount of exercise either; some are so vast you’ll need a compass to keep from getting lost).
The Wal-Mart in Uniondale, Long Island (1123 Jerusalem Avenue; 516-505-1508) is a shopping experience taken to a Vegas-like extreme. Where else can you buy 40-pound bags of charcoal, a gallon of milk, and men’s cotton briefs – all in the same mile-long aisle? Ten minutes in this shopping arena and you will shrug off any notion that less is more. The crafts section alone will make you want to take up a new hobby: macramé, silk-flower arranging, perhaps wedding-cake decorating. Or if camping is your game, the store carries everything for the outdoors: baked enamelware, oil lamps, sleeping bags, and the like. For more menial tasks, there is a huge selection of brand-name appliances, from state-of-the-art Hoover vacuum cleaners to unnecessarily aerodynamically efficient Panasonic irons. The real treasure, however, is the clothing department, which carries the entire line of Dickies utilitarian wear, all for around $10, as well as forward-looking shoes, including a pair of Silver Series velcro-strap sneakers, which at $9.95 are impressively Prada-esque. The food section is a bit frightening: rainbow-colored sodas and industrial-size bags of cheese puffs, which the kids blithely rip open while Dad checks out the inflatable mini-pool. There are also the occasional enigmatic items (a.k.a. remainders) like the Le Bistro dog feeder, an automated contraption that dispenses kibble to your pooch, which you might feel compelled to buy because you may never have another opportunity to, and hey, it’s on sale.
Target (135-05 Twentieth Avenue, College Point, Queens; 718-661-4346), also known as “Tar-zhay” pronounced with a French accent among loyalists, bills itself as an “upscale discounter,” which means, in corporate jargon, that they don’t want to be piled into the same category as discount dumping grounds like Odd Lots or Bradlees. The Minnesota-based retailer has succeeded in making it onto the cool radar with a witty advertising campaign and loads of celebrity endorsements (Camryn Manheim showed off her cubic-zirconia stud earrings at the Emmys). The store’s flair for design and packaging boosts the “wow” factor (more company parlance), which simply means that customers can find products like designer tea kettles and beaded lampshades that look exactly like the ones at Pottery Barn but for a third the price. At the College Point, Queens, store, there are plenty of stylish cool-hunters sizing up Michael Graves’s pop-inspired toaster and can opener. By the time you reach the register, your cart will be overflowing with Calphalon pans and beeswax candles, and at these prices, you won’t feel guilty about throwing in those $8 flip-flops. Besides, the same ones would have cost you $28 at Banana Republic.
Underneath the BQE, tucked behind the industrial back streets of Red Hook, the Home Depot (550 Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-369-8400) stands like a bright-orange oasis. Even at 1 a.m. on a Thursday, the parking lot is abuzz with activity: A Hasidic family piles out of a beat-up station wagon, a couple struggles with a French door on their roof rack, and a few employees unload a late-night tropical-plant delivery. The store is open 24 hours, which makes it a life-saver for domestic-emergency purchases, such as a sanity-saving air-conditioner in the midst of a heat wave. Navigating the hangar-size warehouse can be a bit daunting, with mini-forklifts and cranes zigzagging through stadiumwide aisles of lumber, industrial doors, and toilets. Warning to home-improvement neophytes: This place has been dubbed the real-man’s Ikea, so assembly will require more than a few screws and an Allen wrench. On a recent evening, the testosterone level is fairly high: A pair of Brooklyn artists size up some copper piping for their current project, while a group of construction workers admire the latest power tools in the sacred tool corral (where shopping carts, and perhaps even women, are forbidden). Still, for those not in the market for drywall, there are plenty of user-friendly items, like Weber grills, ceiling fans, and gallon jugs of insect repellent.
The Zamboni-like vehicle that mops the floor at Costco wholesale club (stores in and around the city; call 800-774-2678 for locations) all day long keeps the warehouse as spotless as any Madison Avenue boutique. Perhaps the membership policy ($40 per year for qualified individuals) also contributes to the tidiness by keeping out hordes of less-serious-minded browsers. The gleaming shelves are stocked full of bargains: Lexmark color printers ($154), portable helium tanks, Tag Heuer stainless-steel watches ($379.99). The real deals are the bulk items, but there is something unsettling about a 24-ounce bottle of Mylanta or a 128-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Frankly, I’m stumped about what you could possibly do with so much sandwich spread (of course, the 21.5-pound can of tuna nearby should be a sufficient clue). The elderly couple next to me seem to know, as they stockpile enough for a possible millennium meltdown. For a bit of nostalgia, head to the frozen-food section, housed in a sleek Bauhaus-style freezer tower. This is the land of lost brand names: Ling Ling potstickers, Wilton mini-pizza bagels, and Eggo waffles all come in family-size boxes. Nearby in the vast meat department, butchers in lab coats replenish shelves with giant pork loins and London broils. The concept of meat in bulk is hardly appetizing, but it’s an undeniable bargain: For $16, you can get three racks of Kirkland baby-back ribs or twelve pork chops, both of which are easily of supermarket caliber (one unsettling coincidence spotted in aisle 135 – the car batteries are also named Kirkland).