The Goods

Too Good to Pass Up

Deal sites and apps are rife with junk no one needs. But I love them all the same.

Open box with discount logos coming out of it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

If you search for the Wish deal app on YouTube, you’ll find a number of “haul videos” where online vloggers describe the mountain of items they’ve bought from the app. The unifying theme of these videos? Disappointment. In fact, part of the appeal of the videos is the sheer ridiculousness of how different the purchases (mostly clothing) are from the Wish item description. There’s something horrifying yet thrilling about seeing a grown woman try on various items that look like they wouldn’t cut it as a children’s Halloween costume, just to exasperatedly declare one piece decent—if viewed only from a distance.

Any rational person would take one look at these videos and never download the app, let alone spend hundreds on it like the vloggers do. The reviews make it clear that most of what Wish sells is junk. My problem is that I love buying cheap junk, even when I know it’s of suspect quality. I began watching Wish haul videos not just to enjoy the fails, but to see if it was worth adding the app to my roster of cheap deal sites I use to satiate my online bargain hunting addiction. Discounted French presses, beauty products I’ll probably use once, and questionable collagen supplements that don’t mix well all leave a trail of receipts in my inbox. And while I don’t spend a haul-worthy amount on these sites, even the tens of dollars I spend each month is enough to raise a red flag. There was a time where I would spend more time scouring deal sites like Vipon and EliteDeals, which offer similar products to Wish but through indirect discounts to Amazon sellers, than on social media.

Where retails sites like Amazon have tried to revolutionize online shopping, making it a level above the in-person shopping experience, the dark web of deal sites and apps creates an almost parallel experience to the bargain bin hunting I have always loved. Most of the products are junk, or at the least not worth their full price. But there’s still something thrilling about getting them at a discount, especially when I know plenty of consumers are none the wiser to the deals. The infinite scroll of products isn’t unlike the hours I’ve spent hunting through physical bargain bins, though now I can do it from the comfort of my bed. Most of the products I end up buying are things I wouldn’t otherwise treat myself to—a coffee face scrub or aromatherapy oils, for instance. I’ve also been able to find things of legitimate use, like copper gloves for my arthritic mother at a fraction of the cost at her local pharmacy or a milk frother to make lattes at home. Even on the days when there’s nothing of real interest to me, it provides the comfort of bargain bin shopping right from my phone.

Growing up in a low-income family, bargain stores were baked into my understanding of economic agency. They were the perfect mix of surprise and stability: The inventory was constantly revolving, surfacing new but always affordable treasures. And while a lot of the items for sale were only one step above what I’d politely call junk, it still felt better than not being able to buy anything at all. As I got older, I realized that was the dark side of bargain shopping: As much as it’s a reprieve from poverty, it’s also predicated on it. It’s why chains like Family Dollar and Dollar General still exist in benighted areas even Walmart has abandoned. People in precarious economic situations have to trust untrustworthy purchases to survive. I now get to choose to take those risks, knowing that I can always just buy something full price if it doesn’t work out—something that causes me not an insignificant amount of guilt.

I’ve considered trying to kick my love of cheap junk over the years, as I’ve found some semblance of upward mobility. But even with my mixed feelings, I think it’s a comfort I’ll never be able to give up. My first job out of college I worked near a Lot-Less, a chain that sells discount department store goods in New York City, and would find myself there picking up random nail polish or home goods even when I didn’t need them, just to cheer myself up from my post-grad depression. I first stumbled on the Amazon deal sites I use during a bout of boredom and economic anxiety when I was unemployed. There was something suddenly empowering about feeling any sort of consumer advantage, no matter how illusory, when my finances and, well, just about everything else felt transient and unstable.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether my love of cheap junk makes me a bad millennial, given the popular notion that millennials are obsessed with experiences, that we care more about Instagram-worthy trips to Iceland than a mortgage down the road. And it’s not as though I haven’t indulged in these kinds of purchases. Shortly after getting laid off I also took a weeklong vacation to Ireland (arguably a much poorer financial choice than a $2 charcoal teeth scrub). But these things don’t give me the same thrill online as bargain hunting. In fact, despite the fact that I’ll never get the validation of posting an Instagram of stainless steel tongs, I still make sure I’m logged into at 10 a.m. exactly so that I can get a coupon making them virtually free on Amazon.

Ultimately, the appeal of bargain hunting never really is the item itself anyway. Soon after I’ve clicked order, I’ve more than likely already forgotten about the item (easy to do with shipping on Wish, which can take weeks to ship). What I enjoy about the apps is the consumption itself, the illusion that I have outsmarted a system in which I’ve always been at a disadvantage. The thrill of the bargain hunt is that you are no longer relegated to browsing or desire but are able to purchase, to act. It’s an imperfect and sometimes imprudent exercise in autonomy, and maybe even an illusory one—but it’s one that I will always love.