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The 99-Cent Archeologist

When you're hot, you're hot. When you're not, you're offered ignominiously to deep-discount shoppers for less than a buck.

August 21, 2005|Riley Ray Chiorando | Riley Ray Chiorando is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

When it comes to discount retailing in Los Angeles, there are two main players: the 99 Cents Only Stores chain and rival Big Lots. At Big Lots, with its higher price points, there's more variety. You're offered $10 dish sets, a plethora of small appliances, and lawn furniture so reasonably priced you don't feel so bad when you forget it at the beach.

Among the four-quarter bargains at 99 Cents Only Stores, though, you can find something far more valuable: the truth.

"There's a cycle to a product," says Rachel Jacobs, the company's vice president of buying. "And we get a lot of products at the end of their cycle."

Visiting any of the 225 99 Cents Only Stores in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas is a lesson in product cycles. When a trend, a product or a celebrity's time is long past, the terminus of its slide is often a 99 Cents Only shelf. Walking the aisles--as we did recently at the North Hollywood, Miracle Mile, West Hollywood and Hollywood locations--offers an undeniable glimpse of who and what is no longer hot. Jacobs calls it "the last stop."

And at that last stop, handlers, publicists and managers are as useless as screen doors on a submarine. The 99 Cents Only Store is honest. It's absolute. It's astounding in its simple and accurate measure of what, at the moment, is circling the pop-culture drain. Anna Kournikova, the Backstreet Boys, the Barbi Twins--no matter how high-flying they once were, today they're available for less than four quarters, plus tax.

Rarely has truth been so affordable.

Low-Carb Anything

Items: Carb Options Nougat bars (Chocolate & Skippy Peanut Butter), Carb Options Original Barbeque Sauce, Health Valley CarbFit Peanut Butter Cookies, CarboRITE sugar-free bread mix, Post Carb Well High Protein Cereal (Golden Crunch flavor)

The time it takes for items to debut in 99 Cents Only aisles can range wildly. A 2005 calendar might hit the shelves well into spring. Coloring books from canceled children's TV shows can arrive a full generation after the toddler tastes that spawned them. In fact, going by the recent arrival of 1998 pop star merchandise, the bulk of Clay Aiken bobbleheads may not debut in these aisles until 2012. The only regular exception is when a grocery trend goes south. In a rush to beat stamped expiration dates, a fad cuisine will crowd the aisles, a flash-flood of four-quarter foodstuffs. The working poor then get a chance to indulge in whatever diet fad the white-collar crowd recently had been ingesting at top dollar.

Queen Amidala Galactic Body Wash, Phantom Menace Book Covers

"Star Wars" used to be the gold standard for marketing. Once you could EBay a Millennium Falcon and cover half your rent. Then came Queen Amidala and her Galactic Body Wash. Admittedly, during this round of "Star Wars" merchandising, the profiteers would slap the logo on anything short of mustache wax. Still, if you're going to shill, at least consider the characters. Because there's only one thing kids hate more than stone-jawed female Kabuki heads, and that's letting Natalie Portman's iron-makeup face see you in the tub.

As for the book covers, you have to feel bad for third-graders who got stuck with these in 1999. Of the four, the best choice is the villain Darth Maul. After that, it's the slippery slope of public-school humiliation. You've got Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon, Jake Lloyd's anti-emotive Anakin or, worst of all, that insipid spirit of the prequel films, Jar Jar Binks. George Lucas can crow about record grosses from "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" all he wants, but my guess is that in decades to come, unsold Jar Jar merchandise will still be available for less than a buck.

"The Incredible Hulk" Gift Set

Sometimes you blame the license, sometimes you blame the product. This anomalous item from the Hulk movie franchise is about the only thing that isn't director Ang Lee's fault. A Hulk wallet and coin purse? The subtext here is not "Hulk SMASH!" but "Hulk SAVE!" Gamma-powered fiscal responsibility? Oh, that's just wrong.

"Shrek 2" M&M's Minis Dispenser

I only figured out this complicated cuckoo clock-like dispenser with the help of a woman who was repulsed by it. She was disturbed that the reward for my efforts was the dispensation of booger-colored mini-M&M's. While I don't think this promo will affect the franchise in any way, I'm guessing it scarred a fair number of parents who helped their kids get to the "treat."

Politicards

The Nader-esque logic of lampooning blue and red state heroes in the same product not only failed to double the potential market for this product, but it also apparently alienated the regular banner-wielding wackos on both ends who usually buy this schlock. Thus the novelty arrived at 99 Cents Only Stores just in time to be completely dated.

"Fodor's Pocket: Istanbul" (2001 edition)

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