Wed 20 Apr 2005
I had the most interesting ethnographic moment at Crate & Barrel of all places the other night. My wife and I had gone in to exchange a few gifts from our wedding, which is apparently a complicated process. There is quite a bit of paperwork to handle. But the interesting part is how the Crate & Barrel environment unfolded in front of us.
For those of you who haven't been lately, many Crate & Barrel stores are actually two stores in one: a housewares store and a furniture store. Apparently there is quite a bit of tension between the two. Despite the fact that the two are often mixed into the same physical space, they have separate employees. The perception of the housewares employees seems to be that the furniture employees think they're better somehow. They don't like housewares employees helping folks with furniture purchases, and they're very protective of the ways they do things. They have also apparently developed an extremely complicated way of pricing certain items (pillows, for instance) which requires a good deal of prior knowledge. It's not intuitive at all how they do it, something that makes me wonder if it wasn't deliberate in a way in order to give the furniture employees a monopoly over that knowledge.
Anyway, when my wife and I were there the other night, we were buying thing almost entirely in the housewares store, but we also bought two pillows. Enter the elephant in the room. We had to go upstairs (to the furniture store) to pick out pillows, and asked if we could bring them back downstairs to ring them up with everything else. 'Sure' the employee said. But when we checked out, four housewares employees together couldn't figure out how to ring up the pillows. My wife offered to go upstairs and ask. Apparently, that was a bad idea. The upstairs manager promptly berated the housewares employee for sending a customer up and then followed us downstairs to oversee the transaction (read: pick a fight).
To make a long story short, we witnessed quite an argument. It was late and we were probably the only two customers left in the store, but still – arguing in front of customers? Poor form. This is probably boring to all of you, but I thought it was a fascinating ethnographic moment. These places develop their own cultures that represent so many of the traditional subjects of anthropological inquiry: power dynamics, hierarchy, difference and prejudice. All these elements show up in the same ways at Crate & Barrel as they do with the Yanomami.