The United States of America is a shopper’s paradise, where shopping has been elevated from the chore of acquiring necessary provisions to — for many people — a major form of recreation and entertainment.
The United States has by far more retail floor area than any other country in the world, both in total and per capita; much of it is in shopping malls, big-box stores and other large-scale premises designed for car-borne customers. Retailers are under pressure from the growth of online shopping.
American retail stores are gigantic compared to retail stores in other countries, and are a shopper’s dream come true. As such, they typically offer a wide range of items. Department stores typically sell clothing, shoes, furniture, perfume and jewelry; discount stores carry much of the same merchandise at lower prices, and increasingly also offer groceries too. Supermarkets sell both fresh and packaged food of all types, as well as non-food items such as diapers, soap, hair dye and shoe polish. Pharmacies sell many of the items supermarkets do (though not always at competitive prices), in addition to selling prescription drugs. Some supermarkets have pharmacies in them, and all of them sell over-the-counter drugs, such as aspirin. In poor neighborhoods or on freeways adjacent to gas stations, there are often convenience stores that offer a small range of cooked food, soda, sundries and cigarettes, albeit at higher prices than supermarkets. Many shopping malls and downtown areas have specialty stores that specialize in a single item (such as books, greeting cards or art supplies), but these are increasingly losing ground to larger chains or on-line retailers.
Nearly all stores in the U.S. are in downtowns, shopping malls, or along major streets. Residential areas often have nothing besides convenience stores. Retail options are often most limited in poor neighborhoods.
The ease of buying alcohol at a store varies by state. Some states only allow sale of alcohol in state-owned retailers, while other states allow nearly every liquor store and supermarket to sell beer, wine and spirits. Some states prohibit alcohol sales late at night or on certain days (especially Sundays), and a few counties, cities, and Native American Indian reservations prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages altogether.
With the exception of alcohol sales, there are almost no schedule requirements imposed on U.S. retailers. In larger cities, some stores may be open 24 hours a day, every day. Stores are not required to close for holidays, although most are closed at least part of Thanksgiving Day in November, and most are closed on Christmas Day. In some places, it is normal for a family-owned shop to close for at least a week each holiday season, but in the U.S., it is unusual to see a store closed so that the owner can take a vacation.
The U.S. does not regulate the timing of sales promotions, as some other countries do. U.S. retailers often announce sales during major holidays, and also in between to attract customers or jettison merchandise. There are seasonal sales such as the Black Friday sale in late November on the Friday after Thanksgiving, during which many shops further reduce the price on some of their items by more than 50%. The allure of the deep discount is so strong that some states require stores to post a notice if they offer a “discount”, but the goods have never been sold at the claimed full price.
Many visitors to America take advantage of their time by shopping for things they can’t buy at home, or that are much less expensive in the U.S. Canadians, in particular, have sporadically embraced “cross-border shopping” to take advantage of a wider selection of goods, lower prices, and lower taxes — flocking to border towns like Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo and Plattsburgh-Burlington when exchange rates are favorable but staying home when they are not.
American retailers tend to have some of the longest business hours in the world, with many chains open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Department stores and other large retailers are usually open from 10AM to 9PM most days, and during the winter holiday season, may stay open as long as 8AM to 11PM. Discount stores, even if they do not stay open 24/7, tend to stay open longer than traditional department stores; if they close, they typically do so some time between 10PM and midnight.
Most supermarkets are open late into the evening, usually until at least 9PM, and a significant number stay open 24/7. Sunday hours tend to be somewhat shorter; a few communities mandate late openings, early closings, or complete closure on that day (sometimes depending on the type of retailer).
Places to shop
America is the birthplace of the modern enclosed shopping mall and the open-air shopping center. In addition, American suburbs have miles and miles of small strip malls, or long rows of small shops with shared parking lots, usually built along a high-capacity road. Large cities still maintain central shopping districts that can be navigated on public transport, but pedestrian-friendly shopping streets are uncommon and usually small. Most medium-sized suburban towns contain at least one shopping mall containing one or more department stores, restaurants and retail establishments. They also contain one or more strip corridors containing strip malls, auto dealerships, and office space.
The U.S. pioneered the factory outlet store, in which branded goods are sold for bargain prices, and in turn, the outlet center, a shopping mall consisting primarily of such stores. Outlet centers are found along major Interstate highways outside of most American cities. While factory outlets have been a way for fashion labels to offload excess stock from previous seasons that have been superseded by newer designs, many brands now specifically make factory-outlet exclusive products that are of a lower quality than those sold in their regular stores.
If you need a few cheap things to tide you over for a few days – forgotten toiletries, basic kitchen utensils, maybe a pair of sunglasses or even some last-minute party decorations – then head to the dollar store. These chain stores are smaller than the big box stores like Walmart and Target, and cheaper than a convenience store or the over-priced household goods section of the grocery store. At some, everything costs one dollar plus local sales tax, which will usually cost you an additional 6% to 10%. At others, the prices vary, but are usually in whole-dollar increments.
The United States does not have large open-air markets open daily. Instead, urban and suburban cities have farmers markets where growers sell fruits and vegetables directly to consumers. These events are typically held once weekly and only during the late spring through late autumn, in a cordoned-off street or parking lot. Some farmers markets do run year-round, sometimes with reduced frequency in the off-season.
If you see a driveway or yard full of stuff on a summer weekend, it’s likely a garage sale (or yard sale). On weekends, it is not uncommon to find families selling household items they no longer need. An estate sale is similar but larger, with nearly everything in the home being sold (usually due to the death of the homeowner). Other similar sales are held by churches where members of the congregation bring together unwanted items from their homes to sell collectively (rummage sales), with proceeds generally going to their church or a mission or project they support. Check it out; one person’s trash may be your treasure. Along busy roads you may see signs directing traffic to a nearby garage or estate sale. Bargaining is expected and encouraged.
Flea markets (called “swap meets” in Western states) have dozens if not hundreds of vendors selling all kinds of usually inexpensive merchandise. They sometimes take place in convention centers, stadiums, old drive-in theaters, fairgrounds or in some large suburban parking lots. Some flea markets are highly specialized and aimed at collectors of a particular sort; others just sell all types of items. Again, bargaining is expected.
Thrift stores are retail stores run by various churches, charities, and not-for-profit organizations that take in unwanted or un-needed household items as a donation and re-sell them to support projects they are engaged in. Other more expensive and valuable items such as antiques, coins, collectibles, jewelry, newer computer software & hardware, and tools, are separated out and sold separately online via auction. Other thrift stores include computer recyclers that accept unwanted computer equipment, refurbishing and reselling newer items (within 5-10 yrs old) and recycling the rest.
Americans did not invent the auction but may well have perfected it. The fast-paced, sing-song cadence of a country auctioneer, selling anything from farm animals to estate furniture, is a special experience, even if you have no intention of buying. In big cities, head to the auction chambers of Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and watch paintings, antiques and works of art sold in a matter of minutes at prices that go into the millions.
Major U.S. retail chains
While much of American retailing is focused on national chains, the U.S. also has a wide range of regional and local chains and independent stores that will offer different products from the national chains, and may have what you’re looking for.
The largest fashion goods retailer in the world is Macy’s, Inc., which operates over 800 Macy’s midrange department stores across the country and a smaller number of upscale Bloomingdale’s stores. Nordstrom is another upscale department store that is also found in most states. Midrange stores include Kohl’s, Sears, The Gap, and JCPenney, while the lower end is dominated by Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Old Navy. Department stores are normally found in suburban towns, often in shopping malls, though a few can be found in downtowns or smaller rural towns.
General discount stores like Walmart and Target are ubiquitous. Many discount stores, in addition to selling clothing and sundries, have either a small grocery section or a full supermarket; in fact, Walmart is the country’s largest grocer, and its largest retail chain.
The three largest supermarket chains are Kroger (which owns Dillon’s, Fry’s, Bakers, Fred Meyer, Ralphs and others), Safeway (including Albertsons & Haggen in the U.S.), and SuperValu, but they operate under legacy regional nameplates in many states. There are smaller regional supermarkets, such as Wegmans on the East Coast, Publix mostly in Florida, and H-E-B in Texas. A number of American suburbs have high-end markets such as Whole Foods that specialize in more expensive items such as organic produce.
The dominant warehouse club chain is Costco, whose biggest competitor is Sam’s Club (operated by Walmart).
The two big national pharmacy chains are CVS and Walgreens. Rite Aid is mostly present on the east and west coasts. In a few places, CVS and Walgreens have kept legacy regional nameplates in use, notably Longs Drugs in Hawaii (CVS) and Duane Reade in New York City (Walgreens). Almost all discount stores and many supermarkets also contain a small pharmacy. Most urban and suburban towns have several supermarkets or pharmacies, and more often than not a Walmart or other “big box” retailer. CVS also operates the pharmacy businesses in Target discount stores.
Prominent convenience store chains include 7-11, Circle K, AM-PM, and Speedway.
In several areas of the retail sector, ruthless consolidation has resulted in only one surviving nationwide chain, which may compete with a number of smaller regional chains. Examples include bookstores (Barnes & Noble), electronics (Best Buy), convenience stores (7-Eleven) and housewares (Bed Bath & Beyond).
Mail order and online shopping
Americans have taken to e-commerce enthusiastically. Some of the offerings are available abroad (for instance, Amazon has registered web domains in nearly every country on the planet lest someone else grab the name first) but the offerings on the U.S. sites are often more extensive than those in other countries.
Some U.S. mail order houses refuse to offer part or all of their merchandise line abroad, or delight in charging their foreign clients highly inflated fees for shipping and customs brokerage. Your country’s customs may also add additional import or sales tax to the shipping. Non-U.S. residents who live near a U.S. border crossing will sometimes access U.S. mail order firms by using a mail drop or commercial mail receiving agency such as PakMail or UPS Store to obtain a U.S. address. The merchandise is then either reshipped (at additional cost) or held for pickup. Kinek.com is one such list of commercial parcel receiving agents.
If you are staying for some time in a hotel you may be able to have packages delivered to reception for you to pick up.
Major stores, restaurants, and online services offer their own gift cards to consumers for sale in their own stores or at other retailers. These cards can only be used as payment at the company named on the card or on its website. Gift cards will not likely work in branches outside the U.S. but when you are outside the U.S., you may still be able to use the gift card to make purchases on a retailer’s U.S. online store. Visa, Mastercard and American Express gift cards are also sold and can be used in a similar manner as most other regular debit and credit card within the U.S.
Most parts of the United States require stores to charge sales tax on purchases. Sales tax is usually less than 10%, and it is not included in the price. Some products are excluded from sales tax: the list of excluded products varies by state, though it often includes most basic groceries. Some goods may be taxed at rates higher than the general rate.
On return to your home country you may be liable to pay import duties or sales tax on goods purchased abroad. In practice, this usually does not happen with items such as clothing and small objects, but returning with a new set of golf clubs or an oil painting may attract attention of customs agents. Importing vehicles attracts unavoidable attention when these are licensed or registered in the destination country.
Most countries provide some de minimis threshold or duty-free allowance, where a voyager who has been away for some minimum amount of time (at least a few days) can bring back a limited amount of merchandise without incurring import taxes. This varies widely depending on destination country; several hundred dollars of general merchandise, a bottle of hard liquor or one carton of cigarettes is typical.
Duty free shopping stores at major exit points from the country exist specifically to exploit these exemptions, but beware: as these are tourist establishments, their base prices may be higher than those of other domestic vendors.
Buying electronics for export
The United States uses 120 volt AC power. Mexican and Canadian electronics are largely compatible, but devices taken to 240 V markets may need an adapter or transformer.
New mobile telephone models are often available in the US market first. Often these are advertised at very low prices but are available only if the buyer locks int an expensive monthly subscription plan which over the course of a few years costs more than the device is worth. There are also issues with carriers SIM-locking devices (to prevent their use on other carriers), and installing branded firmware that removes capabilities that were in the stock firmware or adds carrier-specific apps and promotional content. American mobile technology may not be compatible with mobiles networks elsewhere. For example, the 2G CDMA system used by some major U.S. carriers (including T-Mobile and Verizon) has been shut off elsewhere (including Canada). There are fewer incompatibilities with the newer 3G standard, but there’s still a risk of getting a handset that’s on the wrong frequencies for your country.
Purchased outright (without a long contract to a telecom carrier), mobile handsets may still be cheaper in the U.S. than in a few countries with high import duties. Verify that the phone is not SIM-locked (to a specific carrier) and uses the right frequencies and data standards (specific variants of 3G and 4G) for your country. If visiting a major city, try inquiring at specialty electronics vendors which serve immigrant or expatriate communities instead of buying from individual mobile carriers or their dealers; some will sell unlocked devices with no carrier branding in a vendor-neutral, compatible format.
Similar incompatibilities exist with many other popular electronic items. TVs don’t match the international DVB standard; the high-definition (VGA or HDMI) computer video inputs are standardized, but over-the-air tuners and analog “video in” and “S-Video” jacks are tied to the local system. DVDs and Blu-rays are often region-coded and use the image size and frame rate of the U.S. TV system. Digitally-tuned radios use the wrong channel spacing for other ITU regions. Nearly any form of satellite television or pay TV is a nightmare of incompatibilities as individual providers saddle viewers with “package receivers” that don’t comply fully with international standards and are often deliberately unable to tune outside one vendor’s country-specific pay TV package.
Even if equipment works in your home country, there is likely to be no local warranty coverage. See electrical systems and mobile telephones for details.
A few people have managed to export U.S. motor vehicles to Canada or Mexico, but not all models qualify. Some models require mechanical changes to meet destination country standards (for instance, Canada required daytime running lights for decades before the U.S. followed suit).
There’s typically a check to see if the vehicle was subject to any safety recalls stateside and there’s awkward bureaucracy (in Canada, the Registrar of Imported Vehicles) which must be dealt with before obtaining insurance and license plates in the new jurisdiction. The vehicle may need to be inspected by an importation mechanic; used vehicles often need a retrofit to add daytime running lights. Export to Mexico will require a copy of the original invoice fully paid, certificate of origin, vehicle pictures, CURP and Mexican ID; this procedure is best handled by a comercializadora (custom broker agency).
U.S. vehicles typically will have odometers which display miles instead of kilometers. (The speedometer usually displays both – with mph more prominent – or provides an electronic switch allowing the units to be changed.) That’s OK. Instrument panels may be left this way on export to countries which use km and km/h. More subtle issues, such as seatbelt and passive restraint systems, daytime running lights and tether anchorage points for child seats, can become barriers to import of certain models or require modification by importation mechanics.
Exporting American cars to countries that drive on the left-hand side (such as Japan, Ireland, UK, India and many other ex-British colonies) has obvious practical issues, such as additional modifications required to make road worthy, and also being more difficult to drive a right-handed vehicle on the left side of the road. They can make for a great collectors item for use on special occasions.
A few people have been known to bring U.S. used vehicles into Canada on the assumption that an Arizona car won’t have been through multiple Canadian winters and (depending on its maintenance history) may have less rust. There have also been cases where it’s made sense to export accident-damaged vehicles from U.S. auctions as something which was too expensive to be worth repairing stateside might still be worthwhile if the repairs can be made more cheaply abroad. In general, it’s best to contact someone with specialized knowledge before buying a vehicle for export; buying these “foreign cars” can save some money in some cases, but there are many pitfalls.
Dietary supplements are widely available in drug stores and supermarkets, and there is a wide array of different brands to choose from. However, the industry is insufficiently regulated, and mislabeled and contaminated supplements are a significant problem. Also be careful of megavitamins, as studies have shown that some of these contain vitamins in such high doses that they are actually harmful for you.