Why Are We All So Obsessed With HomeGoods?
The indescribable beauty of buying crap you don’t need at a store that has it all.
It’s a Monday morning at the HomeGoods in Langhorne. An employee walks out of the store holding a giant canvas painting—an abstract of oceanic blues, speckled with glitter that sparkles in the sunshine—and helps a woman load it into her waiting Mazda. A mom leads her whining son into the store.
“Maa-ahm,” he pleads, stretching the word to two syllables. “My stomach huuurts.”
“Keep walking. You’ll feel better,” she says without breaking stride.
I look up at the brick building the color of cooked noodles, its red serif font a beacon of promise, and I feel a jolt of exhilaration. This is my place, I think. These are my people.
Inside the store, I’m greeted by another HomeGoods employee, one who’s standing next to a table of merchandise—assorted vases, a fringed lumbar pillow, an etched metal stool. A sign explains the motley collection: “Best of Europe.” Europe! Right here in Langhorne!
“Welcome to HomeGoods,” the greeter says. “Do you need a cart? You should probably get a cart now, because I guarantee you’ll end up needing one.”
She is wise, and normally I would take a cart, but today, I’m not here to shop. Today, I’m here to observe my fellow HomeGoods devotees in their natural habitat.
When it comes to devotees, there are many of us. While Target has loudly commanded the “go for one thing, leave with 10” narrative—just Google “Target memes”—HomeGoods has woven itself into the national consciousness in a quieter way. There are no splashy designer collaborations, no in-store Starbucks cafes, no e-commerce site. But HomeGoods is still a retail powerhouse. Its Massachusetts-based parent company, TJX—which also owns off-price chains T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s—brought in $35.9 billion in revenue in 2018. (Target did $75.4 billion that same year.)
While our cultural love affair with Target has been dissected, parodied, meme’d and idealized (there’s even a “syndrome” named for it!), the HomeGoods appeal is less explored, its magic more difficult to pinpoint.
“It’s better than a spa,” says a friend.
“It’s definitely better than sex,” says another.
One more friend grew thoughtful when I asked her to describe HomeGoods. “I can’t explain it,” she said. “It’s like … a religious experience.”
Yes. These are my people.
Everyone chooses his own path through HomeGoods, but only a few walk with purpose. There’s the burly man who left the store with a giant dog bed smooshed under each meaty arm, and the woman who marched through the gourmet food section, swept a few bottles of fancy olive oil and a bag of nuts into her basket, and resolutely beelined to the register. Hostess gift, I recognized at once.
But mostly, everyone seems to be here to wander. You can tell by the contents of the carts, almost always a bizarre mishmash of stuff that has no business being bought in the same store, at the same time, by the same person. In the pet aisle, a woman’s cart is filled with the following: two paper-towel holders, a set of DKNY drawer knobs, a cake plate, a small decorative ball made out of shells, and four bags of gourmet pasta. Over in the Easter section, a woman is kneeling down to compare two sets of garlands of dangling fabric carrots. In her cart: a lantern, a woven tray, a bottle of pink Himalayan rock salt, and, now, a dangling carrot garland. (She ended up choosing one from the back of the shelf, which everyone knows to do, as that one is more hidden and thus more perfect than the rest. It’s strategy.)
Of course, this wealth of choice isn’t always possible at HomeGoods. That’s part of why we love it.
“It’s the excitement of scarcity,” says Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at Wharton. “Something that’s scarce or rare is definitely perceived to be more valuable. You know: If you don’t buy it now, you may not find it later. So that leads to the idea that you have to know what you’re looking for, you have to recognize quality, there’s an expertise involved. Their whole business model is predicated on that.”
This shopper-as-curator idea is carefully orchestrated. Savvy corporate TJX buyers bulk-purchase from thousands of vendors, then distribute the goods among 700-plus HomeGoods locations (including 20 in our area) in a way that encourages—guarantees—scarcity. Not much is publicly known about how what ends up where (TJX is notorious for keeping its buying practices under serious wraps), but shopping here feels like a welcome reprieve from this weird age of retail mind control, when a fleeting thought of having soup for dinner turns your Instagram feed into an endless ad for immersion blenders. It’s revived the lost art of browsing, of picking your way through miscellany to get to the good stuff. And there’s a lot of miscellany. An employee tells me the store gets five deliveries a week. “We don’t know what’s inside the trucks until we open them up!” she says. (Best time to go? Thursdays, when stores are at their fullest.)
“They’ve figured out something magical about shopping that transcends Amazon. I don’t go to malls, I don’t go to 3rd Street, I don’t go to Rittenhouse. If you get something at Target, all your friends have already seen it there, or they already have it,” says my friend Christy. “But HomeGoods holds such promise.”
Rebecca, a 40-year-old mom of three, agrees. “It’s the last frontier of shopping adventure,” she says. “I like that when you check out, they always ask, ‘Did you find what you were looking for?’ I always answer ‘Yes,’ even though I was not actually looking for a decorative bohemian-style bowl and fancy jam.”
My reporting visit eventually fizzles into a shopping trip. (I don’t get a cart, though, just on principle.) I wind my way around the store—through the seasonal stuff up front (so. many. ceramic. bunnies) and past the kitchen section, making an extended pit stop in the organization aisle. I walk by the bath section and then up by the mirrors and artwork, with a quick dip through the kid section, where I’m inexplicably tempted to buy my two-year-old son a four-foot-long puzzle.
I see the stomachache kid. He has taken off his coat and is walking around with it draped over his head. A man sits in a swivel armchair in a center aisle, twisting gently from side to side. Fleetwood Mac melts in the background: “’Cause when the loving starts and the lights go down, and there’s not another living soul around … ” I’m looking at handwoven baskets from Indonesia, originally $13, now just $7.99, and I feel at peace. It’s these prices—specifically, the brilliant way they let you know how much a particular item originally cost, or how much it should have cost based on the price of other comparable items—that are the other huge pull of HomeGoods.
“It’s the art of the deal,” says Wharton’s Kahn. “Sometimes, just getting an incredible deal is rewarding in and of itself.”
There’s actually a lot here from Indonesia. Soon, there will be more: On Presidents’ Day, Pier 1—once the go-to shop for eclectic imported home accessories—announced that it was filing for bankruptcy; it has already begun closing more than 400 stores, including eight in the Greater Philadelphia area. Some experts are predicting that much of its business will now go to HomeGoods, meaning more purportedly global goods: Portuguese pottery, decorative glass vases from Spain, tapestries from India. And also those godforsaken—and thoroughly American—faux-rustic “Live, Laugh, Love,” signs, or, as seen during my visit, ones bearing entire Bible verses. (Corinthians 12: 4-8, if you’re wondering.)
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” says the kind woman at the checkout register. I look down at my purchases—a birthday card, a set of dish towels, five drawer organizers, two rolls of wrapping paper, paper plates in the shape of rabbits, and a fabric carrot garland (the other one), and I smile at her.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I did.”