TAMPA — Bin-demonium raged by 10 a.m. Friday. Cars filled every nook of the former CVS parking lot, lining curbs and the vacant pharmacy drive-thru. Within gaze of the Montu roller coaster, customers followed the scent trail of Christmas deals.
Bins. Bins on bins on bins. Hotbins, to be precise, full of items still in boxes, out of boxes, scattershot and random and waiting for the right home.
Humidifiers. Blenders. Pet beds. Backpacks.
My first instinct was to turn, run and never speak of this chaotic place again. Then I remembered I am a simple, thirsty, bargain-loving American. I steeled myself and wandered deeper into the dark forest of bins.
Baby gender reveal kit. Balloon arch. Chainsaw parts. Dish drying rack.
Hotbins opened across from Busch Gardens in October and has steadily gained viral notoriety for its au courant model of treasure hunting. The Florida family business has four locations and one on the way, the latest entry in a growing bin store trend around the country. Hotbins buys up pallets of Amazon returns and overstock from Target, Walmart and Kohl’s, then sells the items at a discount decrescendo.
This is not a Target stroll, Starbucks in hand, nor is it an Amazon scroll from the couch. It’s a mashup of modern shopping, a tableau of humanity, a romp through consumerism snatched up and left behind.
“This concept is not for everyone,” said manager Mike Ijak. He’s an open book about the inner workings of his fledgling store. Unlike some businesses, Hotbins welcomes lookie-loos and influencers. Viral TikToks have only driven people to the gates.
Here’s how it works. Thursday, Hotbins closes to restock. Friday morning, customers start lining up as early as 6:30 a.m. At 9 a.m., they race in, looking for runaway deals on the big finds, like AirPods and Nintendos and Nespresso machines.
Friday, everything costs $12. Saturday, $10. Sunday, $8. Monday, $6. Tuesday, $4. On Wednesday, whatever is left costs $2. Toward closing time, Ijak said, he’ll sell bags for $10 and let people fill them to the top. Straggler products get thrown out or donated.
Then the whole cycle starts over.
When I visited, Ijak walked around speaking calmly into a microphone, keeping order, explaining the rules of engagement. The checkout line encircled the perimeter of the store, twisting almost to the parking lot.
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Selfie lights. Wigs. False eyelashes. Electric kettles.
“We are trying to move everyone along as quickly as possible,” he said. “If we see you opening boxes at the bins, you will be disqualified from shopping.”
Wireless microphones. Orthopedic boots. Porch swing kit.
He directed customers to a second line for opening boxes and testing electronics. Ijak has only had to excommunicate one person, he said, a guy who came in with a box cutter, intent on opening everything he saw.
Inflatable flamingo costume. Portable fan.
Shoppers buy more than ever online, and impulses don’t always pan out. Ask me about my recent yoga pants. Consumers are expected to return more than $816 billion worth of merchandise in 2022, according to the National Retail Federation. Fraud abounds in the world of e-commerce, but most returns are the product of an eternal quest for convenience — e.g., buying four sizes and returning the three that don’t fit.
Sellers can lose money in the time and effort it takes to restock and repackage items. After investigations in 2021 revealed that Amazon was destroying perfectly good products, the company introduced programs to work toward “a goal of zero product disposal.”
Third parties like Hotbins give castoff drapes and fidget spinners a second chance before hitting the dump. That’s a good thing. And when I got really honest with myself in the middle of those bins, I had to ask: Would judging someone for sorting through a bargain bin make me any better than feeding the two-day shipping beast from the privacy of home? I want to shop less on Amazon, but the hard truth is, those little cardboard smiles litter my home this time of year.
After working through morality plays about carbon emissions, blind consumerism and billionaires, I found myself in a haze of confusion, lugging a salad spinner, pair of chunky sandals and set of brass furniture legs to the register.
I met Kristine McClendon, who had some 30 items piled high in her cart. Her goal was less complicated: gifts for the family on a budget. She got a toaster oven, dinosaur toys, a big box fan. She unfurled her receipt: $361.
“I got all my Christmas shopping done,” she said. “It was my first time here. My daughter knew about it and didn’t tell me!”
She eyed another shopper wheeling out into the lot.
“How’d you do? You got more than me!”
Ijak hopped on the mic. He announced a miniature merchandise drop was coming at noon. The mini-restocks happen three times on Friday and three times on Saturday, he said. He and his colleagues cleared shoppers out of the center aisle and slid more brown boxes into the red bins.
“Remember, there’s no pushing, no shoving, no running,” he said.
Lamps. Knife sets. Tablecloths. Step stools.
An alarm blared. They pushed their carts into the center, examining cardboard mysteries, taking knickknacks home to shine below Christmas trees, or live again on eBay, or languish unused in a closet until the inevitable garage sale. We don’t know. Here, only one thing is certain: All sales are final.
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