If you don’t have kids or if you don’t live in San Antonio or if you live here and have kids but somehow manage not to do the majority of your grocery-shopping at H-E-B, then you’re probably not familiar with our local currency, the Buddy Buck.
Buddy Bucks are funny money, play money — you might even call it “monopoly money” (yes, I know H-E-B isn’t technically a monopoly, that it’s merely through charm, wit, and killer business acumen that they dominate the marketplace, but it still feels like a monopoly sometimes). The bills are emblazoned with the image of the store mascot, a cheerful bag of groceries by the name of H-E-Buddy. Buddy the Bag overflows with healthy food — a carton of milk, a joint of ham, a loaf of bread, and a bunch of carrots, which falls jauntily over his brow like a forelock. He always looks surprised, but pleasantly so, with his eyebrows waggling, mouth agape, and tongue lolling.
I used to be a little surprised myself when cashiers would offer this “money” to my kids. I was new in town and it took me a while to figure out that Buddy Bucks were akin to the Green Stamps I vaguely recall from my ’70s childhood, when supermarket checkers would give shoppers green stamps that they’d paste into a booklet and eventually redeem for prizes, like casserole dishes and stemware. In the Buddy Buck version of this gimmick, kids get “bucks” instead of stamps, and use them to “play” a skill-crane-type game, in which their quarry is a plastic bubble containing a numbered sticker. The number represents points and the sticker goes into a booklet that can eventually be redeemed for prizes, like H-E-Buddy jibbitz and scarves.
Buddy Bucks, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways:
1. You add precious minutes — sometimes quite a few minutes — to my shopping trip, especially when I’m with my 2-year-old, whose fine-motor skills haven’t caught up with her fierce desire for independence. How long do you think it takes a toddler to slide a crumply bill into the slot of that temperamental machine? How often does she get her arm caught in the little door as she tries to claim her prize?
2. Because everybody is a “winner, winner, WINNER!” in the H-E-Buddy crane game, you’re making my kids think that they can win a real crane game when everyone knows they’re rigged so you’ll never score that awesome Martian teddy bear. You’re setting them up for disappointment, not to mention financial hardship.
3. Your prizes are lame. The H-E-Buddy visor? Come on! Why not dispense with formalities and just give kids sandwich boards so they can drum up business for the store? Then again, we’ve yet to actually redeem our stickers for a prize. While the prospect of getting their mitts on some Buddy Bucks never fails to whip my kids into a total frenzy, the excitement rarely lasts beyond the parking lot, which explains the abundance of plastic bubbles rolling around in the back of my car. And that brings me to …
4. You bring more unnecessary plastic into my life. Yes, I’ve noted the recycling bin next to the machine. I applaud its presence but can’t help but notice it’s always practically empty. I’m guessing that most kids are like mine — unwilling to relinquish their prize mere moments after “winning” it. When I encourage my kids to recycle the bubbles, they act like I’m some scheming hobbit trying to steal their Precious — again. Arguing with them only prolongs our shopping trip, and haven’t I been here long enough?
5. While we’re on the subject of plastic, let’s talk about H-E-Buddy himself. He’s a paper bag, and that seems funny since most kids wouldn’t recognize a paper grocery bag unless they shopped at, ahem, Whole Foods, because as near as I can tell, H-E-B only provides plastic. Alas, plastic bags, the scourge of the environment, don’t make for great mascots, do they?
So here’s a thought: Update Buddy’s image by turning him into one of those reusable shopping bags — and while you’re at it, offer the bags as prizes. Since my reusable bags are always in the backseat of my car or back home, hanging on the pantry door — anywhere, really, except in my hand as I check out — I’m always looking for a few dozen more. I might even feel a tad less resentful of your interminable game. As H-E-Buddy himself might put it, “Then we’ll all be winner-winner-