Time was, it was easy to shop in Columbia. You had two choices: K-mart and the Columbia Mall.
Nowadays, however, to shop in Columbia you need a bargain-hunter's battle plan.
The burgeoning range of discounters, which continues unabated, might leave the average person shell-shocked from the experience. In the good old days, you knew you weren't getting much of a bargain, so you didn't have to watch much for sales or comparison shop.
Now, it's easy to separate the wimps from the serious shoppers.
Once a wimp, I recently purchased a Panasonic boom box at Sears, only to find out that at BJ's Wholesale Club, I could have gotten a similar item for 30 percent less.
I knew then that BJ's was going to complicate my life. And that's not all: Hechinger has opened a brand new, bigger and better store in Columbia.
As a hardware store junkie, I can envision spending hours comparing monkey wrenches and electric drills. But that will have to wait.
Right now, my wife and I are redecorating our daughter's bedroom. There's the question of shelving, mattresses, linens, rugs. If anything goes in there that isn't purchased at a discount store or a yard sale, we deserve to forever wear the mantle of "wimp."
I have a theory that all of these new discount places have a domino effect. The competition for dollars can be seen at all levels. The wise shopper starts at the bottom -- the neighborhood yard sale.
These are the bazaars of the Western world. You go ready to dicker or you don't go at all.
We have one problem with yard sales, however. To get the best bargains, you have to be there an hour before the gates open. I treasure my sleep too much for this.
The second option is to shop by advertisement. Woodie's and Hecht's are going toe to toe on almost a weekly basis these days. (Can anyone tell me the last time Hecht's was not having a storewide sale?) We get so many fliers on summer white sales and red dot specials, we could probably start our own recycling company.
And don't rule out the mall. There are signs that the discount frenzy has already had an impact on that shopping center: Jennifer's, which carried country-inspired home furnishings at top-of-the-line prices, recently went belly up. Where failure occurs, though, there is always room for opportunity.
Two weeks ago, the mall sponsored a sidewalk sale in which every merchant participated. Surprisingly, there were some real bargains this time.
We purchased new basketball shoes for my son that were $30 off the original price. And books for children were as much as half off. Even a real discounter, Payless Shoe Source, has joined that old standby, McCrory's, as a mall attraction.
What you really will need in the coming months, as Columbia becomes the mecca of discounters, is the services of a professional shopper.
With Ross Dress For Less already on the scene, and Marshall's and Uptons arriving soon, it will be difficult to know where the best buys are at any given moment.
I personally think the new Marshall's should be the Cadillac of stores -- in deference to Columbia's reputation for attracting the best in practically everything. At least with Marshall's, Uptons, K-mart and Ross' all within spitting distance, comparison shopping should boil down to how much time one has on his or her hands.
Still, nothing will be easy from now on. We are all destined to be war-weary shoppers on the bargain battlefield. Accept your fate.
On the other hand, Columbia residents have been paying top prices on housing, recreation and gas for so long, we deserve the opportunity to strike back by saving a few bucks.
Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.