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SocietyJuly 21, 2023

‘A utopia of bargains’: The little supermarket with more fans than it can handle

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As the cost of living bites, more and more Auckland shoppers are discovering the wonders of East Tāmaki clearance supermarket Why Knot. 

Orange road cones in front of double roller doors act as the shop’s exit. Cardboard boxes are littered on the sides, waiting for people’s shopping to be packed by staff who have a real knack for perfectly slotting things in. One trolley jams into another as someone reaches for a box of almond milk. A yelling child reaches for a candy necklace. Someone stares at packets of smoked salmon for $5.99, wondering if that’s cheap. Another has just found that the spot where her cat’s favourite food was last week is now a stack of dog treats. Someone turns into the carpark, sees that it’s full, and swears loudly inside their car.

A trip to Why Knot may sound like hell to some, but for many others it is heaven. “It was like a utopia of bargains, a playground for grown-ups. I’m positive I left a trail of drool,” says Talitha Dawn, a skilled bargain hunter who first visited the outlet shop in 2014. She was taken there by a young mum from her local Pay It Forward group. It’s hard now to remember exactly what she bought, but Dawn is “pretty sure it would have been a lot”. She messaged friends about the bargains she had found: three boxes of Pop-Tarts for $2, boxes of macaroni cheese for 49 cents each, five 250ml cartons of UHT milk for $1. Dawn was smitten. “It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair between me and Why Knot.”

Why Knot Outlet Shop has been winning hearts in Tāmaki Makaurau since 2010. The entire shop is smaller than the produce section of a Pak’nSave and, for a supermarket, there’s hardly any shelves. The aisles, which snake tightly around concrete floors, are formed of stock in boxes on pallets. Prices are printed on A4 paper and clipped to washing lines that run along the aisles at eye height. Often, the prices are for multi-buys, two for $2, six for $5, five for $1. Why Knot has always been busy, but recently it has been very, very busy.

The checkout at Why Knot (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

There is only a handful car parks, almost always taken, while more cars are endlessly turning in from Springs Road, an arterial route of the surrounding light industrial area in East Tāmaki. The flow of traffic inside mirrors the outside – trolleys attempt to follow some sort of order, but there’s so many it’s chaotic. Checkout staff can never be fast enough, and queues grow into the aisles. The highly stressful environment is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps this is why the owner very politely declined our inquiries, saying “We do not want any publicity (sorry).” 

The official history and inner workings of Why Knot, then, remain a mystery. They do not advertise or promote the business. Their online presence consists of a Facebook page with absolutely zero posts, 2,447 mostly fabulous Google reviews, a handful of reviews on other websites, and the recent addition of a booming fan page.

In June 2023, Talitha Dawn was sick with Covid. She was trying to distract herself from feeling like “a big sick needy whiny baby” by scrolling through Facebook, and found a notification about a group she had started last November. She’d made the group, Why Knot Outlet Shop – East Tamaki – FAN PAGE, because the stock is forever changing and can be “hit and miss”. The shop doesn’t post any information on inventory anywhere, so you never know what you’re going to find. In true clearance fashion, stock comes and goes, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Dawn, who lives in West Auckland, didn’t want to waste time, energy and petrol going all the way to East Tāmaki in the southeast of the city if the shopping wasn’t going to be good, so she started the group for people to keep track of stock, and “excitedly share or brag about their amazing bargain purchases”. The group began with just a few friends, but when she clicked the Facebook notification at the start of June, she was “blown away” to find 1,500 members. As June progressed, numbers “launched into the stratosphere”. By June 18 there were 5,700, three days later there were 10,000, now, it’s almost hitting 24,000.

The Why Knot fan page is booming

Some members have been going to Why Knot for over 10 years – one remembers coming when her son was a baby; now he’s a teenager. Some shop there regularly, while others shop for special occasions, or to stock up periodically. When there’s nonperishable food selling for 30 cents, there’s something to be said for the virtue of hoarding. Many Why Knot fans have stacked pantries and stuffed freezers. 

While it’s an exercise in finding bargains, there’s an understanding among the group that shopping at Why Knot is dangerous. “I was only supposed to get a couple of things milk, butter, cheese, came out with a full trolly instead [sic],” reads one post. A member who has never been before asks for tips to avoid emptying the bank account, and one suggests “keep one eye closed so you don’t see everything”. Still, Dawn says that once she had been to Why Knot, “supermarket shopping was never the same… even Pak’nSave’s low prices felt like a rip-off.”

Several times a day fans post photos of their hauls, along with their long receipts. There’s mince, bacon, pizza, Turkish bread, cheese, yoghurt, milk, eggs and snacks – lots and lots of snacks. At Why Knot there are no vegetables or fruit to be found, but there’s a huge variety of crackers, chip flavours, muesli bars and candy. Everything is in a packet, and notes are compared on what’s good. The pre-made pancakes are a hit and in June, boxes containing 200 Cadbury Flake minibars, sold for $10, created a palpable buzz within the group.

Other posts show off feeds made from Why Knot purchases, share recipe ideas or photos of the price signs. The kindred spirits in the group have banded together to better navigate the shifting mountains of food, and the cost of living crisis. Gatekeeping is a foreign concept in this community. Instead there’s a feeling of abundance – the bargains are plentiful, and there’s enough for everyone. “I’m over the moon,” says Dawn. “It’s exactly what I created it for.” 

Pet food bargains to be had (Photo: Gabi Lardies)

But along with the hype and cosy community feel, concern is brewing. As an influx of customers hits Why Knot, it’s hard for the car parks, floor space and staff to accommodate everyone. Tensions rise. One post in the group notes that a staffer “said the store is crazy busy since this group opened. They said people are queuing from 7:30 before the doors are even open and there is almost no quieter periods any more.” Several group members are expressing concerns that the hard-working staff aren’t being treated well by some customers. 

Dawn says the owners have made contact to say there’s been an increase in aggressive customers. “They are not happy at all with the way their staff have been treated, with more stressful, busy working conditions and impatient and dangerous drivers in the car park. The amazing staff members are always on the floor restocking non-stop all day to keep up with increased demand, directly in the firing line of these numpties.” She is dismayed that the staff are finding themselves at the pointy end of what she calls “feral behaviour and abuse”, and regularly reminds members of the Facebook group to be considerate. 

Shopping at Why Knot is no walk in the park. The bargains come with noise, chaos and confusion. You have to practise patience and calm as you wait for a carpark, or get stuck in the aisles. It pays not to be in a hurry, and to be by yourself or in a very small group. In return the ad hoc aisles will reward you with ever-changing bargains: 1kg of Olivani spread for $4.99, three Tony’s Chocolonely bars for $2.50, Edmonds Savoury Short Pastry for $2, a 12 pack of condoms for $3.99, or 125ml ice cream tubs for 50 cents. However, in all the stress: there is one bargain that too many visitors are forgetting is totally free. “It costs nothing to be kind,” says Dawn.

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