The Craziness of Costco


Yesterday I wrote about the joys of farmers’ markets and how they support local vendors, build community and really just fill me with delight. Today I am writing about what may be the opposite, something that symbolizes capitalism, sometimes gluttony and the epitome of big-box shopping. I’m talking about Costco.

Until recently I steered clear of Costco. The idea of shopping for my family in a giant warehouse, crammed with people gunning for giant tubs of mustard and mayonnaise terrified me. I had joined my mother a few times to secure specific items like my favourite olive oil and maple syrup, but other than that I avoided the place like the plague.

Now that we are a family of five and I had spare time, last fall I took out a membership and ventured into Costco. I figured I would give it a try and see if I could find what I needed.

In the challenging retail landscape that exists today, with stores large and small jockeying for our attention in an age of online shopping, Costco is doing something right. Brick and mortar stores are particularly challenged getting any foot traffic in the doors. Clearly this is not a problem at my local Costco location.

Let’s start with the parking lot. Whether it’s 10:00 am or 4:00 pm, the parking lot is packed. Angry Annie and Raging Robert seem to make a bee line for this place daily, cutting people off and grabbing a parking spot when one is free. Somehow my children bring me luck with parking spots and I always get a spot.

Good luck finding a parking spot

How about the fact that you need to be a member just to have the right to enter this shopping mecca? If my local grocery store or department store at the mall even charged patrons $5 per year to shop, the place would be empty. But no, with a starting membership of $60 per year (a price which keeps going up and clearly people will pay), there’s a line-up at the front door just to flash the membership card to enter.

When you enter the store, you are faced with a wall of feature items that the Costco executives are sure everyone just has to have. New towels? Water bottles? An ink jet printer? It’s hard to pass by this section without considering one of these interesting impulse buys.

Each Costco store is organized into neat areas, with the electronics at the front corner, a pharmacy and pharmaceuticals in another corner, food in themed aisles and clothing, books, toys (adult and children) and seasonal items parked in the middle. Some areas of the store, such as the tables of clothing, always have huge crowds, while other areas, like the spice or pasta aisle, are usually a bit quieter.  The quiet areas are my favourite.

If you are hungry when you arrive at Costco you are almost guaranteed to be fed by the friendly sample team, who are handing out everything from handfuls of popcorn or chips to mango juice to chicken nuggets. My one-year-old claps with delight as we approach one of the sample tables, having been trained at a very young age to enjoy the Costco experience.

I load my cart with key items, like specific organic food my family enjoys such as apple sauce packets and macaroni and cheese, much of the produce I need for the week, all the paper products a girl could wish for and kosher meat (only at specific locations) sold in bulk packages.

Each time I enter the place I always tell myself that I just need a few items and this time I will spend less than $100. But then I pass by a new featured food item I just have to have, cotton sleepers for the baby or a backpack for my son and my cart is full.

The final stop on any visit to Costco is the check-out line. Like the parking lot, whether it’s 10:00 am or 4:00 pm it’s packed and there are long snaking lines. I will give the employees credit that they get people through these lines mighty fast. Like the entry, you need to flash the membership card in order to pay, and you watch as the charges run up as you check out.

The crazy warehouse store that is Costco

I’m no longer terrified of Costco. In fact, I love it. Their prices are competitive, it’s easy to find the items I need and the quality is consistently good. If I need to return an item they take it back with no questions asked. Because I am a member they can easily look up any item I have bought and know everything about me (which is of great benefit to any retailer).

Costco is not intimate or warm like my local farmers’ market, but it is an efficient way to shop. This retailer is a great example of value shopping – with their mix of high quality and low priced merchandise. I am not handing back my membership card any time soon.