Costco: A love story in 4 acts, kinda sorta.

Posted June 26th, 2010
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Costco: A Love Story in Four Acts.

Not only have I never been much of a joiner, I am the rare female whose gender software didn’t come bundled with the genome for “love of shopping.” That makes me the very portrait of someone who didn’t want the bother of purchasing a membership to a market. Already a coerced card carrying “member” of two markets in my neighborhood, I lived in dread that they’d one day hold a meeting. And I had gotten so used to living in overpriced Los Angeles where every trip to the market felt like a mugging that I had given up on even looking for a solution.

But my boyfriend started pushing me to visit Costco and have a gander at the enormous bargains.I resisted at first. It conjured images for me of the way they portrayed Communist bloc totalitarian life in my grade school textbooks: no sparkle, everything colorless, generic, utilitarian, depressing. I half expected to find ladies in babushkas fighting over a potato.  But eventually, in the interest of pleasing him, I agreed.

Then to my utter shock, I found I wasn’t just wrong, I was smitten and spellbound. So much so that by the second year, I sprung for the pricier Executive Membership that guaranteed a refund of 2% of my overall annual purchase total. I kind of I doubted it would actually work.  Or that there’s be a hidden catch. So when I received a check for $100 worth of free merchandise, I was thrilled—and I knew I was a goner.                                                                                                                                                                               Now that I’m in my fifth year of being a Costco-ian, I wondered how exactly the transition from repulsed to semi-fanatic happened. So I decided to take a look back at our golden precious memories, Costco’s and mine, as I explain what I now see as the four stages of my only loving commitment to a Big Box Store.

Act 1: The Honeymoon

The first time my heart beat a little faster was when I realized that Pellegrino water at Costco cost half what it did at my local market. Then I noticed that the dried chicken strips for dogs—a dollar apiece at a nearby pet store—were available in a half-pound sack containing 120 of them for…eleven dollars! Could that possibly be right? A savings of 90 percent? Turned out it was right. Even hamburger was a dollar a pound cheaper. A heavenly choir began to sing as the cavernous warehouse that is Costco was bathed in a rosy hue.

Still, I was not completely sold until I followed up my visit with a little research. Expecting to encounter the usual bad news I read about everything, I learned instead that Costco marked up the items they sold by only 14 to 15 percent, instead of the standard 25 to 50 percent they use at supermarkets. Better still, Costco was apparently nice to its employees, offering both good hourly wages and good benefits. *

Now I was falling in love. No more figuring out where to find the best prices on everything from power tools to potato salad. No more guilt about tortured underpaid workers. I felt safe and warm pushing my wading pool-sized shopping cart past the dozens of free samples tables; enjoying a microscopic shard of chicken/lettuce wrap, a speared morsel of chimichanga, a thimble full of pomegranite juice or steel cut Oatmeal. Yes, sometimes waiting behind the Costco lifers who arrived at noon already wearing lobster bibs, ready for free lunch, could be trying. But wow! That bottle of olive oil so large it required a system of hoists and pullies to lift just lowered the price of sautéing to only pennies a serving. And look… hoists and pullies  for sale just one aisle over! The only hard part was deciding what not to buy. There were so many opportunities for savings lurking everywhere that the trip to the cash register was like crossing The Bermuda Triangle. On my way to buy a crate of gum, I accidentally stumbled into a cache of beautiful leather chairs that cost hundreds less than the very same ones downtown. No, I didn’t actually need any furniture. But one day my furniture might decide to disintegrate. Why spend wastefully! This was too good to pass up.

Act 2: The Awakening

One day a little voice began to whisper, “There is so much stuff for sale here. Is any of it not from China?” and “Hey, what happened to those end tables I liked? Where oh where did they go?”

A little more research revealed that Costco carries only 4,000 items, compared to 150,000 in a typical superstore. And one thousand of them are intentionally “treasure hunt” stuff. These are always changing to instill a “sense of urgency” in customers. In other words, that buyer’s hysteria I kept experiencing wasn’t my own, it was planned for me. Finding this out was a little like discovering that a hot new boyfriend is actually a manipulative narcissist who will leave if you request foreplay.

Act 3: The Disillusionment

It began the day I noticed my weekly grocery bill had somehow become $1800. All I’d done was go to Costco for some steaks…oh, and an aluminum storage shed, because it was $500 cheaper than the one at Home Depot.  Well, I’d had to grab it fast before it disappeared!

Now the downside to buying massive quantities came in to focus. That gigantic container of garlic salt was such an amazing deal, until three quarters of it solidified into a salt lick. And that bag of pre-washed spinach the size and shape of a small child required me to eat spinach three times a day for a week, and also open a roadside spinach stand, or try to sell spinach on E-bay. “I saw an eighty-year-old couple walking in Costco,” said my friend, comedian Elayne Boosler. “I said to them, ‘Get out! Go home! There’s nothing here that you can possibly finish.’”

And then there are the checkout rituals. The first time I forgot to say, “May I have a box?” I found myself making a million trips to unload the car, balancing an air mattress-sized package of chicken parts atop a cistern of laundry detergent. Why?  Because there are no bags at Costco, even though nothing for sale there really fits into those boxes (which, incidentally, are so indestructible they don’t fit in the recycling can). And Costco is the only market with border guards at the exit.  Take care not to misplace your receipt, because you must show it if you’re planning to ever leave.

For me, though, the bloom wasn’t wholly off the rose until I looked around my house, saw one too many dark walnut fake colonial pieces and thought…Damn! My house looks like Costco! Or maybe it was when I noticed, as I made someone a cocktail from my 8 foot high magnum of vodka, that they were looking at me with an expression that said “Whoa. Drinking problem.”

Act Four: Resolution and Mature Love

As with any long term relationship you take the good with the bad. In the end, I finally understood that as a savvy shopper I needed to use Costco for my own purposes, not vice-versa, as well as to understand that certain things I must simply accept. Maybe it is always going to be difficult to take those 10,000 dollar diamond stud earrings in the jewelry case seriously because they are only inches from a tower of Halloween candy? And maybe I will always be disappointed by the odd assortment of books they sell on a big flat table, next to the Big Bag’o’Socks bin,  that seem to have been selected for a mysterious demographic that I’d rather not contemplate. So what?— It’s still a great place to buy food I can freeze, cleaning products, and office supplies. And area rugs and tires. And then I just get the hell out! Oh, and swim goggles. Did I already mention mascara? And picture frames? And THAT’S ALL. Just those things, then grab some soup and a patio heater and head home! And a couple of dog beds. And oh my God a real piano for just $7000!