Skip to content

Inside the cult of Costco

Picture yourself shopping. You drive to the store, and park about a kilometre from the door. When you finally get to the door, you are stopped and asked for your membership.

Picture yourself shopping. You drive to the store, and park about a kilometre from the door. When you finally get to the door, you are stopped and asked for your membership.

Membership? For the right to spend money? Is this shopping or a day at the country club?

So, you buy a membership. You haven't even started shopping, and you're already $60 in the hole. You enter the store, and it's ugly as a warehouse, primarily because it IS a warehouse. The place is jammed with shoppers pushing carts big enough to hold car tires because, well, you might want to pick up a new set of tires, which they have. The ambiance is gulag-like, the shoppers grim faced. Nobody is there to help you. There are no signs pointing to the cereal aisle – or any aisle – forcing you to scour every aisle in hopes of finding a box of Froot Loops … which they don't have. The checkout lines practically run the length of the store, at any time of the day or night. When you finally do check out, they don't have bags. Not even bags you can buy. When you leave the store, they stop you to make sure you haven't stolen anything.

Who would shop at a store like that?

Turns out, millions and millions of people would. It's Costco, of course, the anti-retailer that does absolutely everything wrong, and has still risen to be the second-largest retailer in the world, behind only Wal-Mart.

My wife and I have had an off-and-on Costco relationship. We were lapsed Costco-cultists for years, having let the membership lapse, then renew, then lapse, etc. This is odd, in that we had three boys living at home who we were required, by law, to feed. But shopping at Costco was such an ordeal (the nearest location was a substantial distance, and the store was always overrun with customers) that it just didn't seem worth the aggravation. Now there's a newer Costco quite close to our home – still insanely busy, but closer – so we're back in the cult. At least, for now. I'm still not sure if it's worth the $60.

As a crowd-averse person, Costco's tremendous success is one of its biggest drawbacks. Costco is literally always busy. I'm the kind of person who believes a lineup of three people is an intolerable affront, and there is never a lineup smaller than 25 people at Costco. It's worse on the weekend. I would rather go without food (or tires) than visit a Costco on a Saturday. Costco also seems to be a popular spot for families. On a recent visit, I saw a young woman with FIVE kids, two of them in the shopping cart. When she entered the store, I think she only had two.

On the plus side, I like to use Costco as a test of my sales resistance. I'm a sucker for candy, and it takes everything I have not to buy a 1 kg bag of Jelly Belly jelly beans ($11.99). Sometimes, I find myself rationalizing reasons I should to buy a 1 kg bag of almonds (they're good for you!), before stepping away (they're good for you in moderation, and if I had a 1 kg bag of almonds in the house, there would be no moderation). Of course, everything in Costco is huge. I suspect there is a direct line between the North American obesity epidemic and the success of Costco.

One of the remarkable things about Costco is that, despite appearances, Costco doesn't really stock that much stuff. A typical Costco only stocks about 4,000 items. A typical Safeway carries 40,000 items; a Wal-Mart can have 125,000. The smaller variety of products is part of the Costco Experience. While the basics are always there, other items pop up for a short time, then disappear. It's like a treasure hunt where you end up paying for the treasure. (Did you know that you can buy a casket from Costco? They

don't have them in-store, but you can order one for $1,599.99 and have it send to your funeral home of choice within a couple of days.)

When the membership comes due, I'll have to think about the renewal. I figure if we visit twice a month we can get at least $60 worth of Costco's famous samples. On a recent visit, we sampled rice crackers, granola bars, a frozen fruit bar, artichoke garlic dip (delicious), a salad, something called cranberry almond thins (I bought some of those), a loaf cake, and Korean barbecue beef jerky.