Costco has you figured out.
April 26, 2012 8:06 PM   Subscribe

The Costco Craze is a documentary that will air April 26, 2012 on CNBC.

So what drives an otherwise sane, normal family shopper to plunge into a giant concrete warehouse and emerge an hour later with 83 rolls of paper towels, two 50-pound sacks of flour, five giant thuja trees, a package of 160 AA batteries and a 25-gallon drum of peanut butter? Along with some counterintuitive retail practices like limited choices, "triggers" and "treasures," no advertising, a lack of a directory that forces shoppers to visit every aisle, members love the generous return policy and the feeling that they are getting a great deal. Or are they?
posted by caryatid (170 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I have what many would consider to be a large house and I have no goddamn clue where people put all the shit they buy at Costco. 128 rolls of toilet paper - do they have a spare bedroom devoted to it? And who can eat 10 heads of lettuce before it goes bad? I do not get it.
posted by GuyZero at 8:12 PM on April 26, 2012

Let's not forget: Costco is a surprisingly enlightened employer.
posted by JHarris at 8:13 PM on April 26, 2012 [23 favorites]

I suspect that Costco (and Sam's Club, etc) are the reason a lot of homebuyers now want an insane amount of closet space.

I don't know how you could fill up all that closet unless you buy things in bulk. Or have a lot of bodies to stash, or something.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:16 PM on April 26, 2012

Interesting. There are others, too - BJ's and Sam's Club. It's a strange phenomenon. I am a big frugal type, and there's no place for Costco in my life. The whole endeavor sort of encourages poor decisionmaking that you then have to live with for a long time to come. My parents, whose budget is looser, love it - my dad is especially interested in those half-gallon containers of mixed nuts, which are admittedly much cheaper per ounce than grocery store prices, and my mom likes little phyllo spinach pastries.

Problems for me are a heavy dependence on highly processed, branded foods which tend to average out to more per unit of weight than simple fresh food does, and the bulk buy which means you must commit to a certain amount of repeat consumption. There are a few "deals" there -I hear the eyeglasses/contact lens counter is kind of a steal - but given the ordeal factor of shopping there and the annual fee, I'm not sure it would ever represent a practicable way of saving, at least for my household.
posted by Miko at 8:20 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have never seen "83 rolls of paper towels" in one package at my Costco. 18-20 at the most. "128 rolls of toilet paper"? Maybe 30-36. And I can get individual heads of some lettuce, 2-head packs of others. Battery packages are 20-30. And the peanut butter is less than ONE gallon. With that kind of misleading lead, is this a disguised ad for Sam's Club?
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:23 PM on April 26, 2012 [35 favorites]

We have a two-person household, and shop there regularly. They do have good deals on a lot of products. We actually buy a lot of produce there, because Mr. Sunny takes his lunch to work. The toilet paper is split between bathrooms, so it doesn't take up as much room as you might think. The benefits for us work out. I always shop with a list, though.
posted by annsunny at 8:24 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

> ...warehouse club members are at a disadvantage in terms of selection. Because of this, the survey noted, consumers would still need to supplement their trip to a warehouse club with a trip to a supermarket.

Not if you can live on chicken wings, peanut butter, plastic cups of apple sauce and energy drinks.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:24 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

“My mother-in-law always says that the frustrating thing about going to Costco is that you can spend hundreds of dollars, but you still come home with nothing to eat for dinner.”

No kidding.

I became a member because a friend of mine raved about the place. I wasn't terribly impressed. But I remained a member because I got the Amex card, and funnel a lot of my spending through it (at other places). The rewards pay for the membership, and I still have another $100 or so, which I use to buy their Kirkland dress shirts and t-shirts. Which are tremendous.

The food never seems quite "right" to me.
posted by gjc at 8:26 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are in your first apartment in the suburbs without a car and your mother's housewarming gift is one of those monster packs of toilet paper and one of paper towels, you find whatever room is necessary to house them in the hall closet, as it has saved you from lugging endless amounts of paper products home from the grocery store a mile away, and you spend at least five minutes hugging your mother.

Um, hypothetically. But thanks, mom! Also my legs are smooth and sleek as their monster packs of Ladies Cadillac Sixty Razors In One represent years of bliss over the sad, cheap drugstore razors which cause me to bleed intermittently. Oh and the bean salad in giant jars. And the giant things of Saigon Cinnamon. And Sharpie in Every Color Ever Invented. And Kenneth Cole women's wool peacoats.

Basically, if you have children, or are ever in charge of feeding hordes of hungry Scout groups. The prices on electronic things and home goods are also fairly competitive, as are the packs of undergarments and what not; it's also useful for getting different kinds of photo posters and passport photo duplicates. Most of the non-perishable stuff comes in sets, but it's not like you have to buy ALL THE UNDERWEAR EVER AND ELEVENTY BILLION SOCKS you can just get a pack of six, like normal people do.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:26 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have a small house and I live alone, so there are a lot of industrial-sized items at Costco I don't buy. But TP and paper towels? I have a mudroom with shelves, and then I only have to buy them twice a year. A bag of lemons lasts a long time in the refrigerator. A big box of trash bags lasts me years. I don't even buy one head of lettuce because it would rot faster than I can eat it, but for things like eyeglasses, tires, laptops, TVs, coffee makers, vacuums, prescriptions, cat food, detergent, mattresses, pillows, bedding, clothing, canned goods, coffee, bread, books, ibuprofen, I could go on and on, Costco is great.

Disclaimer: I have been a membership warehouse shopper since the first Price Club opened in San Diego in 1976. I have never lived in a large household. I still find Costco membership necessary and worth it.

With that kind of misleading lead, is this a disguised ad for Sam's Club?

Exaggeration is considered amusing in some circles. Or so I am told.
posted by caryatid at 8:28 PM on April 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

"128 rolls of toilet paper"? Maybe 30-36.

I have this primitive neo-tribal counting system for TP. It goes 12 - 24 - way too much.

The only things you get a decent deal on at Costco is stuff that I'd have to buy in excessive quantities. I honestly don't find that butter, cereal, etc is really any special deal there. I've tried shopping there and it just doesn't seem like it's worth the $50 membership fee, much less the lines and crowds.
posted by GuyZero at 8:29 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

"I'm looking to spend $1,000"

Yeeeesh. No wonder this shit is out of my league.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What's not to love about Costco. Foodstuffs are great quality and reasonably priced. Meats, dairy and produce are of better quality and cheaper than what I can get at my local grocery store (neither a butcher nor a farmer's market worth a damn near me). I buy all of my meat there (beef, chicken, pork) all of my dairy there (milk, butter, eggs, yogurt) and then other 'staples' (spaghetti, diced tomatoes, peanut butter, jelly, cereal, olive oil, liquor, frozen vegetables, etc..) plus household good like paper towels, toilet paper and vinegar. As a result, my weekly supplemental trips to the grocery store (if I need to go) come in quite cheaply.

They also treat their employees quite well and have nice programs for members to take advantage of (2% cash back for the exec membership, relationships with area car dealers, good travel deals, etc.)
posted by Jacob G at 8:31 PM on April 26, 2012 [18 favorites]

"You can go broke savin' money" - Uncle Creature.

Costco is likely proof of that. That being said, we do have a membership, and we actually do save a lot just because of the sheer amount of milk we buy (4 gallons a week, easy). The savings on milk alone pays for the membership. Aside from milk and eggs, we buy all our other produce at regular grocery stores. Their price on real parmagiano reggiano is about $2 less per pound, and that's pretty amazing. If my brother-in-law wasn't a butcher I'd buy all our meat there, too.

Other than that Costco is good for cheap seasonal men's clothes, smaller appliances, and huge-ass packs of chewing gum. Because you can never have enough Orbit Peppermint in your house. And we buy the big thing of toilet paper, because it really is a huge price difference, and it just ends up being a game of tetris in the linen closet. We're a family of four living in about 1100 sq. feet and we do just fine. We don't buy the large buckets of mayonnaise. We do buy the huge blocks of Tillamook medium cheddar for a steal, shred them and then freeze them in smaller packets.

But we come from Utah Mormon stock and we have buying in bulk and food storage in our blood. It's just how things operate 'round these parts.

You don't HAVE to buy everything in every aisle. That's a sucker's game.

They also treat their members very well, the return policy really is as good as it sounds (except for high-priced electronics because people were abusing it).

Furthermore, another big benefit of Costco is the quality control. I should know; my dad manages distribution for a local tortilla chips maker. Costco approached them about carrying the "gourmet" line. But first they had to undergo and intense inspection from Costco of the entire plant, and they had to hire a special security officer and put in new security measures, had to prove to Costco where all their ingredients came from. It was very thorough. Remember that peanut butter salmonella scare a few years back. Costco wasn't even affected by that. They have really good quality control. So chances are good, if it's at Costco, it's probably a pretty good quality product (not always, but then they do have that awesome return policy).
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:31 PM on April 26, 2012 [17 favorites]

The only things you get a decent deal on at Costco is stuff that I'd have to buy in excessive quantities. I honestly don't find that butter, cereal, etc is really any special deal there.

That's always how it looked to me. It's all priced fairly, but there are rarely any actually good deals. You can do better by just watching for sales.

And my biggest gripe is the packaging. A) I don't need three staplers. B) I don't need them contained in a plastic clamshell that is 18x18 inches square.
posted by gjc at 8:32 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can do better by just watching for sales

I find this to be true. When I happen to go there with my parents, I price compare, and the deals are not superior to supermarket sales. Perhaps there's some convenience in not having to wait for sales, but most of the time, given the way I shop and mealplan, it would cost me more to try and supply my kitchen via Costco.
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on April 26, 2012

Doesn't buying things in such quantities, having fridges and freezers and larders filled to overflowing, just encourage wastefulness and overconsumption?
Maybe I'm missing out on 'the deals' but I only go shopping when it's absolutely necessary and I honestly can't remember the last time I used a trolley rather than just a basket. Although, I must admit I love to tag along with friends to Costco just to take in the spectacle. There's something simultaneously uplifting and depressing about these enormous hangers full of consumables.
posted by Flashman at 8:35 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

had to prove to Costco where all their ingredients came from

Now, why? Their meats are from the same Big Four processors as every other grocery store meat. Most of the food is processed. Why on earth would they need to show "where ingredients come from?" Did they really trace the corn-chip corn back to the farm? That's near-impossible. I can understand inspecting for food safety - perhaps - but inspecting for sourcing? That strains belief.
posted by Miko at 8:36 PM on April 26, 2012

I thought people just went there for the kosher hot dogs and free samples?
posted by parudox at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

We've become a nation of coneheads.
posted by Catblack at 8:39 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

And I let my Costco membership lapse last year because I didn't have a car to use their lowest-price-in-the-region gasoline (and the price advantage had slipped down to about 2 cents over a very competitive ARCO station down the street) and I was getting all my medication from a 90-day mail order pharmacy that beat Costco Pharmacy prices (funny how Costco had the lower quantity available - and besides, the pharmacy is one part of the store you can go to without a membership). The other things I buy at Costco have been things I buy one or twice a year. In fact, six months after my last visit, I still have some of them on hand. A few food items worth mentioning: the local Costco has 48 ounce jars of two of my favorite fresh salsas (one of which is not available anywhere else around here at any size) - that's about all I'm actively 'missing' right now. Their ground beef is 5% leaner (with zero pink slime, never had it - that's one area where their quality control really counts) and 20% cheaper than any local market but there's a quantity issue... no packages under 7 pounds. Yep, still 2 pounds left in the freezer. But still, for living-alone me, is it worth a $55 annual membership fee? Not now. Although I'm checking out the prices at their optical department for new glasses; that may come close to paying for a membership by itself. But I'm still working the math.

Also, you can get the 'food court' hot dogs and pizza without a membership. And the samples too, if you go with someone who has a membership or show a prescription from the pharmacy (or just flash an expired card... the system CAN be beaten).
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:46 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Costco in Houston has an amazing selection of red meat choice cuts.
posted by Renoroc at 8:46 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Doing a bit of poking around. Here's a rah-rah Costco PPT talking about microbial testingon all processed foods to increase food safety - that makes more sense. It's not that they're tracing every ingredient to the source, they're just putting the burden on the supplier to have done due diligence and they're requiring testing for contaminants. Would that our whole food system would do the same. It does seem, though, that this new interest in safety was spurred by a set of recalls: Gouda cheese with e. coli in 2010, Gorgonzola with e. Coli in 2010, guacamole for Listeria in 2011, cantaloupes with salmonella in 2011.

I'm all for saving money, but this is Big Industrial Food no matter how you slice it - and there's only so much good policies can do. It's the kind of massive, bulk, volume business that keeps pushing our food systems to ever more unsustainable processes and production methods.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I got a year's worth of my preferred OTC allergy med (365 pills that you take once a day) for less than a 90-day bottle of same pills anywhere else. Cheese sticks (big item at our house) are much cheaper, and quite tasty. Giant cuts of meat go into the crock pot with veggies and broth, and we eat on that for a week, meaning we eat out less. The giant box of grapes are a good deal in a house with a kid who would eat an entire bag if we let him, also bananas and tiny oranges are at least comparable in price if not better. We buy two loaves of bread for cheaper than we could at the supermarket, freeze one, and use the other, valuable when our kid takes his lunch every school day. He loves quesadillas, so we do the same with the double bag of tortillas, and save buying a 2lb block of cheese.

I do wish they'd sell bags of rice smaller than 20lbs because I don't have anywhere to store that. But we go through the big pack of toilet paper about once every six weeks.

Plus, if you're speaking of buying in bulk, in terms of savings, you need to account for the gas/time you save not making extra store trips.

Things I'm not impressed with are the jumbled store layout and the ridiculously overpriced stuff they sell online. Also their electronics are meh in my opinion. I really wish they carried more gluten free options, and a low-sugar instant oatmeal of some kind.

Overall, it's been worthwhile for us. And if Costco is trying to rip off its customers, I can't think that the local Kroger or what have you is more innocent on that account. I've seen plenty of discounts that didn't ring up or misleading/missing signage at regular grocery stores, not to mention just plain overpricing things like giftwrap and school supplies that they know people buy there only in desperation.
posted by emjaybee at 8:48 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm happy to say I have never seen a Costco in my life. You suburbanites are weird.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recently had to replace my coffee maker and my vacuum. I went to Costco and noted the models they had in stock. I went home and looked them up, read reviews, noted prices. I went back to Costco and bought a great vacuum and a great coffeemaker, both for considerably less than I would have spent elsewhere.

I needed a new mattress and box springs. If you've ever shopped for mattress sets you know that no two stores list the same mattress set under the same name, so it is impossible to do price comparisons. I went online and ordered a mattress set from Costco, of Medium firmness (other choices were Soft and Hard). Costco delivered - for free - a quality reasonably-priced brand-name mattress and box spring set that I actively love every time I lay down on it, and even moved the old set to the alley for pickup.

Recently on the way home from work I stopped in to Costco, got my tires rotated, my glasses fixed, my gas tank filled, picked up a prescription, a pair of jeans, a three-pack of frozen pizza, and a trade paperback.

Large quantities and over-consumption are not the only things you can do at Costco.
posted by caryatid at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Miko, Costco goes above and beyond what any other major chains do for food safety. Like this.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did they really trace the corn-chip corn back to the farm? That's near-impossible.

Well yeah, it's not like they drove them to the farm locations, but they certainly did have to show all their shipping receipts, contact information for each of their suppliers, things like that. I didn't mean to imply anything more than that.

It may be hard to trace every ingredient of other processed foods, but with a corn chip it's really not that big of a deal. The corn chips have like four ingredients: corn, salt, vegetable oil, lime. It's not that hard to show: these are are the guys we buy our corn from, these are the guys we buy our lime and salt from, etc... I don't know if Costco vetted each of those suppliers after seeing the shipping receipts, but the fact that they even asked I thought was impressive.

I can't speak to the meat except to say that my brother-in-law butcher has always spoken highly of Costco's meat quality.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:50 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

They have good prices on photo printer paper. You have to buy 150 sheets at a time, but I use it.
posted by aubilenon at 8:51 PM on April 26, 2012

You suburbanites are weird.

I live in the urban core of the largest city in the state, and my Costco is under four miles away.
posted by caryatid at 8:52 PM on April 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

Big thing about Costco for me is it saves trips in the car to the store. 4 loaves of Dave's or Oroweat bread go in the freezer along w/ organic (fwiw) chicken breasts and whole chickens, some tortellinis for the kids, nice hummus, 18 carton of eggs and a bag of dog food. Done right I am in and out of there in 20 minutes and it saves many mini-drives to the store during the week. Oh and a 2-lb bag of coffee beans saves a bunch of cash.

The quality seems only to improve there as time goes on, but you do have to be very focused about what you are buying.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:52 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and middle of the city dweller here as well- Costco 3 miles away.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:52 PM on April 26, 2012

Oh, and another thing to love about Costco is not only are their prescription prices low, AND available without a membership, you can get an additional discount on your meds if you're uninsured or your insurance doesn't cover medication. You have to ask about it, it seems, but it's available.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 8:54 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

caryatid: "I live in the urban core of the largest city in the state, and my Costco is under four miles away."

I live in the urban core of one of the biggest cities in the world, and my Costco is something like 3 miles away.

And it's one of the best places to find imported cheeses and good, cheap cuts of meat. Not to mention frozen foods.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:55 PM on April 26, 2012

18 carton of eggs

That's half my fridge. OK, a quarter. But seriously - do you have like 3 refrigerators?
posted by GuyZero at 8:55 PM on April 26, 2012

Salami, 2009
Dried fruit and nuts, 2009
Muffins, banana loaves, red velvet cupcakes, 2012
Odwalla chocolate drink, 2012
Beef, 2011

Miko, Costco goes above and beyond what any other major chains do for food safety

I don't contest that is probably true, but it's stll not enough. This is a big link in the industrial agriculture and food production chain, and it suffers from and contributes to the same set of ills. And it doesn't do a damn thing to wean us off the subsidy and fossil-fuel-supported food system. It may have a few nifty novelty products and it may save a few bucks for people whose lifestyle it serves, but it's not saving the world.
posted by Miko at 8:56 PM on April 26, 2012

18 carton of eggs - that's 18 eggs in 1 carton, not 18 cartons of eggs.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:56 PM on April 26, 2012

Costco has Mexican Coca-Cola in 24 packs.

That is why I am a member.
posted by helicomatic at 8:57 PM on April 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Heck, I crunched the numbers one day and even as a bachelor I save plenty of money in just milk, beer, and dogfood. Everything else is just a bonus.
posted by piedmont at 8:58 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Costco in Japan has made a giant difference in my life. For many things (especially meat, cheese, and all sorts of other things, from dish soap and laundry detergent to frozen tortillas and pita bread) there is just no equivalent available in Japan. Due to difference in cuisine, it's rare to see meat in block form (for, say, a roast or BBQ), and when you do, it's exhorbinantly expensive. Cheese? Sure, you could buy a piece of cheese no bigger than two fingers together for $5, or you could get a solid block of cheese at Costco for about $10, and have enough cheese for a month.

The membership more than pays for itself, the return policy is amazing, and they actually take care of their employees. Here, at the very least, they have prepared food (salads, heat and eat curry with naan, rotisserie chicken) that makes the "I can go shopping at Costco and come home with nothing for dinner" idea just odd. A pack of seven or eight chicken breasts for $7, or buying two at a time for $4? That's what a decent freezer (bought at sale, yes, at Costco) is for.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:58 PM on April 26, 2012

I'm like a twice a year Costco person. I love buying massive amounts of toilet paper because it lasts a year and I never have to worry about running out. That alone is worth it to me. Hey have good cleaning supplies and various medications are a good deal m also buy Cetaphil and razors at a very good price normally. The liquor is usually a very good deal as well. I have a rule I can only buy one thing of lettuce and one fruit as I'll never get through more. I try not to buy anything else that is perishable. I usually do get the milk because even if some of it goes bad I still come out ahead.
posted by whoaali at 8:59 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever I shop at costco, the following though rings in my head every single time I place an item in my giant cart: "these are the ways I am normal"
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:00 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, usually Costco for me means going there by bicycle. I've got a bike basket and a hiking backpack. It helps to quash the impulse buys. It's just that the pleasant and easy ride there bears no relation to the gruelling pain of the return trip.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:01 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sort of interesting how the CBC casts Costco as not the budget/frugal alternative, but the affluent, aspirational "discount" store. The stuff on the site is really worth checking out. Here's an examination of the toilet paper - in line with comments here, their single biggest selling product.
posted by Miko at 9:03 PM on April 26, 2012

The Costco in suburban VA is Metro-accessible, and well within the urbanized core of the DC metropolitan area. It's actually fairly gas efficient as it's much, much closer than any of the other big box retailers if you need to buy bulk quantities, and there are many Zipcars in the parking lot on the average weekend as people who do not have cars stock up on the bulkier, heavier goods. I guess I just don't get the hate-- if you have three adults at home, going through several pounds of strawberries or five pounds of asparagus or a giant thing of frozen berries isn't some sort of abnormal act. Yes, you can buy fifty gallons of mustard, or whatever, but sometimes people have picnics, or reunions, or large families. And oh, those multipacks of 500 sudafed. I suspect you're illegal now in all states, but thank you, Costco, for saving me from vicious seasonal allergies yea those many years ago.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:03 PM on April 26, 2012

It will be interesting to see what happens at Costco in Washington since they finally got their way privatizing liquor sales.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:04 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is anyone claiming it's saving the world? Or that it's perfect? It's great for a lot of people because it does save them money, they don't treat their customers like shit, they don't treat their employees like shit, they have a pretty good track record when it comes to food safety and overall product quality.

Sure they're part of a much larger problem, but who's offering a better alternative that works for working families on a budget? I'm not seeing it, but if there's a better, greener, more human-friendly place to get basics in my hometown for non-insane prices I'll cancel my membership tomorrow.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:05 PM on April 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

At least in Southern California, my local Costco has great deals on nice wine. And since I live in a 3000sq foot loft in downtown LA, storage isn't a probelm, unlike people in tract houses.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:08 PM on April 26, 2012

It's great for a lot of people because it does save them money, they don't treat their customers like shit, they don't treat their employees like shit, they have a pretty good track record when it comes to food safety and overall product quality.

All that's true but not immune from critique.

who's offering a better alternative that works for working families on a budget?

Lots of options, but the trade-off is the convenience. IT makes sense that some people develop habits around Costco that work for them. BUt I really contest the idea that you save over other methods of shopping, because I've thought it through and can't do my shopping there as cheaply as I do elsewhere. There are many variables, such as distance and time one needs to travel to get to a Costco, and the array of other local resources available, but I find it a quirky and expensive way to shop that doesn't meet my needs well.

I think reading through the CBC stuff about the savings issue and the ways in which it might not be all it's cracked up to be is worthwhile. Once a person develops a habit and systems that work, it seems terribly disruptive to do it differently. I have a pretty good system for putting household food supplies together, which relies mostly on non-branded food, store brands, gardening, sales, and farmer's markets, and so it would be more expensive, and require really different planning and different set of resources in the house for me to be able to actually reduce my food cost shopping at Costco, where the purchase quantities are more than I need and can invest in in a given month, and so much of the food is branded and priced at a distinct premium.
posted by Miko at 9:11 PM on April 26, 2012

City-dweller here. I love Costco. It's as easy to waste time and money there as Target, though, for those with poor planning skills and impulse issues.

They have the best priced Rotisserie chicken you will find. Try that for dinner. You only need to buy one. If you're not a pizza snob, try theirs, they are huge and decent. The butcher shop is a more real butcher shop than you'll find at most supermarkets; sure, the packs of meat are large, meaning 4 rib eyes instead of 2, but that's why you have a freezer. The meat is fresh cut back there daily; it never sees a freezer. You can get a great deal on fresh oxtail when it's on the shelf (they only get a couple of packs a day).

Costco gas and tires are always a good deal. Blu-rays and books are often really well priced; I got 4 seasons of Mad Men on blu-ray for 9.99 each. Wines are fantastic (not bulk), as are pastries and baked goods.

Not everything there is the best deal, of course, but it's not an evil place. I won't buy a vat of spaghetti sauce, but they do stock a locally produced all natural marinara in a slightly-larger than normal jar that I love. It's not for everybody, but some people actually do go through a flat of canned soda in a week. It's not all bulk, but when you need bulk, it's good to know that there's a place for it.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:11 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of restaurants will fall back on Sams, Costco and the like if someone forgets to order enough chicken/lettuce/tomatoes/whathaveyou for the week. 23 heads of lettuce for $40? Sure, would you like to upsize your combo to a deluxe meal for .75?
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:14 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not CBC, CNBC. Sorry.
posted by Miko at 9:16 PM on April 26, 2012

My family buys its eggs from the 10 different coolers along the road in our town, all going for three bucks a dozen for free-range. My girlfriend suspects the OPEGG cartel had a meeting to fix the prices.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:17 PM on April 26, 2012

Local farmers totally do price-fix eggs, sort of informally, but distinctly. I've noticed it too. Then in the fall they pop up to $4, all at once somehow.
posted by Miko at 9:18 PM on April 26, 2012

I always go with another single mom friend and we split the big packages. It is very cost effective for us and I like going to a store that treats employees well. Plus no other rotisserie chicken comes close to size and taste And the samples make it a lunch date,too
posted by Isadorady at 9:20 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

They sell roast chickens for $5 at Safeway too. Do I live in some sort of hyper-efficient grocery store pricing zone? I mean, I too love store roast chickens, but they're not unique to Costco.
posted by GuyZero at 9:23 PM on April 26, 2012

It's all priced fairly, but there are rarely any actually good deals. You can do better by just watching for sales.

The "priced fairly" part is the point, and is why I like it. They limit their markup to 14% on branded stuff, and 15% on store brands. If you keep track of sales, you can drive around to 5 different grocery stores and maybe pick up those 5 things cheaper, or just go to Costco and know that you aren't going to get gouged on anything.
posted by robla at 9:23 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

If you're a new parent their box of eleventy billion baby wipes is awesome.

Otherwise, it's all about the liquid dishwasher soap and plastic wrap.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:24 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Costco caps their markups at 14% over the price they paid for an item.

The products tend to be of the better variety in any category with more features or extras bundled in at a good price.

Costco and Wegmans. Don't need much else.
posted by gearspring at 9:25 PM on April 26, 2012

We buy our bread, soy milk, eggs, toilet paper and meat at Costco, which, if we paid for the card (we're on my father in law's account) would pay itself back in bread purchases alone. I wouldn't say my husband and I are victims of overconsumption, more that we just prefer to have a good store of basics to hand for meals and Costco provides reliable quality/prices. We shop for fresh vegetables in our local Sprouts store or in our back yard when the time is right, and I'm pretty OK with that balance. I'm certainly not about to critique a store based on a customer not being able to control their purchasing habits. There's nothing about Costco (except perhaps the all knowing sample ladies) that forces your credit card into that slot.
posted by saturnine at 9:26 PM on April 26, 2012

The Costco rotisserie chicken is likely double the size of the Safeway chicken for $5. Isn't that what Costco is being criticized for?
posted by gearspring at 9:28 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My compact vacuum cleaner, bought from Costco five years ago for under $60 was one of my best purchases of this century. The stack of 50 blank DVDs for $50 less so (I still have 40 left)
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:29 PM on April 26, 2012

Ugh. Try the Safeway chicken side by side with the Costco one, and tell me which one is the sad, shriveled over-seasoned one. Also, I thought the Safeway ones were more than $5.00 last time I went.
posted by jabberjaw at 9:29 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been to a few of the Costcos around Asia. I'd be interested in hearing how they manage to make it work in places like Taiwan and Korea where foreign owned retail chains (including Wal-Mart) have a history of crashing. The whole place almost feels like the antithesis of the local culture, where people buying giant tubs of peanut butter and breakfast cereals just does not fit the norm, yet still they manage to expand.

One thing I find a bit funny is the little food court pizza place these stores have. The last one I visited was decorated with photos of other Cosco locations around the world. There were maybe eight of these framed tributes to costcoland surrounding the diners like the stock photos of Tuscany you might see hanging around an Italian restaurant. Of course since Costco buildings all basically look the same, only the small placard below each picture really provides any help in identifying them. One rectangle surrounded by parking lots is in Japan and one is in Australia and I'm sure that must seem charmingly exotic to somebody, but I can't imagine who.
posted by Winnemac at 9:31 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

OK, I'll let you CostCo curious in on a secret, and that is:

There are a few items that make sense for a single person, more that make sense for 2+, 3+, and 4+. The trick is to figure out which is suitable for your nuclear shopping unit.

I recommend this if you're unwilling to measure consumption in advance: tour a Costco and make a list of the staples you might want. Tape it up in your pantry.

Next time, go to Costco when you are well fed and buy some items from that list. Stick to that list, do not stray. You do not (yet) need a $400 Vitamix blender or a custom-tailored suit, no matter how tempting.

Bring your loot home. After a week, if you're groaning with overconsumption of bread / felafel / honey / nutella, or you can't close the closet with all those rolls of toilet paper, cross the item off the list, never to be purchased again.

In a few trips, you'll have a manageable list. Add new staples conservatively. Resist the urge to splurge and not only will you save money, you'll also get out of Costco faster.

For two people, I've winnowed the list to about five or ten items. Things that will keep long enough, don't take up a huge amount of space, and that are convenient to have: milk, peanut butter, razor blades, shampoo, toothbrushes, Kona coffee beans (when they have them), dry pasta, rice, flour, sugar, dish detergent, laundry detergent.

Those 2-packs of 1.5 lb loaves of bread are another story. Unless you have room to freeze a loaf, you're going to need five or more people to finish those off before they spoil (oh, the week I tried these with four people, we had french toast every morning, sandwiches for lunch, still had half a loaf at the bitter and doughy end).

Richmond, California Costco meetup, anyone?

posted by zippy at 9:32 PM on April 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

I've had fairly good luck with the whole-bean coffee, various cheeses, lamb roasts, chicken breast strips (cheap and easy to freeze). The foil pans like you might use in catering--possibly an actual "wholesale" item--are cheap and very handy. Most of my cleaning supplies, garbage, bags, and so on come from Costco. I buy all my olive oil from Costco--more expensive for cooking, the least expensive for my soapmaking hobby.

I bought a low-priced Samsung monitor at Costco, I'm using it right now. Picture frames from Costco, of all things, have worked well for me, although there's no selection for styles.

I used to make sarcastic remarks about Costco clothing, until I bought a Kirkland dress shirt on a whim--it's surprisingly nice and was very cheap for the quality ($19?).

My local Costco has quality problems sometimes with fresh fruit. The canned chili (Cattle Drive?) is kind of grim and dog-foody to my tastes, and not something you'd want to be stuck with a pallet of. Frozen orange juice is a good deal pricewise, but comes in those extra-large cans that make too much for my pitcher.

Minnesota law prevents membership clubs from selling alcohol, so Costco's local wine/liquor areas are open to the general public: you don't need a membership to buy there. Selection isn't broad, but you can get nice stuff there. The Kirkland Bordeaux Superieur isn't that good, but I'm told the Kirkland single-malt scotch, when they have it, is very nice.

One minor annoyance is that you can get hooked on a particular item at Costco, and then they suddenly stop carrying it. I used to buy their big bags of little Belgian chocolate squares for my office candy jar, then got left high-and-dry when they quit carrying them.

If I'm going to have people in the backyard for grilling, Costco is a must for meat purchases. But anytime else, I wouldn't consider buying serious bulk perishables there.
posted by gimonca at 9:38 PM on April 26, 2012

That return policy is something else. My mother-in-law insists on buying her small appliances at Costco. "Why this kettle, the last two times we bought one and it broke, we just took it back to Costco and got our money back! returned hers too!" Pro tip: perhaps the kettles at Costco are not all they're cracked up to be? We bought her a real kettle.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:38 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Despite the stereotype there are very few items at Costco that a small-normal household (there's just two of us in mine) couldn't get through in a reasonable amount of time. I guess I bought a whole lot of medical exam gloves to wear while I work on my bike that will last me a while. Maybe batteries?

Anyway, I live in a pretty big city and Costco is maybe 5 miles aways. We go a little less than once every two weeks. When we moved here we actually went to the various local supermarkets and composed a price index for ourselves and found that we easily justified the cost of the Costco membership with the savings. Things we buy normally:

baby carrots
peanut butter
string cheese
paper towels
toilet paper
laundry detergent

Some of those things we could probably get cheaper as loss leaders at supermarkets if we paid attention but other things (milk, peanut butter, gas) are always cheaper at Costco, and pretty much justify the cost all by themselves. To go along with that we've made some rarer purchases there: eyeglasses and contacts, tires, and photo printing that are also very decently priced.

So yeah, like any large, western-style store there's the potential to over-indulge and buy a ton of Doritios or whatever, but if you have a regular list going in (and don't go shopping hungry, like zippy says) it's not much different than a normal shopping trip.
posted by ghharr at 9:39 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Costco sells razor blade refills in quantity for about half the price in other stores. The savings is enough to justify the admission fee after about two purchases.

Which, of course, is only of value if, like me, you went with five blades, because you'll buy anything.
posted by darksasami at 9:42 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heh. When I go to Costco, I go on Saturdays, or Sundays, just a bit before noon, and graze on the free samples of whatever foodstuffs they're pushing. Then, I walk out and drive home.

I do like their cans of alaskan salmon, but they come in like, 10-packs, and those last me quite awhile.

The trick with Costco is don't allow yourself to impulse buy, but allow yourself to impulse eat.
posted by smcameron at 9:43 PM on April 26, 2012

I like that you can buy a couple of decent bottles of wine, some frozen salmon, laundry detergent and socks, all in one place, oh and while you're there, pick up a 47" lcd tv too. What I don't like about it is what we call "the $300 rule", which is that it's practically impossible to leave that place without spending $300.
posted by seanus at 9:46 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and for a leg of lamb, I can't find a better selection near me than Costco.
posted by smcameron at 9:48 PM on April 26, 2012

Lots of options, but the trade-off is the convenience.

Maybe it's a difference in household and location, then. Because in my neck of the woods, and with our household needs, it would be a tradeoff in cost and convenience, and really a whole lot of convenience. Just running the numbers:

Costco is exactly 1.6 miles from our house. There is a closer grocery store (1 mile), but it has the most uneven stock and the poorest quality produce I've ever seen. The next good grocery store is 3 miles away, twice that of Costco. It is also not a price-competitive store...they cater to a higher-end clientele (we live in a nicer part of the city but don't really share the same tax bracket as some of our neighbors, alas)

On average, we buy 4 gallons of milk about every week. At Costco milk is usually about $2/gallon. At every other grocery store milk is always about $2.20 - $2.50/gallon. Let's just average that to $2.25/gallon, accounting for the extremely rare dairy sale (milk sales are exceedingly rare in our neck of the woods).* That's $1 dollar of savings a week, times 52 weeks, there's the cost of the membership right there. And we haven't got to the bread yet.

On the bread; if it was just me and my wife we'd make our own whole wheat bread from scratch and save millions. But our 2 very young children are quite picky and will only eat the dreaded white stuff. Again, the savings is evident: average price of white bread $2.40/loaf, but at Costco it's about $2/loaf. We don't go through bread as fast as Milk, but I bet we still save $20 a year just on the bread.

These small price differences work for eggs (about a $20 year savings), peanut butter (about $15/year), butter (easily $30/year, maybe more), cheese (holy crap this is like $50/year), and canned beans. Pasta is cheap too, but not that cheap, probably only a few dollars a year. These are staples for a family with little ones. I'm not going to claim we save thousands of dollars, but it's more than enough to justify the membership, and I don't see how it's any more evil than the three grocery stores in our area that are also part of the Big Industrial Food Complex.

If we really wanted to be progressive and save the planet, we'd have to drive 15 freeway miles to the nearest non-evil grocery store every week and pay a price premium (they rarely have sales). So there goes the carbon footprint.

I'm all for gardening and we try to do that too but still find the cost savings and quality at Costco totally justifiable.

Now being a forward thinking person I do try to buy produce through a co-op. It is so massively inconvenient that it almost always ends in failure (if you don't pick up your produce by the designated too-early-too-piss-on-a-saturday-morning time they will donate your food to the local fire department) and we end up going to a grocery store to get lettuce and things like that.

*And yes, we really do shop the ads. My aforementioned brother-in-law butcher? He lives in our basement and obsesses about all the grocery ads because he's the meat manager at a local grocery store, and he likes to know what the competition is all about. There are deals, and we take advantage of them, but running the numbers still shows, at least for our little family, that Costco is a great thing to have around.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:50 PM on April 26, 2012

Even Julia Child purchased meat at Costco. Like any place, they have processed and non-processed food. I have bought bison strip steaks at Costco before, but I haven't seen them lately. I buy the bags of lemons and have my kids make real lemonade with lemons, water and sugar. It works out well for us.
posted by Ostara at 9:54 PM on April 26, 2012

A couple of months ago, the Costco I shop at had fresh chanterelle mushrooms, in a big bulk pack. I almost bought some on impulse, but it was obviously way more than I could use on my own, and they didn't look super fresh. Haven't seen them since.

One of the quirks of Costco around here (and maybe other places) is that product offerings can vary from location to location. In the Twin Cities, the St. Louis Park Costco seems like the "nice" one, as opposed to Coon Rapids or Maplewood (where I usually shop). I bought a sleeve of awesome Iberico ham from Spain at the SLP Costco a couple of years ago, and I remember when the movie Sideways was out, they actually had a case of 2000 Cheval Blanc in the liquor area. Most amusing or ironic thing I've seen there: Kirkland beluga caviar, packaged with a mother of pearl spoon for serving. Jar and spoon packaged a blister pack.

At this moment, I have a bottle of Kirkland champagne downstairs ("Product of France"). Haven't tried it yet.
posted by gimonca at 10:00 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Echoing what others have said about the decent employee treatment, quality meat, and automotive center, and would like to add that they're by far the cheapest place to get a prescription filled, and you don't need to be a member to use the pharmacy.

I see Costco muffins repackaged and sold individually all over the city.
posted by Challahtronix at 10:01 PM on April 26, 2012

On the other side of the coin, I worked at a Costco three summers in a row while doing my undergrad degree. To be blunt, it is the ONLY retail store I would consider working at again if I was in quick need of a job. The pay was pretty reasonable for a seasonal hire ($12 CAD), workplace safety wasn't ever ignored, and most of all, the other workers and management were pleasant to work with. It's still a little amazing to me how smoothly a store can run, and how well customers can be treated, when the workers are treated well and fairly paid.

/end glowing and biased rant :)
posted by Nutri-Matic Drinks Synthesizer at 10:11 PM on April 26, 2012 [18 favorites]

I am going to assume there's no crossover between Costco shoppers in this thread and ethical meat proponents in the couple recent threads about that.
posted by snofoam at 10:12 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am going to assume there's no crossover between Costco shoppers and sane people. Drink the kool aid, we've got plenty more!
posted by Catblack at 10:15 PM on April 26, 2012

I have previously mentioned how Costco is a bastion of freedom in TP form. I was in there today for the first time since we returned from China. I will be renewing my membership.
posted by arcticseal at 10:26 PM on April 26, 2012

I have wandered the aisles of Costco with my Seafood Watch app queued up on my iPhone and been able to find plenty of approved choices, so there's that form of ethical protein consumption.
posted by sobell at 10:38 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my housemates has some considerable medication requirements. One of them, if we got it filled at the nearby Rite-Aid would be $160; at the Walgreens or the Safeway pharmacy, the same.

Costco? $19.

A different medication was $90 at Rite-Aid. Costco had it for $12.

In one month we saved about three time the price of a Costco yearly subscription.

(also she loves their churros.)
posted by mephron at 10:41 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Weird costco hate in here. They don't make iPods or Windows software, so it's kind of bizarre.

In my neck of the woods, everything is cheaper at costco, by at least a little bit and more often by a huge amount. The $400 we spend there three times a year would be $2400 (total) or more spent elsewhere.

Talking with friends who were formerly employees of big grocery chains, don't discount the fact that they pay and treat their employees well. That alone would be enough to make me shop there even if their prices were the same.
posted by maxwelton at 10:51 PM on April 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used to live in a 750sq ft apartment in the city, and I always found reasons to continue my membership. granted, i always had a car, but the costco was still in the city. meat was often a big reason to shop there. buy in bulk, then carefully wrap and freeze 3/4s of it. sometimes i'd stock up on frozen stuff. lately i've been drinking Starbucks VIA instead of making coffee, and I purchased a blister pack of 24ct for $12. normally I was just getting it at Target or Starbucks and paying about that for 11ct. And you can get seriously discounted hard liquor. I don't mind certain brands of mass-produced whiskey, and they're often $10 cheaper than any other store. if all i do is make 10 purchases like this per year it's already worked out.

it made a lot more sense to be shopping there when I was responsible for feeding a household, as stocking up on certain things really did work out.

i used to genuinely hate the concept of the sheer volume of 'stuff'. but it's stupid, because whether i shop there or not, that stuff will be produced and consumed. i might as well live easier because it exists. i've also used their discounts on rental cars; it can be hit or miss, but it is usually comparable to codes you can find on the internet. and their tire shop can occasionally compete on price, though I've not managed to find a set I've wanted there.
posted by ninjew at 11:00 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm happy to say I have never seen a Costco in my life. You suburbanites are weird.

I'm unhappy to say I've never seen one, but I've seen plenty of Wal-Mart.
posted by JHarris at 11:07 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am going to assume there's no crossover between Costco shoppers in this thread and ethical meat proponents in the couple recent threads about that.

Sure there is. I buy my meat and dairy from a local grass-fed dairy farm (organic raw milk from the cows, beef from the steers, pork from the pastured pigs, eggs from the pastured hens).

Doesn't mean there aren't literally hundreds of other things I buy from Costco. The dairy farm doesn't sell toilet paper.
posted by caryatid at 11:14 PM on April 26, 2012

I am going to assume there's no crossover between Costco shoppers and sane people.

What's insane about buying from a store with fair prices, good products, ethical business practices, and happy employees?
posted by caryatid at 11:19 PM on April 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

Costco here in Korea (there are, at last count, 6 or 7 of them) is not so much about buying massive quantities, although that is part of the experience, because all of the imported food is the same stuff that's sold in America.

But I tell you, even though the nearest one is a three hour drive from me, Costco is one of the things that keeps me sane living here. I am so glad they're a relatively ethical employer, but to be honest, I'd make my 2 or 3 trips a year there even if they weren't.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:25 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Relatively sane.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:28 PM on April 26, 2012

Costco in Japan is filled with groups of housewives shopping together, then splitting up what they've bought. If Japanese people, whose homes will redefine your idea of 'lack of space' shop there and make it work, I would imagine most people can. Another fun point: while Costco does quite often have a lot of imported food which people might shy away from (for ethical reasons, or fear of foreign food reasons) here? Those cucumbers from western Japan, those grapes from Chile, the meat from New Zealand? I know a lot of people with children that shop at Costco precisely because, unlike all of the local supermarkets, they aren't selling produce from Ibaraki, Saitama, Chiba, or other places that might or might not be irradiated.

Aside from that, if not for Costco, my BBQ this Sunday wouldn't happen. Costco supplied the hotdog buns (hard to find), hamburger buns (nigh impossible), the mushrooms (prohibitively expensive otherwise), the ribs (not sold in racks elsewhere, only as pre-sliced ribs), and most of what's going into the sausages. These will be cooked on the Weber grill that cost half as much at Costco as it would anywhere else in Japan, over charcoal bought in bulk rather than in one five pound box at a time.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:32 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing, though, is that they are pretty ruthless about what sells or doesn't. If something doesn't sell, they won't restock it, and they stick to that. When they opened in 2001 in Makuhari, they sold taco shells, all kinds of cheese, more varieties of pork and beef cuts than they do now. They don't sell that stuff anymore because the only people buying it were foreigners, who make up less than 3% of the population. They did a pretty impressive change on the fly and went from a 'western store' to a store that a lot of Japanese people find incredibly useful.

Not that there aren't always people there, wandering around slowly, active as if they're in a tourist attraction. My in-laws took four hours the first time we went there, walking up and down every single aisle, looking at every product. In the end, they bought some frozen naan, some canned tuna, and some soy sauce.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:36 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Speaking of discontinued products, a Costco manager showed me this. When there is an asterisk on the price sign, that means the product is going away. Some items are seasonal (like Good Earth tea, which is only available around Xmas) and some are being discontinued permanently. If you see an asterisk on something you like, stock up. I wish I'd known this when they discontinued Muir Glen canned diced tomatoes.
posted by caryatid at 11:42 PM on April 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

For me, Costco has two giant pluses .

1) Hot Dog and a soda for $1.50. Includes relish and onions if you're into that. You can't get a better meal deal.

2) Their prices stay stable. At my local grocery stores, prices fluctuate like crazy. You go to buy something one week it's $3.19, next week it's $4.25, then it's six for $12 (but only if you get all six now). Costco always has decent prices, they don't jerk you around like that.
posted by Garm at 11:46 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me Costco is about the people that work there. The energy and attitude projected make me comfortable to be there. No uniforms and yet everyone is well groomed and reasonably fit. The 30 to 40 somethings working there understand customer service and know their jobs. It is an amazing consistent vibe I have picked up in Costco stores all over.
posted by pdxpogo at 12:04 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think Costco's great, and it's awesome if it works for you. My issue is you have to have a certain level of income to benefit from bulk purchases. Sure, it's great if something is 50 cents less per ounce than other stores. But if you're living paycheck to paycheck, it doesn't necessarily make sense to spend, say, 30% of your weekly grocery budget on a single item just to get it at a bargain price.

I mean, $13 for 20 rolls of tp is a damn good price, but not if your grocery budget is $50 for the week, you know?
posted by Space Kitty at 12:47 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

To clarify -

When your budget has absolutely no margin for error, you don't buy enough toilet paper for the next six months. You buy enough toilet paper to get you to your next payday. It's the high cost of being broke.
posted by Space Kitty at 12:54 AM on April 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Costco has Mexican Coca-Cola in 24 packs.

That is why I am a member.

That's one of the big reasons for me. The other is the strawberries. Most stores in the South seem to carry Driscoll's strawberries, which are small, sour garbage berries that have been chemically treated to look ripe, and are often somewhat rotten. Costco's aren't like that. They're huge California strawberries, flash-frozen, and very sweet. They're better than anything except the ones I used to get straight off the vine at a local U-Pick farm in California. And they're not that expensive, either. I usually get three or four big bags a month, and use them in freaking everything.

We had a post here a long while ago about how people in the early 1900s predicted the future, and one of the more-discussed images was a monstrous strawberry that was being served like a turkey dinner.... the idea that having all the strawberry you wanted would be paradise. Well, I'm here to tell ya, the Costco strawberries aren't turkey-sized, but they otherwise fit that future prediction of ridiculous luxury to a tee. I will keep my membership, I think, for as long as they have those berries.
posted by Malor at 12:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

The few times I've been to Costco I went group shopping and we just split the items afterwards and it was great in terms of savings. I knpw other people who do this, so it's not neceassily pushing you into overconsumption (especially if you go on the bus, where overconsumption means the ride of hell back). I like that the nearest Costco is not only transit accessible and that as a company they treat their employees ethically (and that it proves you don't have to be a total arsehole to employees to turn a profit). It's like anywhere, though, you have to be careful and not get enthraled by the lure of potential savings.

I also shop farmer's markets, and that's where I always end up splurging. Seeing all of those varieties of carrots short wires something in my brain.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:13 AM on April 27, 2012

They also treat their employees quite well

I could have sworn there was an AskMe some years ago where someone's father had been fired from Costco for theft for getting refills of his soda. Damned if I can find it, though.

Ah, here it is. Had to remove Costco from my search.
posted by 6550 at 2:51 AM on April 27, 2012

In the small town in which I live, we have a rather unique situation involving Costco. Their closest store is in another state, about 75 miles or so. There really isn't much choice here except for Walmart, which is about 75 miles as well. We have a local grocer who has discovered a way to "import" Costco items and sell them on his shelves, often broken down into single item packages. He told me they are very willing to work with him in doing this, and give him preferential pricing over their retail. The quality of this stuff is quite good compared to anything I can get anywhere. The grocery items are very good,less expensive and better quality than what's available in the premium chain store across town. Lots of us buy their clothes, since they seem to be similar in price to the Walmart stuff, but last much longer. They are the only local source of small appliances such as microwaves and such, or of office supplies.

Very few of my friends could ever hope to afford their membership, let alone make the trip there; most of us are disabled or underemployed. Hell of a deal for us!

@lesbiassparrow, I have the luck to have a farmers market right across the street all summer. For me, it's not splurging, as the prices aren't too much different than the chain store, and the stuff lasts longer before spoiling. I can go down there and buy salad mix, and have it last all week, whereas I get 2-3 days out of the store bought stuff. I like the carrots, but the tomato varieties are what does it for me. They had a table for tasting of about 30 different cherry tomato varieties last year. I'm now a confirmed tomato junkie, and looking forward to them opening again this year.
posted by cybrcamper at 3:05 AM on April 27, 2012

1) In Japan, CostCo is the only place in the entire country where you can be honest-to-god Canadian bacon. This alone got me a ¥4000 membership to a CostCo 2 hours by train from my home.
2) They sell cars! Cars! If you are in the market for a new car, you will save more than $55 buying it from CostCo.
3) Recently I visited the US with the boyfriend, from Europe, the land where everything is small and especially stores and packaging. CostCo was on the must-see list because it really is that awesome. Or weird. Whichever. He took pictures, among them "jar of cheese balls larger than adult torso" and "10 pound of frosting, available in six different colors." Thanks for the vacation memories, CostCo.
posted by whatzit at 3:14 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Costco is definitely cheaper on average for the "need, but don't want to think about" items: toilet paper, paper towels, dishwasher detergent, aluminum foil, saran wrap, ziploc bags, and other non-perishable consumables. Sure, I could probably save two cents a roll if I watched the circulars and happened to catch the grocery store having a sale on toilet paper, but then I would have to think about it more than once every six months.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:06 AM on April 27, 2012

that you save over other methods of shopping, because I've thought it through and can't do my shopping there as cheaply as I do elsewhere.

Bolded for emphasis.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:11 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

My family was quite frugal, and there were some items that we never bought at Costco; among them breakfast cereal, potato chips, soft drinks, and bread, because these could be had cheaper at the grocery store if you watched the sales.

Some items we bought at Costco even though they were not particularly cheap, because they were either higher quality, or simply not available elsewhere. This category included some cheeses and meats.

Finally, there were the things that were so much cheaper it was ridiculous. If you bake, you can get two pounds of yeast at Costco for a quarter of the price of a 4 ounce jar at the grocery store, or a savings of 97%. Flour was not quite as cheap, but the 50 pound bag was about the same as 10 pounds at the grocery store. Rice, tortilla chips, canned tomatoes, all good (at that time - I live out of the country now, so my info may be old).

You cant "do your shopping" at Costco and expect to save a lot, but if you are careful there are some things worth buying there.
posted by Nothing at 5:36 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

And sure, make jokes about crazy people buying a hundred rolls of toilet paper if you like. But for $12 I have ingredients to bake four loaves of bread a week for a couple.
posted by Nothing at 5:38 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

couple -months-
posted by Nothing at 5:38 AM on April 27, 2012

The trick of buying lots of stuff at Costco (meat is so, so, so much cheaper on a regular basis there than at our yuppy Giant) is to keep an inventory of what you have and do some menu planning before you shop and at the beginning of the week. If you know what you have and if you know what you need to fill in the gaps of your meal (i.e. fresh foods), everything falls into place.
posted by Kimberly at 5:50 AM on April 27, 2012

Weird costco hate in here. They don't make iPods or Windows software, so it's kind of bizarre.

There is a cult of personality regarding this store, and people (like me) get weirded out by that. Then, if you get burned enough times, you start to wonder what Kool Aid people are drinking. I'm a member, and I'll stay a member, but I have to remember to just buy the stuff that is actually a good deal.

Costco is definitely cheaper on average for the "need, but don't want to think about" items: toilet paper, paper towels, dishwasher detergent, aluminum foil, saran wrap, ziploc bags, and other non-perishable consumables. Sure, I could probably save two cents a roll if I watched the circulars and happened to catch the grocery store having a sale on toilet paper, but then I would have to think about it more than once every six months.

There are a lot of different stores where I am, so maybe it's different. But I can almost always get a better deal at Target. I don't even really have to look for sales. Just wander through twice a month and grab something I'll be needing soon when it's on sale.

Here is what makes me dislike them: their sizes of products are different from anywhere. (For many things.) Why do they do that? How can it possibly be cheaper for them to commission special runs of product? How can it be cheaper for them to package a dozen pens in the giant clamshell, instead of the box every other retailer sells them in?

Electronics are another one that confounds me. You can buy camera X for $500 online. You can buy the "super starter pak" containing the same camera + other stuff for $750. Costco will then have a "super dooper starter pak" for $812, that has some extraneous thing in it, that nobody needs, but is a "great deal" because that thing retails for $100. Yet, they've succeeded: they've not only gotten the buyer to buy the camera from them, but they've also gotten them to pay more.
posted by gjc at 5:54 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The nearest Costco to me is over 60 miles away. We do, however, have a GFS outlet one town over, where I can get a two-pack of Nutella for the price of a single jar at my local big-box grocery. And, really, what else would one ever need?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 AM on April 27, 2012

Has nobody mentioned their diapers yet??? Kirkland diapers rock! The nearest CostCo to me is 150 miles away so I always have grandma bring a box when she visits.

"Doesn't buying things in such quantities, having fridges and freezers and larders filled to overflowing, just encourage wastefulness and overconsumption?"

Well, nobody FORCES you to buy things in bulk -- you only have to get the things you use. I had my husband put in a wire shelf along an awkward wall in our basement (over the washer/dryer, has pipes in weird places, etc., but wire you can cut out around those things) and that lets me buy things like toilet paper, dishwasher detergent, etc., in (small) bulk. One BIG shopping trip for those things (usually when the supermarket is doing doorbusters on cleaning products and papergoods, since I have no CostCo) can keep me for 6 months or a year, and that's a LOT OF HASSLE I don't have to deal with.

I live in a 1950 bungalow with seriously no closets, and I do have to be pretty judicious about what I buy, but there are plenty of things worth buying in large quantities that I either made storage space for (with the wire shelf) or that I go through pretty fast. There is a restaurant supply wholesaler near me open to the public, and I get several things there -- my kids' favorite pasta (tri-color rotini) in 5-lb. sacks; croutons (2-lb. sack); yeast (1 lb. brick); raisins (twice as big as the supermarket); rice; nuts; garbage bags; etc. Also cat food and litter in large quantities on sale is great.

"I honestly can't remember the last time I used a trolley rather than just a basket."

Well, either you're shopping very frequently and/or eat out a lot, or you're shopping for just one. I'm shopping for four for 21 meals a week. I pretty much have to "stock up" with a big shopping trip every two weeks, and do an in-between shop for perishables (fruits and vegetables, milk, meat) on the off weeks. And while I can walk to a lot of things, I can't walk to a grocer, so there's wasteful overconsumption of gas if I go more often than necessary.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:10 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Costco is definitely one of those situations where you have to have money to save money. But they couple that with the opportunity to buy lots of upper-class twit stuff, too.
posted by charred husk at 6:15 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

We have Costco in the UK too, although membership is restricted to (a) people running their own businesses and (b) certain classes of professionals (e.g. teachers, lawyers, dentists).

I live by myself in a small flat, so I don't buy 72 toilet rolls at a time, but there are certain things that are really worth buying, things that either I can't buy in the supermarkets in the UK (Ghiradelli triple choc brownie mix, for one) or that are such good quality that, even though they might be more expensive than the Sainsbury's equivalent, are so much better quality that it's worth it (trash bags, jars of nuts,strawberries, meat, fish, etc).

The cakes are amazing and our supermarkets don't do those big sheet cakes that Costco sell (or if they do they want stupid money for them), or the fantastic carrot and chocolate fudge cakes in such big sizes and for such a low price. I am always Queen of the Party when I turn up with a Costco cake.

I'm careful to shop with a list (although I do love to look at All The Things). The only thing I have to walk past with my eyes shut is the Fruit & Nut Medley, which is the crack cocaine of trail mix.
posted by essexjan at 6:30 AM on April 27, 2012

I find giant stores like that overwhelming. They are too big with too much choice and it short-circuits my brain and I get locked up in decision-making circles. Same with mega-sized grocery stores like "The Real Canadian Superstore" or places like IKEA. I end up wandering aisles aimlessly, staring at things, unable to make a decision, and come out with a cart full of crap I didn't go in for to begin with. Anyways, we're way too lazy to go to CostCo for groceries, as there are 8 normal-sized grocery stores within a 5 minute drive of our house, 3 of which we can walk to, plus several bakeries, a fishmonger, butcher, coffee roaster, etc. etc. It is a pain in the arse to drive almost 10 km out of my way for groceries to save a couple bucks especially when I know I would end up spending too much on extraneous crap. We do go on the rare occasion with my sister-in law to use her membership to buy the mega pack of baby wipes or whatever, though.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:39 AM on April 27, 2012

And my biggest gripe is the packaging.

Mine too. Instead of true bulk packaging, it's often a big package wrapped around several normal-sized packages. I once bought a big pack of Brita filters. A big box with two smaller boxes inside, with the filters inside individually wrapped. This is irksome to me!

But I let my subscription lapse mostly because the selection just wasn't good enough. A 50 lb. bag of cat litter is great if you want the one or two brands they carry. Not if you want Feline Pine.
posted by statolith at 6:48 AM on April 27, 2012

I'll wait for it to come out on DVD. Then I'll give the other 19 copies to my friends.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:49 AM on April 27, 2012

And my biggest gripe is the packaging. A) I don't need three staplers. B) I don't need them contained in a plastic clamshell that is 18x18 inches square.

I'm surprised there haven't been more comments like this. It seems to me the easiest thing to criticize them for. I haven't seen wasteful packaging like theirs since the demise of the CD longbox.

Though I'm in no position to sit in judgment. The one item in my household that determines when it's time for another Costco run is liter-size plastic bottles of drinking water. Whatever minerals they add for taste are the right ones.
posted by Trurl at 6:50 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I loves me some Costco. Beyond what others have mentioned (TP, Paper Towels, Batteries), I'm a huge fan of their Kirkland wool socks (better than Smartwool, and 1/4 the price), and enormous tubs of ibuprofen (which last me years).
posted by brand-gnu at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2012

I could have sworn there was an AskMe some years ago where someone's father had been fired from Costco for theft for getting refills of his soda.

It's always possible to get fired from retail for something like that, or for something that sounds like that. At least, whenever I've been in retail I've continually heard stories like that one. But in general I think Costco a fantastic employer. My best friend is a manager there-- worked up from the ranks after leaving a white-collar profession. He has serious chronic health issues and they've been amazing in terms of accommodating him. I have never heard of another big retailer that isn't just a joke in comparison, in terms of how they treat their employees.

That said, there is something weird about Costcoland. The one where I live, at least, is a funny sort of a cross between a wholesale warehouse and a normal supermarket. There is a whole subculture of people that actually hangs out almost every day eating the samples. And it is quite easy to stereotype the customers and their shopping habits. It's the only place where you're going to see more than one Escalade being packed with toilet paper and industrial-sized boxes of taquitos and shu-mai every time you go. My own partner has really drunk the koolaid and comes home with a big package of something strange every time he goes there. I'm still happy enough that we are members-- like every other member that's weighed in here, I have some staple items that are much cheaper at Costco-- but I have to go in with a list and really stick to it. And I usually come out swearing after dodging the people who haunt the sample carts like extras from Night of the Living Dead.

If you haven't checked out out Costco on YouTube, you should.
posted by BibiRose at 7:27 AM on April 27, 2012

We got a bunch of dry write markers and just write what we have on the freezer - makes planning Costco/BJs trips so much easier!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:33 AM on April 27, 2012

Ghiradelli triple choc brownie mix

oh god how could I forget this the triple is for "triple amounts of whatever illegal drug is clearly masquerading as an innocent brownie mix which you will then eat ALL OF despite it being large enough for an entire dorm floor"

I bake from scratch, but one time my freshmen added extra chocolate chips to this and created little lava cakes of brownie goo and man, I don't think scratch covers that kind of excitement.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was reading a book over my holiday called Cheap, which essentially never makes me want to buy anything again. Particularly shrimp. I'm someone who struggles with keeping the stuff I own down to a manageable level, and part of that is a kind of bargain mentality I was brought up with. My dad would never spend more than £5 on a pair of shoes, thought Oxfam (charity shop) books were too expensive, and would drive a 50-mile round trip (that's a long way on a small island) to visit a shop where he could pay 15p for tinned potatoes instead of 35p. My dad earned about what I do now, in a cheaper area of the country, and the mortgage was paid. There were times when we were broke, but most of the time it seemed we were pretty prosperous in comparison to my friends. Yet we only ever had one family holiday abroad, and when my dad died he, well, left a loan. A cliche, but one that led to my mother no longer owning the house in which she lives because she couldn't pay it off on a pension.

So that seems to have little to do with Costco, but I remember all these fairly stingy habits and yet the money was never there at the end of the month. It could well have gone on petrol and cigarettes, but all this 'money saving' should have saved money, and it never seemed to. As an adult - in fact, I'm still trying not to do this - I spent money on clothes in the sales, thinking I was saving money as I handed over my storecard (nothing to pay now, you say? And 20% sign-up discount?) as a student, or on buy-one-get-one-free shampoo, because I'm always going to need shampoo, right? And they're going to discontinue that body lotion that smells of nutmeg and milk! And yet none of these 'bargains' led to me really saving money. I have had a box of 'spare toiletries' since I was 18, it seemed normal, and yet the only person I know who has more shampoo, conditioner and lotion around is my friend who runs a beauty blog and gets sent stuff by PR companies. I can tell you about dozens of cosmetics that went off before I can use them, clothing that stopped fitting before I wore the old one out, and things that got eaten by moths or discarded because tastes change.

MrMippy gets annoyed when I shop mainly from the reduced-to-clear aisle at the supermarket. Because I'm saving money! I'll never have to buy fish again! And yet I never save money. You know which of my friends finally managed to buy her own house this year, at 30? The one who grew up genuinely poor, too strong-minded to care about going to a school full of very middle-class people, and saved as much as she could in the bank, not on FMCG. It made me think a lot. I still think it's 'wasteful' to throw out something I can use, but once I get through my 'back up' shampoo, lotion and mascara, I won't be buying more until I'm scraping the tube.

Warehouse stores aren't really a thing here so much (as essexjan says it's really dependent on circumstances, and in London at least few people really have cars) and neither is couponing, but I did watch Extreme Couponing with some fascination. American houses are so big, and nobody seemed to rent, and they had hours per week to spend on saving themselves hundreds of dollars. It looked brilliant. Until I thought about the stuff above, and realised how depressing it would be to have more mouthwash than you could ever actually use.
posted by mippy at 7:42 AM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

We do, however, have market stalls here that sell off out of date food. The one where my mother lives, in a poor area, is phenomenally busy, and has been before the current recession. There's even an online version.
posted by mippy at 7:48 AM on April 27, 2012

Also: these places aren't great for people living singly. I live in a shared house - my food storage space is one freezer drawer, two shelves in a cupboard and a shelf in the fridge. That and my nearest big supermarket being a walk through the park away - not ideal in winter evenings - means I'm shanghaied into going to the smaller, more expensive supermarkets. It's a massive pain in the arse.
posted by mippy at 7:58 AM on April 27, 2012

See the movie "Idiocracy" to see where Costco is going. Welcome to Costo; I love you.
posted by millipede at 8:08 AM on April 27, 2012

I find giant stores like that overwhelming. They are too big with too much choice and it short-circuits my brain and I get locked up in decision-making circles.

Well then, you should go to Costco. They specialize in reduction of choice; in fact, one of the many things I love about them. The stores are large, yes, but for a given class of item there will be quite limited choice, and typically all the choices will be reasonable quality and reasonably differentiated.

We don't necessarily want to run around and shop for the absolute best buy, but want some assurance what we are paying is not way out of line. We like quality things. I think Costco has us dead in its demographic sites.
posted by Bovine Love at 8:08 AM on April 27, 2012

Reading through, I think the "weird Costco hate" has a lot to do with economic class and household budget. As someone else pointed out, saving money this way is something that requires upfront investment to do, and Costco's customers are high-end and high-income, with average household income in 2008 over $75,000 a year.

Many of you have convinced me you can buy a few basic staples and earn your membership fee back and even come out ahead - that's great, for those who can pony up the membership fee and limit themselves to only purchasing the things they are really doing better on than at other places they can shop, and can advance the money for a bulk item rather than pay for that product in smaller quantities more frequently - what SpaceKitty called "the high price of being broke" and what social scientists call the poverty premium.

I have no doubt that a lot of people are able to do this, or perhaps even that I should do it, but at the same time I think it's unrealistic to imagine that that sort of customer is what the business model is built on. They are not making their money or driving their system with frugal budget shoppers who tightly limit their shopping lists and make only planned purchases - those folks are essentially their free riders.

There is a fascinating 2004 Coriolis report here about the Costco business model. Among the notes:
“The Costco concept is aimed at college educated households, with $70,000 to $80,000 per year household income, and with two cars. It's a completely different business model than Wal-Mart.” Mark Husson, analyst, Merrill Lynch, April 2002

“Unfortunately, people with low income cannot afford to shop at Costco.” Neil Currie, analyst, UBS Warburg, April 2003

“There's an old story they tell at Costco Wholesale Corp.: A Costco customer goes into one of the chain's warehouses and sees Polo Ralph Lauren shirts that go for $60 retail selling for $37. The customer says, "I'll take four in white and one in blue.“ A customer of rival Sam's Club sees the same display and says, "I don't care how good a shirt it is, I'm not spending that much.” Puget Sound Business Journal, July 2003

“I think it's the merchandising effort, as well as who we go after in terms of our member. Our member tends to be a higher-end member, both small business owners and managers, as well as higher-end consumers, and our merchandising efforts reflect who our members are.” Richard Galanti, CFO, Costco, September 200

“Time was when only the great unwashed shopped at off-price stores. But warehouse clubs attracted a breed of urban sophisticates— detractors would call them yuppie scum—attuned to what retail consultant Michael Silverstein calls the "new luxury.“ These shoppers eschew Seiko watches for TAG Heuer; Jack Nicklaus golf clubs for Callaway; Maxwell House coffee (it goes without saying) for Starbucks.” Fortune, November 2003

“The richer people are, the more they like to save.” Sol Price, Founder, Price Club, December 1988

On capitalizing on the impulse purchase: “We will sell anything apart from live animals.” Paul Moulton, MD, Costco Europe, June 1993"

“They may go in for a steak, but they probably come out with a bottle of booze and a TV set to boot.” Bo Cheadle, analyst, Montgomery Securities, May 199

“Our customers don't drive 15 miles to save on a jar of peanut butter. They come for the treasure hunt.” Jim Sinegal, CEO, Costco, November 2003
And the array of product choices is really only minimally geared to basic, unprocessed healthy food items that you need to live, despite the fact that many people here may do well shopping for just those items. When I go with my folks, that's not what they exclusively buy, and that's not what I see others exclusively buying, for the most part. I have a feeling an analysis of the actual purchases in the store would show that not many people are buying plain foods. Oh, I don't have to just have a feeling - there's a breakdown. 12% of sales are fresh food. Another 21% are "dry and industrially packaged food" which includes rice and oats but also pop tarts, ramen noodles, brownie mixes, and potato chips.

So I get the idea that shopping there can confer an individual benefit that it makes sense ot exploit. At the same time, observing it in cool blood and thinking critically about it isn't necessarily "hate." It's possible even to enjoy its individual benefits while being critical of its role in the food system. THe Coriolis report describes thought-provoking incidents of Costco's work with suppliers to drive price down and undersell the usual wholesale price to groceries. This isn't a value-neutral act, any more than is Wal-Mart's pressuring manufacturers to produce each unit ever more cheaply, which results in shortcuts and weaker supports for labor and, so often, moving jobs overseas. Pushing suppliers to provide food products for lower than base cost is one of the key actions that exacerbates the downward spiral of food pricing, which has a waterfall effect on food production - exploited labor, increased use of cheap filler ingredients, production shortcuts, lower commodity prices and increased federal subsidies. They're just one company and one part of this system, and supermarkets also play an enormous part in skewing the food system to this sort of production, but there's no reason not to acknowledge that Costco's purchasing volume and its approaches, like Wal-Mart's, are the type that define the frontier and continue to set new standards for American food price expectations.
posted by Miko at 8:18 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm a Costco customer in San Francisco, which seems kind of like a city that rejects the very idea of a mega-store. However, our membership comes in pretty handy for our three-person household, even though we only go every month or so.

The most important lesson of Costco, frankly, is that you probably shouldn't get all your food there. There are lots of bulk food items I don't consider particularly healthy... especially in my case, where I avoid eating much in the way of processed carbs or red meat. Lots of prices for non-staple items are no better than what you would get elsewhere in more convenient, smaller portions.

Most of what I do eat is vegetables and fruits, which I disproportionately get at some very inexpensive produce markets in San Francisco, either on the Mission or in Chinatown. Just scored some very nice oranges at 20 cents/lb, med. artichokes at 4/dollar, med. avocados @ 50 cents, 2 large heads of cauliflower or four broccoli crowns for a buck, etc. Most of what I eat is unprocessed, unrefined, and usually costs under 50 cents a lb. I supplement that with a weekly trip to a discount grocery store, where I get other things like yogurt, tofu, seafood, sauces, seasonings, etc. I also occasionally go to Asian markets for some of their basics. I make lots of soups, curries, hummus, a wide variety of healthy dips, and lots of simple, tasty dishes.

That said, we do alright for ourselves at Costco, and make up the membership cost several times over.

What do we get?
1> Household staples. Soy milk, peanut butter, almond butter, raw almonds, brown rice, coconut milk (for curries and soups), chicken broth, eggs/egg substitute, butter, grated cheese. I'm a big time shopper in price per unit / price per ounce, and Costco consistently does better on these items. Certainly far better than the major supermarkets.
2> Cat food and litter. Both cost considerably less than at Walmart or Petco for a brand we actually like, in amounts that are quite manageable for two cats.
3> Gas. Costco consistently has lower prices for gas than anything nearby. Usually about a dollar a tankful less. We drive less than we did, but try to fill up when we go there.
4> Household items. Paper towels, t.p., soap, laundry detergent... but also shampoo, vitamins, pain meds, etc.

We don't have a huge apartment, but we do have an extra pantry cabinet, a tall plastic storage rack in our kitchen, and hanging ikea shelving in our bathroom. It all fits just fine, and, by buying in bulk occasionally, it allows us to go to places like Safeway less often, which saves us time and money.

Going to a "one stop shop" -- any one stop shop -- for all your food needs isn't a good idea, either financially or healthwise. Our supermarkets push inexpensive processed foods, while oftentimes charging us considerably more for the unprocessed foods they, in part, came from. Your goal should be to prioritize your shopping to make room in your life for those things that are best for you, ideally at the best prices possible... and that's a goal that's normally not what your local supermarket might have in mind.
posted by markkraft at 8:19 AM on April 27, 2012

But people do it because their high streets no longer have a range of places to buy things, or because they work full-time. When I get off work, I have the choice between Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose or the M+S food store. No markets, butchers or bakers are open at that time - and in the area where I live and work, such things tend toward artisan - nice for a treat, unsustainable for every day. I rarely have weekends free to do my food shopping, as I'm often out of town, so like most people in cities here it's a case of going to the Tesco Metro which stocks fewer lines at higher prices.

There was an independent supermarket opened by my office, which is a worker's co-op - you work for four hours per month (I think) to become a member and have access to discounts. The area has a lot of fairly affluent office workers (we're near several barrister's chambers) but also a few council housing blocks filled with people who cannot afford the prices at the nearest big supermarket, Waitrose. Before long there were complaints from locals who said that it was fine to have a choice between three types of sourdough, but where were the frozen chips and the cheap apples that people who lived there actially wanted?
posted by mippy at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2012

Drink the kool aid, we've got plenty more!

With this 55-gallon drum of kool aid, I've got enough for the next decade!
posted by gimonca at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2012

We go to Costco for almonds, Gouda cheese, toilet paper. Croissants as a special treat (sliced horizontally when stale they also make incredible French toast). Also cook books. At Christmas we get toys for the kids. And Quality Street chocolates.

Somehow we always spend two or three hundred dollars at a time.
posted by Dragonness at 8:37 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Our customers don't drive 15 miles to save on a jar of peanut butter. They come for the treasure hunt." Jim Sinegal, CEO, Costco, November 2003

That's a great quote. Look at the thread here--a lot of it isn't about the products, it's about the game of figuring out what to get, where the deals are, what the tastiest morsels are. The shopping-tainment aspects of it. Even the muted ironies of it (Kirkland caviar! Alongside 50-pound bags of sugar!) pull you into the game. Well played, Costco, well played.
posted by gimonca at 8:39 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

For obsessive airline-miles-hoarders like myself, Costco is useful inasmuch as it carries American Airlines gift cards at 10% off ($269.99 for a $300 card). Combine that with a suitable route discount, and you got yourself a deal brewing. For example, I'm flying SFO-DFW-EWR in early May for an effective $220 -- a trip that will additionally net me almost 9000 miles with current promotions. (The cards also provide an easy way to meet minimum spends during a credit card churn.) Of course, you have to be strategic about it, since some cards offer 3x on travel expenditures, plus year-end points rebates, but that's a whole other thing. Oh god, I'm starting to grind my teeth. Don't get me started.
posted by milquetoast at 8:56 AM on April 27, 2012

One of my favorite really surprising things to buy at our local Costco is these big boxes of Korean roasted sea weed packs. Each pack has a wonderful snack sized serving of roasted seaweed (that I really love) and Costco sells boxes of like 24 of them.

My work Costco and home Costco (same city) are quite different. I wonder how they tune the inventory to local tastes.
posted by Bovine Love at 8:57 AM on April 27, 2012

Diapers, wipes, cat litter & food, blueberries is big containers when available, trash bags, red wine, yoghurt and every now and then big(get) ticket item like the playground set last night.

Playground set was comparable in price to Home Depot, etc., but seemed to be sturdier and have more features (slide and climbing wall vs. one or the other, etc.).
posted by zeikka at 9:04 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our household used to use Costco a lot when we were based in NY (we lived very close to the warehouse in Queens, near the Noguchi museum) but on moving to Canada we found it makes far less sense. With higher prices, less of a range even beyond the limited choices Costco US offers and the fact they don't sell beer (in Ontario) it doesn't work out for us. Plus being able to shop elsewhere at 10 o'clock on a tuesday night and not have to deal with the kids and the snackers and the godawful lineups is a massive plus.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:04 AM on April 27, 2012

The more I hear about how depressing the produce departments are in other places in the world, the more I think that sprouting is a pretty good answer for a lot of problems. Very affordable too.
posted by markkraft at 9:27 AM on April 27, 2012

Even as a bachelor buying sane amounts of food, a $55 Costco membership pays for itself within months. 2.5 pounds of Tillamook Sharp Cheese for around $9 (Safeway will gouge you for at least $12 on a 2 pound package), great prices on milk, bread/tortillas, baking supplies, and cat litter. Amazingly high quality in their meat department, and don't forget gasoline savings and their incredibly lenient return policy.

My local Costco even started stocking cases of Old Rasputin's Imperial Stout for $35 (this 9% ABV monster usually goes for $8-$10 for a 4-pack at Safeway and liquor stores). And who doesn't want a case of Mexican Coca-Cola for $18? A few sips and you're transported back to the early 1980s before HFCS turned soda pop into toxic swill.
posted by porn in the woods at 9:47 AM on April 27, 2012

One of my favorite really surprising things to buy at our local Costco is these big boxes of Korean roasted sea weed packs. Each pack has a wonderful snack sized serving of roasted seaweed (that I really love) and Costco sells boxes of like 24 of them.

This! My son eats these like they're candy - except they're actually healthy and good for him.

I hit up Costco about once a month, usually for more "staple" type stuff, but they also have great stuff for school lunches (cans of V8 fusion 100% juice, big boxes of tangerines, baybel cheese, cheese sticks, etc).

I'm a "list shopper" and I almost never impulse buy, so Costco is always a good deal for me. As for storage, most of the stuff goes so quickly it's hardly an issue.
posted by dotgirl at 10:08 AM on April 27, 2012

I go for the staple foodstuffs, but I stay to gawk at the five-foot-high polymer resin garden urns.
posted by bendybendy at 10:31 AM on April 27, 2012

Interesting. I'm well out of their $70-$80k target market, being a broke grad student, but I still find my costco membership to be worth it. They have super-premium dog food for $30/40lbs compared to my local petco at $53/30lbs. That alone pays for the membership fee.

Costco carries a decent selection of cheese as well.

Basically, I feel like costco is worth it for two classes of things:

1) Staples, especially nonperishables (although I agree with the toilet paper being too large)

2) Items where quality matters to you. I can get cheese cheaper elsewhere, but I can't get cheese of the same quality for anything near their price. I can get pesto elsewhere, but their quality is excellent.
posted by zug at 10:38 AM on April 27, 2012

We have Costco in the UK too, although membership is restricted to (a) people running their own businesses and (b) certain classes of professionals (e.g. teachers, lawyers, dentists).

Or, if you visit the US, join there. The membership is transferable. We got a friend a UK Costco membership this way.
posted by marmot at 10:47 AM on April 27, 2012

I don't fall in the target demographic either, but I've maintained my membership through starving student, unemployed, underemployed, and making-good-money periods in my life.

I understand the poverty premium, and how you have to make money to save money. But it would be false economy to give up something that pays for itself so consistently and saves me money on top of that, no matter how poor I am.

I used to have my own business membership, but now I piggyback on a friend's. We went from regular membership to executive level for the yearly rebate, which always pays for the membership. All savings after that are gravy.

Here's another thing that is not widely known: You have to get a member to buy them for you, but anyone can shop at Costco without membership using Costco cash cards.
posted by caryatid at 10:58 AM on April 27, 2012

Well then, you should go to Costco. They specialize in reduction of choice; in fact, one of the many things I love about them. The stores are large, yes, but for a given class of item there will be quite limited choice, and typically all the choices will be reasonable quality and reasonably differentiated.

Oh, I know the choice per item is limited. Trouble is there are so many different kinds of items. I get frozen in a "should I get this/do I need this/is this even a good deal" loop as I look at mega packages of whatever or discounted doodads, and the next thing I know I'm wandering out in a daze with a cart full of crap that I don't need and missing several items on my list. Sometimes it gets so bad in mega stores that I wander aimlessly then leave without buying anything. Drives my wife crazy. So, it's best for me and my pocketbook to stick to stores that carry just food when I'm food shopping, that sort of thing. Know yer limits, I guess.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:18 AM on April 27, 2012

Non-suburbanite here! Did my first ever Costco shop on the weekend, carefully price-checked and purchased $210 worth of goods. Compared these to the grocery spreadsheet I keep using the cheapest sale prices I have seen at our regular supermarket.


Costco $210

Supermarket $328 (for EXACTLY the same stuff)

posted by Cosine at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2012

I'm very fond of going to the Costco on Los Feliz, off the 5. Where else can you see multi-generational Korean, Armenian, Chinese Anglo and Latin families, pushing huge carts filled with food, electronics and toys for the kids--it's Capitalismland.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2012

Costco is one of those places. I don't go often, but I always feel like I get my money's worth there.

When I was single, my friends and I would split packages. Now, I buy my food at Farmers Markets.

Yes, good coupon shopping will always be cheaper than Costco. But as someone said upthread, you can't beat the prices on their Drugs. Also, it's one place I can get Borghese products.

My husband and I got our wedding rings at Costco.

I like buying things there because you get a bunch of stuff thrown in free. We bought our Hoover there ten years ago and we still haven't run out of bags! We got a friend a Krurig there and it came with 120 pods, and one of those baskets you can put your own coffee in, and it was less expensive than anywhere else.

Do I buy food there? Not usually. But if you're having a party you'd be an idiot not to. I can cater the whole thing with tasty, yummy treats at Costco. Alcohol is a good price. Wines and beers are too. Soda. Not so much.

It's fun to shop at Costco!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:36 PM on April 27, 2012

One of my favorite items from Costco is a huge pack of delicious Macadamia nuts. Last summer they were out for the longest time and I was bummed! I was even more bummed when I read about 10 Items from Kauai's Costco that Your Costco Doesn't Carry (unless you go to the one on Maui I guess.)
posted by vespabelle at 1:45 PM on April 27, 2012

Non-suburbanite here! Did my first ever Costco shop on the weekend, carefully price-checked and purchased $210 worth of goods. Compared these to the grocery spreadsheet I keep using the cheapest sale prices I have seen at our regular supermarket.


Costco $210

Supermarket $328 (for EXACTLY the same stuff)

I'm not trying to be snarky, but watch and see if you don't end up throwing some of it away by the end of the experiment. I get burnt by this over and over again. "Oh wow, these Kirkland fishsticks are great." [weeks later, box is half empty] "I never want to look at these things again."
posted by gjc at 2:11 PM on April 27, 2012

jamaro: "The last Safeway chicken I purchased was small enough to stuff inside the Costco chicken"

A chichicken, if you will.
posted by boo_radley at 2:22 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not sure if the other wholesale clubs operate this way, but at BJ's the optical area is not restricted to members-only. I have a membership, but last time I bought glasses there the lady said that anyone can actually go in and buy glasses from them.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 2:39 PM on April 27, 2012

I'm not trying to be snarky, but watch and see if you don't end up throwing some of it away by the end of the experiment. I get burnt by this over and over again. "Oh wow, these Kirkland fishsticks are great." [weeks later, box is half empty] "I never want to look at these things again."

I got:

Toilet Paper
Paper Towel
Ground Beef
Canned Tomatoes
Frozen Pizza
Clif Bars

I'm not too worried.
posted by Cosine at 2:44 PM on April 27, 2012

And if your really worried about getting your money's worth, there's the online deal for One Year of Food for $999. 4866 servings, including 42 servings of taco flavored textured vegetable protein.
posted by bendybendy at 3:47 PM on April 27, 2012

Cosine's is a great example. You were able to save $118 considered annually, but in order to do so you had to put up $255. That kind of cash flow isn't available to everyone - and if you have a $60 a week food budget, then you really can't use it for, say, 1/4 of what you purchased and just bring home canned tomatoes and parmesan, say. You have to bring home things that will recombine into meals that can be eaten that week.

Believe me, I don't contest bulk buying as a strategy. It's a great way to control the budget and a triumph over the poverty premium, once you can get there. It's just a strategy that only works in homes where there is a regular surplus.
posted by Miko at 6:52 PM on April 27, 2012

Cambozola for $10 / pound is enough to keep me a loyal Costco customer. But also: blueberries, dried fruit, dental floss, Kleenex, juice, and pillow-sized bags of baby kale.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:24 PM on April 27, 2012

Costco in Japan is amazing. I became a member because I wanted to get a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It cost $100 less than anywhere else, so I paid off my membership on the same day. The baby carriage was also $100 cheaper. The oregano I bought was 90% cheaper than regular stores. Not "90% the price of competitors" but "90% less than the price of competitors". What I spent $10 on would have cost $100 anywhere else in Japan. Non-sugar sweetener is about 80% cheaper.

My wife is also very impressed with the quality of the avocado and zucchini. Much better quality than what you get in a regular supermarket, and cheaper, to boot.

Plus, they have excellent prepared meals. The idea of "going to CostCo but having nothing for dinner" is pretty alien to us, as going to CostCo means having pizza for lunch and then Korean BBQ or Mexican enchilada wraps for dinner.
posted by Bugbread at 2:41 AM on April 28, 2012

Costco now has a store in my country, about 8 miles from the CBD of the biggest city. Judging from the catalogs I have seen locally, and the comments in this thread, I think the model is a bit strange.
For almost any resident of Sydney, better quality items are available closer, and cheaper prices. I can almost, if I squint, imagine it might be a reasonable option in the US, but I can't truly see it. Looking at, for example, a Krogers weekly flyer, they clearly have specials cheaper than Costco normal prices.
All I can assume is there is a class of American consumer who favour very highly convenience and cheap prices, and are not prepared to compromise either in any way, so they will not look at special price flyers, or vary their shopping schedule, but care enough about prices to drive to Costco.
It's a weird space, but apparently it exists.
posted by bystander at 5:46 AM on April 28, 2012

I'm not sure which thread you are reading. Many many people have said in this thread that the prices are comparable and the stores are close by. It may not be the case in Sydney, or at least where you live there. Perhaps Costco has broken their model there.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

bystander: "All I can assume is there is a class of American consumer who favour very highly convenience and cheap prices, and are not prepared to compromise either in any way, so they will not look at special price flyers, or vary their shopping schedule, but care enough about prices to drive to Costco."

If we're going by "let's base our conclusions about other countries based on our own countries", then let me say that Costco is wildly cheaper than other supermarkets here in Japan, so all I can assume is that there is a class of Australian consumer who favour very highly expensive prices, so they will not go to Costco, because they would prefer to spend far more money at their local supermarket.

Or, you know, we might not assume that prices at Costcos, or at regular supermarkets, are the same in every country. Just an idea.
posted by Bugbread at 4:39 PM on April 28, 2012

And if your really worried about getting your money's worth, there's the online deal for One Year of Food for $999. 4866 servings, including 42 servings of taco flavored textured vegetable protein.

Wow. For a while I've had a joke I use among friends about starting up a fast food chain called Sack-O-Food, which would promise a bag of something technically edible but offering no other promises, at a steep discount. Now it turns out the Omniscient Marketplace is ahead of me; one could conceivably run such an outfit for at least a few days with just one One Year Of Food (OYOF), and probably at a substantial profit.
posted by JHarris at 7:23 PM on April 28, 2012

One Year of Food for $999

This is survivalist stuff, right? Now that is mysterious to me -- where would you be while consuming your Year of Food with whatever hand-picked fellow survivors of the apocolypse you went in on this deal with? Are there, like, reavers trying to get in and eat your Year of Food and also you?

Buying a gun with enough bullets for each of you seems like a relatively cheering prospect.
posted by palliser at 7:52 PM on April 28, 2012

The last Safeway chicken I purchased was small enough to stuff inside the Costco chicken

So, you're saying the Safeway chicken skipped the growth hormone station?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:47 AM on April 29, 2012

Related to that: I'm always entertained when I get in line with someone stocking up a boat for a trip fishing in Alaska (I eavesdrop as well as look at other people's shopping). They use the big flat carts, not the shopping carts, and buy so much meat. So much soda. So much milk. So many bags of lettuce. It's fascinating.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:03 PM on April 29, 2012

We joined costco recently, and like many others have mentioned you just have to be smart about it. We have a list of staples we go there for, and that's it.
We've found the best deals are on: pine nuts, quinoa, peppers, soap/detergent, vitamins, olive oil, garbage & ziploc bags, etc etc

Some of those we only need once a year, but even with that short list we'll have saved enough to justify the membership cost. It did require cleaning up the back room in the basement to form a small pantry to hold the stuff, but that was a project in need of an excuse anyways.
posted by Theta States at 11:34 AM on April 30, 2012

Or, you know, we might not assume that prices at Costcos, or at regular supermarkets, are the same in every country

Well, OK. But there are comments up thread specifically saying Costco is no cheaper than supermarket prices in the US, and that gels with prices here. It's a shame supermarkets are so dear in Japan that driving to one of a few large Costco's which charge a membership to shop there is economical.
posted by bystander at 5:37 PM on May 1, 2012

It's definitely not true that Costco is no cheaper than supermarket prices in the US; retail supermarket prices are way more than a 15% markup! What some people are saying is that if you meal-plan around coupons (meaning you look at the week's specials and decide what to eat/cook for the entire week based on that), and only buy garbage bags/paper towels/toilet paper/canned goods when they're on sale and on coupons (storing the extras), and are flexible about brands in terms of buying what's on sale and on coupons, you can do better than Costco. I'm sure they're right.

But if, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who suddenly realizes you've just used your last trash bag, and a toddler and a preschooler are vomiting all over your house, you will walk to the drugstore and buy trash bags for literally 4 times what you pay at Costco and curse your stupid failure to buy them last time you went to Costco. Hypothetically speaking.
posted by palliser at 5:50 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

The thing that's interesting to me in this thread is that costco is a way to put your money where your mouth is if you believe in paying people well in a good work environment, above and beyond any savings (which, again, for me are substantial). And yet.
posted by maxwelton at 9:10 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I want to spend my money to fund ethical labour I shop at the local farmers' market.
posted by GuyZero at 9:27 PM on May 1, 2012

I should clarify that it's not like I'm negative on Costco or anything but they don't have a monopoly on reasonable labour practices.
posted by GuyZero at 9:44 PM on May 1, 2012

I'm sure they're right.

Yeah I've seen those Extreme Couponer shows and that takes a bit of time to stay on top of. Also in Canada we don't have "double coupon days" and crazy stuff like that.

When I also factor in the time required, Costco saves a decent sum.
posted by Theta States at 5:58 AM on May 2, 2012

If I want to spend my money to fund ethical labour I shop at the local farmers' market.

Our local farmer's markets are (a) extremely expensive and (b) the farmers are all "hobby farmers," no one is strictly making a living farming. I have nothing against that at all, but to place a person who works for a good salary in (say) program management and also grows exotic carrots in some raised beds to sell at the Saturday market in the same shoes as someone who stocks shelves at the local Costco because they need the work...dunno.
posted by maxwelton at 11:28 AM on May 2, 2012

« Older Ender's Game. Harrison Ford. Movie.   |   An American Original Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments