When I went to Costco many years ago, with my sister-in-law, I couldn’t wait to evacuate. The harsh lighting and din bothered me. The mountains of merchandise and the super sized containers turned me off. As someone who appreciates thoughtfully designed displays in specialty shops, ideally uncrowded ones, I found nothing visually pleasing, enticing or artisanal about the experience. Costco seemed designed for the likes of Paul Bunyan, large families, sports teams and others who consumed outsized quantities, not single, apartment dwelling females.
I dismissed it as a place I wouldn’t go.
But, every so often, especially after moving to Colorado, I’d meet someone who was either wearing something I admired or needed or eating a delectable snack. When I asked where they found it, the response often was, “Costco.”
The more people raved about it, the more I wondered if my sensitivities and sensibilities were interfering with good eating and great deals. Costco, as it turns out, is a rare place in Colorado that sells excellent (kosher, even) whitefish salad, one of few Jewish foods I enjoy. Still, there was the pesky membership fee; did I want to spend $55 to access the occasional treat? What eventually nudged me into even considering a membership was a Facebook friend’s post; to paraphrase, she remarked that visiting Costco offered the experience of being in a melting pot, a much needed antidote to Boulder’s lack of diversity.
Last month I received an e-mail from Living Social that offered a deal on a Costco membership. Costco would throw in a $20 cash card and coupons for free merchandise worth about $30; Living Social offered a further 25% off the price. After doing the math, I realized I’d come out ahead. If I went just once, it would be worth it, even if I still couldn’t stand being there. I purchased the deal and, after the coupons arrived in the mail, I embarked on my shopping adventure on a Sunday afternoon.
After posing for the hideous, low resolution photo for the ID card, I asked the customer service employee if she could tell me, roughly, where things were located in the store. The last thing I wanted to do was wander aimlessly through the warehouse which, unlike El Camino de Santiago, lacked yellow arrows to direct the uninitiated and the easily distracted. She didn’t understand my question. Another staff member overheard and pointed to the general quadrants where I’d find food, electronics and housewares.
“Everything is labeled,” she said, as if to reassure me. That only helps if one is not overwhelmed by the sheer number of labels.
As I grabbed a crazily large cart, flashed my ID to gain entry and steered into the maze, I felt like I was betraying my Pilgrim self, who purchased only what she needed and who’d like to live with as little as possible. In the United States, “need” is a highly subjective if not elastic term for people with the basics covered. But, there on the left side, just past the ID checker, stood stacks of glass food storage containers with colorful locking lids. I “needed” them because glass, unlike plastic, doesn’t leach. Since I prepare most of my food in batches, I “needed” them to keep leftovers. Costco’s price was about half of what I’d seen online. It turned out that I also “needed” 10 pounds of organic sweet potatoes, probably 40% less expensive than in local grocery stores. Since I enjoy them and they keep for a long time, I figured they wouldn’t go to waste. I heaved a sack into my cart. Ditto for a bag of organic quinoa, whose price per pound was nearly half of what I’d seen elsewhere.
As I navigated through the paper goods canyon in search of a 30-pack of toilet paper (free with a coupon!), my ears split at what sounded like the crack of an avalanche. It was an employee stacking empty wood pallets by hurling one atop the other. Next a forklift motored by, beep-beeping like a banshie. I wished it had dawned on me to bring earplugs, just as I had on the Camino. After hoisting a half year’s worth of toilet tissue into my cart, I asked an employee where I could find whitefish salad.
“Normally it’s in the deli section, but we’re out of stock,” she said without consulting a gadget or missing a beat. I imagined her brain as a catalogue, constantly being updated with inventory. Luckily for me, her brain had inaccurate data, and I bought a container of that, too, enough to last for weeks. Since I was attending a gathering that evening, I redeemed another coupon for a free apple pie that tipped the scales at nearly five pounds.
The more I wandered through Costcoland, the more things I found that I “needed”, such as a 6-pack of electric toothbrush heads. I actually was overdue replacing mine, but I would have been content buying one, or maybe three. But the price per brush was far lower than anywhere else; that Costco processed the manufacturer rebate was a bonus, saving the hassle of mailing it in. Into my cart they went. To my surprise, Costco carries cleverly designed dish drainers, for the same price as ho-hum ones sold elsewhere, and it was something I really did need (just one). At that point, I decided to exit, rather than court temptation.
Considering I erred in making my pilgrimage to Costco on a weekend, it wasn’t unequivocally awful. Still, the sensory overload likely contributed to my subsequent disorientation. Exiting the store into the bright sun, I couldn’t remember where I had left my car. Dazed and confused, I pushed my cart around the lot for many long minutes until I spotted it. Still, despite the savings, I don’t see myself making a habit of going there, even though the drive to the store passes bucolic scenery reminiscent of Spain. Should I return, I will strategize and visit at a less crowded time (a friend suggested going during football games), park as close to the entrance as possible and pop in a pair of earplugs. Now that I know where the deli section is, I can make a beeline for the whitefish salad and depart quickly. In theory, at least.