Mr. Smith Goes to Costco
It may surprise some of you that until last month, I had never set foot inside a Costco. I never had reason to save money by spending huge gobs of it, and having to pay up front for the privilege. I only want a can of chicken noodle soup. I doubt I’d live long enough to go through a whole case of it, no matter the savings. For single people on a limited income, I don’t think Costco works very well. They can’t afford to get those great savings, because they can’t afford a case of everything they need. Also, my feelings about this retail giant are a bit conflicted. On the one hand, they are proving that a business model of paying people a decent wage can be profitable. Hence, their employees work harder and stay longer, and I commend them for that. On the other hand, they pumped $30 million into a ballot initiative to privatize the state’s liquor industry. I don’t buy much hard liquor, but when I do, it costs me half again as much as it used to, and that sticks in my craw a little.
At any rate, I have a friend, Karen, who is recovering from surgery, so I drove her around to do her shopping. One of the places was the Costco. This thing was enormous! The parking lot was the size of something outside a sports stadium, and it was packed. Because she still uses a walker, she has a handicapped sticker, and although there were lots of those spaces, it still took us some cruising to find a place. Approaching the entrance, which was tall and wide to fit the scale of this behemoth, we were greeted by a guy with a thousand yard smile. “May I see your Costco card?” She showed the card and in we went. The first thing I saw was a huge display of flat screen TVs. It looked like one of those multiple mirror telescopes. Oh good, at least I can watch some of the World Cup. Nope. Every screen was showing the same thing. I’m guessing it was an episode of “Game of Thrones,” but it could have been any one of the many other sword and sorcery . . . oh, excuse me. I must have dozed off for a moment.
Next, I became aware of the vast, cavernous space. I experienced something like this in the gothic cathedrals of France, but there I felt awed by the power and beauty that faith can inspire. Here, it was more like some futuristic vision of corporate omnipotence and efficiency. It took me back to a scene in the movie “Idiocracy.” The hero, having been transported 500 years into the future, is standing with his attorney, looking down into a valley at a giant Costco which must be acres on a side. “I got my law degree here,” the attorney says proudly.
We passed aisle after aisle of shelf upon shelf of shrink-wrapped pallet after pallet of goods, in every direction, receding and finally fading away into the distance. Apparently there wasn’t a shuttle available to the grocery section. This is what I call industrial shopping on steroids. Now I understand the expression “Volume, Volume, Volume!” After what seemed like days, we got to the food. Inside row after row of high cases were huge packages of hamburger patties, boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, hot dogs, sausage, all shrink-wrapped tight enough to squeeze out whatever essence they might have contained. I’ll bet if you took all that shrink wrap and other plastic packaging in this place and wadded it up together, you could fill the New Orleans Superdome. Patiently, I pushed the cart around after Karen, walkering just ahead, among a horde of other shoppers, each with their carts. The crowd was so thick I wondered why there weren’t traffic signals overhead. I found myself wondering if I could find any kind of food here that you could buy just one of, and then I spotted it. They still sold milk by the gallon! I’m convinced it’s only because milk is so perishable, or you’d have to buy it by the 55-gallon drum. But think of the huge savings! All I could think about was how soon we could get the hell out of there. Everything looked cold and sterile, and none of the food appealed to me in the slightest, not even the numerous sample tables. At least they didn’t make you take a dozen samples. Of course, just an hour earlier I’d wolfed down a Belgian waffle with strawberries, whipped cream, real maple syrup, and sausage links, so that may have factored in. It was altogether one of the more unpleasant shopping experiences I can remember, and I wasn’t even the one doing the shopping.
One thing I did like was the diversity of shoppers. There were yuppies, buppies, hipsters, grizzled geezers in beards, elderly Asian ladies, business men in ties, and I think I saw a few Muslim women in scarves or hijabs. It was quite a crowd, very middle class. This was different than say, Trader Joe’s, where I had the impression that most of these people were all doing just fine, thank you. It is located in a fairly ritzy area, though, and that may have something to do with it. I wasn’t impressed by some of their prices, but they do have a great selection of interesting stuff.
I don’t hate Costco, it’s just that this retail giant known for savings has only cost me money, in occasional higher liquor prices. No, that’s not entirely accurate. Some years ago, a friend got me a terrific set of Pirelli steel belted radials there. I think most of my good friends have Costco cards, and they love the place. How can I argue with good prices, consistent quality products, and a terrific business model whose workers are better paid, happier, and therefore more productive? It’s not for me, that’s all. There used to be a couple Red Apple markets in my city. One was close to where I lived and I went there often, even though their prices were higher. The people seemed friendly, the customers were all from the neighborhood, there was a community feeling to it. I wanted to help them stay in business in whatever meager way I could. Alas, they’re long gone, fallen victim to mega food corporations like WalMart, Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer, and let’s see, have I forgotten anyone? Oh yes, Costco.