Caving in to Costco

The Costco in Long City Island

About ten years ago, they built a Costco in Long Island City, right on the East River and across the street from the Naguchi Museum and adjacent to the Socrates Sculpture Garden. I was aghast at the use of that marvelous space to house a giant box store, and never once considered shopping there.

After all, I am the quintessential New York food snob, one who worships weekly at the cheese counter at Fairway market and whose idea of an orgasmic experience is a good olive. Someone who eschews prepackaged convenience foods as if they were poison, who would rather starve (well, actually, order in) than eat what the rest of America eats. I am not an American, after all. I am a New Yorker. (That’s practically a Parisian.) And I do not shop like Americans do.

At least not until yesterday.

You see, last weekend, at my musical theater class party, I had a piece of one of the most delicious cakes I’ve ever tasted. I was surprised to learn that it was from Costco, as were all the wonderful appetizers. That was interesting, but then I found out what Costco charges for the cakes.

That was it. Like a kid being given their first hit from a schoolyard dealer, all I could think of since then was going to Costco. And yesterday, that’s what Mr. TBTAM and I did.

Mr TBTAM enters Costco

I am still reeling from the experience, which was, in truth, a bit overwhelming in a way that I don’t yet entirely understand. About halfway through the store, at a point when our cart was filled to the brim with paper towels and toilet paper and cases of beer and diet coke, and butter and two giant Nutellas and god knows what else, I just froze.

I was paralyzed and completely overwhelmed. I could buy nothing more. From that point, Mr. TBTAM and I sort of just wandered through the fresh food section, glassy-eyed, until we found our way to the check out counter, where we learned that we should have brought our own shopping bags. We paid with our debit card (they take no plastic except Amex), packed up the car and drove home. I rearranged my pantry to fit everything we bought, and now am sitting trying to understand the experience. Not unexpectedly, I have a few comments and some questions.

1. Does everything have to be so big? I understand if what you are getting is actually large (like the 30 rolls of toilet paper we bought) but why are the SD cards (which in truth are about an inch square) packaged to appear as if they are 20 times that size? The I-Tunes gift certificate package was a full foot square! I don’t understand…

2. Why do you have to pay to shop there? I would have gone long ago if there was not that $50 membership fee. Make the visit free, and you’ll suck in lots more folks like me, I promise…

3. Does one shop there on some regular basis? Or is it just a one time experience, like going to Disney World or Las Vegas? I’m a little worried about going back – I’m afraid of all the money I might spend. Between the membership fee and what we bought, we spent $350 yesterday. I keep telling myself that I saved over $100, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way right now.

4. Does anyone buy the perishables? that’s a rhetorical question – I know they do, because everything looked so fresh. But how do they do it? Does everyone but me have giant freezers? Can you really use that up that many lemons (or oranges, or red peppers) before they go bad? I figured out that for families like the one in Cheaper by the Dozen, this place makes sense. But unless I was having 100 people over for dinner, I don’t know that I can really buy quantities that large for anything perishable.

I could really use some advice here. It occurred to me that I might get together with my neighbors and friends and buy in bulk, then split the stuff up. If anyone does this, maybe you could give me some tips on how to do it smoothly.

5. The prices were so LOW. The shock factor on this was enormous for me. On average, prices were 50% less than what we are paying in the supermarkets. (Example – College Inn Chicken Broth – 50¢ compared with a dollar at the supermarket, and $1.29 at Fresh Direct.) How do they do it? I hope that my price is not ridiculously low because Costco’s employees wages are also ridiculously low. I would certainly be willing to pay another 25% in price if it meant a living wage for these folks. FYI, Most of the workers handing out the food samples did not speak English.

6. They didn’t have my toothpaste. Or my body oil. Or a small enough can of Nina tomatoes for me to ever buy. But I hear the inventory is ever changing – is that really true? If so, is the fact that the inventory changes a factor in keeping us addicted to returning? (Never mind, I just answered my own question.)

7. But they had this really big jar of honey. So, how do I use it? Right from the bottle? Or do I buy something smaller to pour it into? That would be really messy…

8. They do not carry nearly as much variety as Fairway does. Although my wallet was disappointed, I was relieved. I love shopping at Fairway.

9. Is it possible to stop in and buy milk and eggs, and not end up spending $300? I have this idea that we’ll run over once a week, and that once we have all the big bulk items in stock, we won’t be spending as much. Or am I just getting sucked in?

10. I want a big plasma screen TV.

21 Responses to Caving in to Costco

  1. Having worked retail, I can sort of answer the huge packaging for really small stuff. It’s often an attempt to thwart casual shoplifting. (Dedicated shoplifting is harder to stop, but a big package will discourage someone from casually slipping a package into a pocket.)

    My friends with teen boys seem to go through food in amazing quantities of food. Maybe that’s the answer to some of the quantity questions?

    (Disclaimer: I’ve never actually been in a Costco.)

  2. Costco used to be for business only… years and years ago before Costco and Price Club merged. So it make sense that they have gigantic items but now that majority of their customer base is a typical consumer… I don’t know why they still sell gigantic things. I guess it’s the whole low price thing.

    They are able to keep costs down because their profit margin is far below a typical retail supermarkets. But unlike other low-cost retail giants, their employees are treated well… I read a NYT article that said they are treated better than the customers/share holders.

  3. Okay, this is how I handle Costco. I buy the things I use the most of there and supplement with the regular grocery stores around my house (where every item you buy seems to be either $3 or $5). I grocery shop typically once a month there (with a few trips to the fruitmarket in between). I get the bag of chicken breasts and salmon there and maybe some other meat I can freeze that will keep. I pick up one of those huge bags of carrots, a big bag of salad to split with my husband for lunches for about 1-2 weeks, some wine, milk, OJ, a case of bottled water, chicken broth and yogurt. Perhaps I will treat myself to a tasty cake (we always order them there for graduation/birthday/baby showers) or the cheesecake. I’ve also done the party platters (veggies/meats/shrimp/sushi) for Christmas or Thanksgivings.

    Then I pick up any fruits/veggies needed at the fruitmarket for an additional $20 and then stop by my local overpriced grocery chain for triscuits, ben & jerrys, cheese, and any other things that I don’t need a hell of a lot of. I can’t imagine buying tons of perishables there.

    It sucks shopping that way for me, but I live in a city where I can sport a car relatively easily so that’s how I work it out with Costco. It’s not somewhere I go all the time, and the products do rotate there. Sometimes I will find something I absolutely love and they will d/c it, but then they add new stuff as well. I can keep my visits there to around $100, but it can get pricey if you find DVDs or books or software or something. Also, the Costcos by us all sport cheap gas stations too. I actually did flowers for my friends wedding by ordering thru floral for about $600. For us, it’s worth the $50 each year. And there is always the $1.50 hot dog and drink to eat on the way out.

    And Costco treats its employees really well (well compartively to Wal Mart or Sams club). You can check some Wiki info here: Most are paid over $10hr and get health plans and time and a half on Sunday.

    And no, I don’t work for Costco, I just like shopping there 8-).

  4. Answers to some of your questions:

    2. You pay to shop at Costco so you’ll keep going back to Costco and not schlep off to BJ’s or Sam’s — other similar warehouse stores. They all charge for their memberships. One way to save on your renewal is to check out any local credit union you can join. Mine lets me get my BJ’s membership for $15 off and for 15 months instead of 12.

    3. Once or twice a month, but I always spend at least $100.

    4. You can buy a big freezer with what you save on bulk sizes. And pay for electricity. Don’t get sucked in and buy stuff you’ll never use, though. I almost never buy the produce. I’m intimidated by the sizes, but I hadn’t thought of sharing with someone. Good idea. Too bad you don’t live closer.

    5. Wages probably aren’t a lot lower than your local grocery store. The lack of variety — that translates into lower prices because product can be stocked with forklifts instead of by hand. Also, less waste because product turns over faster.

    7. I’d have passed on the honey. We’d never use that much. Sometimes I buy the larger size knowing I’ll never use it all — just because the larger size is cheaper than the smaller one at the grocery store. Kills me to waste product, but not as much as it bothers me to waste the money.

    8. See also #5

    9. Yes. Use a list. Stick to it.

  5. Bardiac:
    Aha! Makes sense. Thanks!

    Moxie and Judy: Wow, thanks SO MUCH for your input and advice. We are really thinking about getting a small top loading freezer, and this may finally be the time to do that.

    I am so glad to hear that wages are good for Costco employees. I can’t believe sometimes how cheap things are in general, and always worry that my low prices are because some 5 year old in Thailand is making my stuff…

    We’re actually going to go through that honey – my daughter is a real tea drinker, and she used honey in her tea. Plus, we use it in salad dressings and such as well. And it keeps really well.

    Thanks again, guys!

    Dr Wes: Aren’t you a sweetheart, to tag me in such a nice way. I’ll have to get on this one straight away. (Can I tag you back?)

  6. I was just there yesterday. I love Costco.

    Apparently Costco’s CEO is out of this world. This is a great article on him and why Costco is successful:

    Costco is a learning process – you only have to pitch one large bucket of mesculan mix to learn what you will go through between visits. I find that the grapes, strawberries, grape tomatoes, carrots, fresh mozzarella, broccoli, lettuce can be used completely and stay fresh during the summer when we naturally want to eat more coollng foods. I tend to buy less produce during the colder months.

    I’m a big fan of the 3-pak organic milk but no I’ve never even considered a 3lb tub of cream cheese – but if you had a bunch of cheese cakes to bake – you’re golden.

    I have an extra fridge in my garage which comes in handy for both fridge/freezer storage.

    I have noticed that over time they will package a variety of items together. Instead of a giant box of one cereal, there will be 3 smaller bags of different cereals inside. They also seem to have a new organic item on the shelves every time I go.

    I absolutely love their salmon and you can create an amazing cheese plate from the cheese section. I also go to and upload photos for developing a day before I shop and then pick them up once there. A great way to share digital photos with friends/family since Costcos are everywhere.

    Unfortunately in Maryland no wine/beer sales at the grocer, so I don’t buy alcohol there, but their rabit leveler corkscrew wine opening kit for $13? Everyone got them as Christmas presents 2 years ago.

    And speaking of the holidays – I do believe you could cross everyone off your list after 1 trip to Costco.

    Welcome to our world! 🙂

  7. ok… I have to look for the source of this… but I remember a story very recently about how not only do people end up spending much more at Cosco over the course of a year then they ultimately would at a regular grocery store due to impulse buying, but the huge packages of food they bring home from Cosco entice people to eat more, which in turn drives customers back to Cosco sooner to replenish their large containers of cookies, chips and honey. The result? Fatter americans with thinner wallets!
    (their cakes are incredible though!!!!)

  8. Ha! Yes, after buying ten pounds of pickles that I never ate — but such a deal! — I can relate. It is a great store though, for staples, I mean staples like paper towels and toilet paper, not staples like you buy in Staples. BTW, don’t get a plasma TV there. Much better deals at B&H photo, J&R Electronics, and if you don’t mind the idea of shopping on-line in Maine, Abe’s of Maine. Oh, and consider LCD’s as well, though I do like plasmas better and I am a videophile.

  9. Your number 5 and number 6 are effect and cause. They have lower prices, not because they have a lower profit margin (NOBODY has a lower profit margin than the grocery chains), but because they sell what they can buy at lower prices because they are selling in bulk, and they are selling merchandise that will give them favorable pricing due to lack of packaging needs and ability to process more cheaply because selling in bulk. So, you may not get your brand of toothpaste this month, but next time you go, they may have struck a deal with. The wonders of capitalism: you can pay decent wages, make money and make customers happy. Just need an raison d’etre.

  10. Costco connaisseur here. Mine is only a few minutes away, so yes, I can go in and just pick up the 1-2 things I need without spending $100. There’s a bit of a desensitization process you have to go through, and you also have to do the math to make sure you’re actually getting a good deal price-wise. Sometimes it isn’t as much as you think it is.

    Agree with your commenters above that it’s great for paper goods: TP, paper towels (rolls for home, multifold for office), kleenex, copy paper (office.) Also (in no particular order) batteries, cat sand, basmati rice (25 lb bag) and other non-perishables. Their big down-side, as you’ve discovered, is selection; there isn’t much. Usually no more than 1-2 brands of any given item. (Exception: cleaning supplies — half a dozen laundry detergents, for example. Too bad that’s not something that matters, although many people think it does.) If they have what you like, great. Otherwise you’re out of luck.

    I love their meat, and now refuse to buy meat at the grocery. I made the mistake of picking up a steak at Safeway the other day and was very disappointed. Costco definitely has restaurant quality meats.

    Restaurants, BTW, are a large part of their customer base. They’re the ones who can go through 25 lbs of sugar, 50 lbs of flour and gallon jugs of oil.

    Welcome to my world.

  11. Linda: So great to hear the CEO is a good guy. My sister emailed me that she heard he caps his salary. Who is this guy? I’m gonna google him…

    Kathryn: My concerns exactly, I’ve been contemplating buying a bigger fridge with a real freezer so we can save money, then I realized that th fridge would cost me money – I Have this sinking feeling that in the end, we spend what we spend, just shift around the cost centers and stores we spend it at so we feel better about spending it.

    Rob: Didn’t know J&R made it up your way too. Love that place. And never heard of Abe’s – have to check it out…

    Anaonymous – thanks for the comment (and the use of the French…)

    #1: I’m not suprised about the meats – what I saw looked fresh and lovely…

    You really buy the 25 pound bag of rice? Wow….

  12. Another Costco addict here!

    I get my gas there almost exclusively as it’s the cheapest gas in town. As a bonus, the attendant at our local store will do the entire fill procedure for you (excepting the paying part, of course!).

    I go on a weekly basis; my local supermarket is 5 minutes away, so that’s my second stop to fill in whatever Costco didn’t have or stocks too-big for my purposes sizes.

    Costco sells stuff that literally cannot be found anywhere else around here — stuffed grape leaves, for example. I find designer clothes there, too. We actually determined that the cheeses sold in the duty free shop in the Amsterdam airport are more expensive are exactly the same stuff as what Costco sells, for gosh sake!

    The meat is better than what is sold at the supermarket and produce, too. I will buy our favorite fruits/vegies there; we can finish them off in a reasonable amount of time, although I fill in smaller amounts of a few things at the supermarket. It seems like the produce I get at Costco lasts longer than the supermarket stuff.

    Having a big freezer helps alot with my Costco shopping routines. But I actually don’t overdo it and I’m pretty good and making sure that we use pretty much all of what I buy; overestimation does happen once in a while.

    The membership fee thing was resolved when I finally realized that buying an executive membership and using Costco’s American Express is the way to go. The rebate pays for more than the membership fee, so at the end of the story it is a ‘free’ membership.

  13. I’m completely crazy about Costco. They’re very highly rated on Buy Blue, a site that analyzes the political contributions of big corporations.

    I do buy their fresh produce and large packages of meat, but I have an extra freezer, which helps. I have to plan how I’ll use them up when I buy something like a big package of red peppers. I buy the lemons and limes and squeeze the juice and freeze it so the lemons don’t get wasted. I always have one of those packages with six hearts of romaine in my fridge, and it lasts about 2 weeks.

    A while back NPR did a piece about The Church of Costco, people who compare shopping at Costco to a religious experience and go there on Sunday!

  14. Actually, we usually run into everyone from choir going there after practice on Sunday (Jewish.)

    Re: Basmati rice: my kids love rice, and it doesn’t go bad.

  15. I’ve been a Costco member for 15 years now (back when it was still Price Club). Since it’s just the two of us, we only go there once every 4-5 weeks. It’s the cheapest place for my Claritin.

    And don’t get lured into buying “impulse items” – they add up pretty quickly. But $1.62 for a kosher hot dog + soda can’t be beat!

  16. Nice that you finally discovered Costco. Us surbabanites with 2.5 kids have known about its bargains for a long time. I also think it blows away BJ’s and Sam’s Club as far as goods and quality.

  17. Costco treats its employees very very well. It has the lowest turnover rate in retail at only 23% comparative to the average of 66% for retail. Employees now start at $11/hr topping out at around $19 for “service assistant”, and higher for other positions, and Costco pays for all but a little bit of the top of the line health insurance cost. It also offers many other benefits for its employees.

    No need to worry about us employees being treated unfairly 🙂 Hopefully that will make you feel better shopping at Costco, knowing that your savings doesn’t come at the employee’s expense.

  18. Perhaps a year ago there was talk that Costco was opening on the upper east side around 125th St.
    Haven’t heard further.

  19. I know you posted this awhile ago, but wanted to add something about the membership cost. For the membership price you actually get 2 cards- supposedly for husband and wife. But what we do is split the cost with one of my aunts. They don’t care that we don’t have the same last name or anything. So that makes it only $25 each per year.

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