The Costco Experience

I went to Costco the other day with a friend; I’d found myself there previously, once or twice, in similar circumstances. There was something about the place beyond the obvious that had kept me away. The obvious being, first, that it has an almost religious-military bent about requiring “membership,” and one isn’t even allowed to go in to see whether it might be worth signing up, membership carrying a fairly hefty $55 annual fee. Is the freedom to go into a retail store to decide whether you’re going to make a purchase not a basic right of consumption? Although I once got into a bit of an argument with one of the “bouncers” about this illogical policy—don’t, or can’t, they check for membership when and if you actually buy something?—this barrier was circumvented pretty simply, by turning around and entering through the exit, which in size is closer to a delivery bay entrance than a regular set of retail doors.

Another aspect of the lack of appeal for me is the obvious, and arguably crass, mass consumption represented by the place. Even in the middle of the city—there is a Costco nestled underground, or under roads and condos, near the sports palaces in Vancouver—it seems an oasis of suburbia. American suburbia. Everything is oversized; the enormous shopping carts make me feel like I’m a child pushing a regulation-sized cart (children’s carts not having been available as long ago as when I was that young). Often-large people driving large vehicles pile in enormous quantities of stuff that they probably don’t need, or at least I can’t fathom needing myself. It’s one of those places like London Drugs: who actually buys all this stuff, and how did anyone even come up with the idea of producing it? At any rate, being single I can’t imagine ever requiring the quantities offered: even if they do have a good deal on organic quinoa, I’m not sure how to calculate when I might get through four kilograms of it. Not to mention the membership surcharge which, if you’re not spending a lot of your money there, does increase the cost of everything beyond the sticker prices. I guess that’s the point.

But what struck me this time was the apparent mood of the shoppers. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they were interested in what they were doing, let alone happy. There was a universal glumness, a grey lifeless cast to the proceedings. I shop mostly at Whole Foods, and there’s a striking difference. I wonder if this is because Whole Foods shoppers are wealthier, healthier, or—perhaps partly as a result of both—not coming down from a sugar high. I am not sure, but can say that it is an interesting, even engaging place to be: there is such a range of appealing and sometimes even exotic foods there, that cooking becomes an adventure, even—or especially—for a vegan like me. Costco doesn’t even have many of my staples, from tempeh to collard greens; it’s mostly pre-packaged and processed foods. Although Whole Foods is not as expensive as some people claim—Nesters in Gastown is far pricier, for instance—it seems to me that cost is beside the point, to an extent, if you’re not being wasteful and you can shop in an environment that doesn’t feel like a Soviet-era Russian warehouse. But then I’m willing to pay something for experience. I do this with technology and art and music and books, too. Think usability, venue, typography and paper stock; think Munro’s or Elliot Bay versus ChaptersApple Store as compared to, say, NCIX. When you’re buying retail goods, the environment and service are part of the product: it’s called customer experience. Why should shopping feel like you’re procuring for your squad in a big, unhappy army?

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