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Costco visit

December 9, 2012

Yesterday I was in a bit of a funk.

I decided to try to get out and do something new, and since my neighbors were going to Costco, which I’d never been to (or maybe I had once but I couldn’t remember and it would have been at least 13 years ago), I invited myself to go with them. The change would do me good, I thought.

Here’s the thing about Costco which you probably already know if you shop there: it’s a rush, like taking a narcotic. I am sure that their data scientists have spent many computing hours munging through many terabytes of shopping behavior to perfect this effect [Update: an article has just appeared in the New York Times explaining this very thing].

For example, I’m on a budget, and I was planning to go for the sociological experience of it, not to buy anything. After all, I’ve already gotten my groceries for the week, and bought reasonable presents for the kids for Christmas. Nothing outrageous. So I was feeling pretty safe.

But then I got there, and I immediately came across things I didn’t know I needed until I saw them. The most ridiculous and startling version of this was my tupperware experience.

Tupperware is an essential tool in a house with three kids, because if you do the math you’ve got 15 school lunches to make per week. That’s not something you can scrounge up carelessly. So what you do is save plastic Chinese takeout containers and fill them up after dinners with things like pasta and chicken bits. Ready to go in the morning.

But when I came across the gorgeous 30-, no 42-, no 75-piece rainbow-colored tupperware kits that actually stack together beautifully, I instantaneously realized my hitherto scheme was laughably ridiculous and that I must own gorgeous tupperware right now.

This happened to me with a rainbow-colored knife set too, but I managed to hold myself back because, I argued, I already owned knives. I am not sure why that reasoning failed with the tupperware.

In fact I immediately filled up a cart with various (rainbow-colored) things I had no idea I needed until I got there ($50 for a cashmere sweater!?), and then I started wandering around the food area.

This is when my narcotic experience started to wear off. I think it was around the 6-pound block of mozzarella that I started to say to myself, wait, do I really want 6 pounds of mozzarella? I mean, it’s a great price, but won’t that take up half my fridge?

Then I started putting stuff back. It was amazingly easy to part with that stuff once the narcotic wore off. I was in deep withdrawal by the time we left the store. Paying in cash for the few items I did buy also helped.

My conclusions:

  • I totally get why people own lots of stuff they don’t need.
  • I’m sure people can get addicted to that narcotic shopping rush.
  • We should consider treating Costco as a dealer in controlled substances.
  • I have ugly tupperware and that’s okay.
Categories: musing
  1. December 9, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Ha. Places like Costco make me throw up a little (overwhelming and so, so ugly) but I get it. My Costco is probably a place like ABC downtown. Why oh why must I buy something I don’t need, every damn time!?

  2. Deane
    December 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

    My wife and I also had a similar experience in the late 80’s when we were brought by a friend to the Carrefour hypermarché (a French version of Costco) in a suburb of Paris. Not only did Carrefour have all the wonderful features of Costco or Walmart (cheap household goods in large quantities) but it also had beautiful fresh delicious groceries far better than what you will find in any American supermarket even today. Not even Whole Foods (which was just starting up back then first in Austin then in Houston, where we lived at the time). The freshest local fish I’ve ever seen, honestly ripe fruit and vegetables, freshly killed free range chicken and rabbit, etc. We definitely had a serious addiction to Carrefour for years, even though we only got to go there when we were staying in France *and* had either a car or someone with a car willing to take us. Our French friend (who would drive us there) used to mock our adulation of Carrefour.

    A year or two after that, a French hypermarché Auchan opened in Houston. Unfortunately, the food there just wasn’t as good as in France or even at Whole Foods. But we did find there a cute pair of cowboy boots for only $10. Our son Stephen, who was about 3 then, wore those happily for a few years, and we still have very fond memories of those boots. In fact, they’re still around somewhere.

    The great, addicting, subversive quality of all these stores is that they do manage to get you to overindulge but even if you succumb, you haven’t spent *that* much money.

  3. December 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I used to have this problem in public libraries. All those displays of new or seasonal books, and even “have you read this yet?” or “did you miss this?”, and next thing I know, I’m hauling around books I never knew I needed to read. My solution: stop browsing so much in the library, and log in remotely to put specific items on hold instead :-).

  4. berick
    December 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I agree that Costco can drive people to buy what they don’t need, but…
    1) The prices are excellent on many basics, making buying in large units a form of bulk-buying, which can be both thrifty and eco-conscious.
    2) They treat employees quite well. Average wage after 3 years is about $20/hr plus benefits vs $9hr at Wal-mart. That means a lot to me as a shopper

  5. somedude
    December 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Just make a list of the things you want to buy at home and then only buy those things you put on the list.

  6. Danon
    December 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Your experience reminds me of this book “Buyology: Truth and Lies about why we buy” http://www.amazon.com/Buyology-Truth-Lies-About-Why/dp/0385523890

  7. An Educated Consumer
    December 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    That’s what was so good about Syms, where an educated consumer was their best customer.

    The stores were lit with hideous flourescent lights hung on flaking hanging ceiling tiles, the carpets were worn threadbare and stained, the sound system played Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond and the staff looked like bodies taken from a mortuary and propped upright against a wall. The merchandise laid on benches in disorganized piles or was hung on racks in a chaos that defied any coherent organizational structure.

    The dress shoes were the worst, They looked like bright plastic black things that washed up on a river’s edge after a flood. Who could wear this stuff except a corpse? Most of the merchandise was junk from three years ago, but every once and a while you’d see a deal — like an olive green Aquascutum suit for $358 dollars. Who cared how old it was? How could you even tell?

    You’d go into a store and be exhuasted within 10 minutes. The tie rack alone would nearly render you unconscious. How could 600 different ties in patterns keyed in yellow, red, green and blue all look like shit? This happened over and over and over. If after 20 minutes you were still inside the store you’d be on the down escalator hanging dazed on the rubber handle looking for the exit to the street. If you couldnt find something to buy within 15 minutes it would be too late.

    I saved a lot of money shopping there over the years. When it went bankrupt I was very sad.

  8. December 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I love Costco. We go to the one in Passic NJ where my husband’s parents used to live (and where we stocked up on diapers way back when). First, (and I can only speak for this store), even when it’s crowded, when the parking lot is jammed, it’s never crowded inside. Second, there’s no attempt at “decor.” Third, and this HUGE, they never play music! Ever!!!

  9. December 9, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Giant hot dog and pop for buck fifty. I eat and watch the parade.

  10. Al
  11. December 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    I still usually refer to Costco as Price Club. I grew up on their hot dog specials, and costco pizza is orders of magnitude better than all of the other chain pizza type places (and the price is great too).

    I avoid Costco at all costs on the weekends. Despite being in a giant warehouse the kind of shopping cart traffic jams you can get there are insane. I’m usually only buying a few food things in bulk when I go there anyway, it’s not worth all the traffic. But some of those deals you can get are amazing, if you can eat enough of it. Their produce is usually pretty meh but they have great prices on berries, and their gigantic bags of rice are great too.

  12. Tara
    December 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I can relate to this. I was at C&B a month ago and bought a wood salad bowl. Did I already have a fully operational wood salad bowl from C&B that is only used occasionally? Yes. But for some reason when I was in the store the shape of the new bowl seemed better, and in that moment that seemed important.

    It was only once I got home and the mall spell was broken that I realized how ridiculous the purchase was. The bowl is in the car waiting to be returned — along with a few other things I’ve bought over the last couple of months which I realized I don’t need either.

    I don’t go to malls or Target much, but when I do I end up returning at least 50% of the stuff I buy. It’s a similar high to buying but better – it’s the “I escaped the trap of buying and accumulating crap I don’t need” high.

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