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The first time a girlfriend asked if I’d like to tag along on a Costco run I hesitated. I’d seen her pantry, filled with cereal boxes the size of my torso and 25-pound pickle jars. The whole concept scared me.
However, after she tempted me with the prospect of free food samples, I succumbed. What harm could it do? I’d spend an hour with a good friend and fill my belly. It was a win-win.
I’m Gayle MacDonald, a feature writer at The Globe and Mail, and I set out the next day with a scrap piece of paper. It had one thing scrawled on it: “socks." I figured I’d be in and out for under $20.
We grabbed a cart roughly the size of a compact car and shuffled into the cavernous space. I was dumbstruck by the mass of people, the endless aisles, the surplus of stuff, and prayed it would be over quick.
Half an hour later I realized I needed my own cart. To this day, it’s all a bit of a blur.
I sampled Chinese dumplings, granola bars, Gouda, Hawaiian pizza and almond milk. In between, I threw things into the cart. Yes, I did get socks, two dozen.
However, I also picked up a number of other “essentials” including backyard lights, a six-pack of noodles for floating in the lake, five years worth of AA batteries, 24 hamburgers ready to freeze, four kinds of crackers, a Rotisserie chicken, two fire extinguishers and more.
The carnage? $745.
When my husband got home from work that night, he took one look at the mountain of stuff on the island in the kitchen, and just shook his head. “You’ve become one of those crazed Costco people,” he said, and left the room.
It’s a thing, this Costco impulsivity. Normally sane people, with sound judgement and decision-making skills, seem to lose all dignity, decorum and self-respect when they enter this modern-day mecca of jumbo-sized deals. I honestly believed I was above it all. But the spectre of row after row of stuff that I might not need today — but possibly any number of tomorrows — spurred me on to spend in a way that would make my Scottish grandparents roll over in their graves.
I’m was not proud of myself that first day. Excessive spending makes me feel slightly dirty. I vowed it would never happen again.
Little did I know it was the beginning of a love-hate relationship that continues to this day. I used to make fun of Costco people. Now I’m an Executive Member who justifies the $120 annual cost by reasoning that we save more than that each year on Costco’s Starbucks-branded coffee.
Clearly, the company has a winning formula. While legacy stores such as Sears and Toys “R” Us have gone bankrupt, and Walmart is fighting to hold off Amazon, Costco thrives with year-over-year sales increases. The retail behemoth’s net worth in 2018 was US$80-billion — which if it’s any consolation means you aren’t alone in a Costco addiction.
The store has hit on another simple formula. It has something for everybody. In my household, I’m usually the one who does the grocery shopping, but when it comes to Costco, my husband raises his hand. It’s like a magnetic pull, and it draws in both men and women.
There are outdoor patio sets, dining room suites, furnaces, heated blankets, iPads, large-screen TVs, every food item imaginable (organic too), Prada and Burberry bags, diamond engagement rings, and even end-of-life essentials. The website has seven different types of burial caskets, ranging in price was $1,000 to $3,500.
The sheer scale is ludicrous and should be daunting. Instead, the Costco creed is like a contagious disease: It spreads.
Recently, my husband and I were out for dinner with friends. When her husband stepped away from the table to use the washroom, our friend whispered she was worried about her semi-retired spouse. “He goes to Costco three, sometimes four times a week,” she said. “I don’t understand it. We have enough Cashmere toilet paper for our entire block.”
Once he came back to our table, we got talking about other things. My husband asked what he does to keep busy. “I golf. Play some tennis. Try not to drive my wife crazy. Oh, and I love to go to Costco. Did you know they have the most delicious $1 steamed hotdogs?” he asked excitedly.
To date, I have not succumbed to a Costco hot dog. I have my pride. I also take comfort in the fact that I cannot be classified as a Costco groupie because I only go, on average, once a month — and then, only for very important things. (The justification last time was I needed a bag of lemons — which for $8 for 12 was a way better deal than a buck a pop at the local grocery store.) But I’ve learned the hard way that despite best intentions to stick to a budget, I lose all self-control and, last time, came home with a four-pack of WonderBras, a one-gallon drum of coconut oil, and a three-year supply of omega 3 capsules.
Last week, I asked my husband if he could swing by Costco on his way home from work to pick up some Hummus, Guacamole, tabbouleh, Vitamin B and toothpaste. He came home with new summer tires.
What else we’re listening to:
The one thing I’m always struck by after a trip to Costco is the vast amount of packaging waste. By the time I’ve thrown away the plastic containers — that held plastic containers — I’ve got a blue box that is overflowing. I’m a fan of podcasts and The Atlantic produced a fascinating one in February called America’s Dopamine-Fueled Shopping Addiction that dissects how we shop (with the dawn of e-commerce most do it online), why we shop (we’re hard-wired to collected stuff), and what consumption is doing to the planet. The podcast, which is produced and animated by Jackie Lay, looks specifically at the U.S., where consumer spending has reached an all-time high of more $240-billion — which if you do the one-tenth rule for Canada — means we likely spend close to $25-billion. What was really disturbing, however, was the fallout from single-use plastic waste. Americans dump 26 million tonnes of plastics a year, while we contribute 3.25-million tonnes to the ever-growing pile.
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