Costcoholism: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

The appeal of Costco, its fascination, what gets me out of bed on a Sunday and into my car, is the experience of physically shopping there.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

By Susan Anspach

I recently learned something shocking.

Well, it was shocking to me. Nobody else thought it was that big of a deal. I overheard it in a small group of people when we were talking about something else unrelated, something like the GOP’s attitude toward climate change, which for some reason everyone else in the room kept trying to steer the conversation back around to. (Between columns about ballroom dancing and Metro etiquette, I do, actually, wonder about it. Could it be because the fate of the planet may lie in the hands of November’s election voters and Amy Poehler just got caught squandering 2,789 gallons of water per day at her Beverly Hills manse and no one knows whom to look to anymore? Again, only wondering.)

But did everyone here know that Costco delivers?

Yes, Costco the wholesaler. But why would Costco deliver its merchandise? The appeal of Costco, its fascination, what gets me out of bed on a Sunday and into my car, is the experience of physically shopping there.

If you’re thinking, “She just likes the samples,” then you’re right and you’re wrong: I do like the samples very much, indeed.

Costco, though. It’s so much more.

And yes, I do know about the psychology behind the samples. I read one whole entire article about the psychology behind the samples, so I happen to know quite a lot about it, please and thank you. I know that I’m being made to feel indebted to and welcomed by a wholesaler, that a wholesaler cannot be my “friend,” my “Sunday hostess,” my “paradise island.”

So they say.

There are nine Costco locations in Northern Virginia, though I’m loyal to the one in Manassas. The Manassas Costco granted me membership. It opened its doors to me. It opened its arms.

Don’t bother reading that article, by the way. It’s scientific and well-researched and compelling, and you’ll come away from it feeling exactly like a lab rat.

Did you know you can buy a month’s worth of toilet paper at Costco for $30.99?

Did you know they give you free tiny cupfuls of cherry pie as you shop?

Did you know you can go back for another cupful of that same pie, and they will give you two cups when you go back that second time because they know what you’re doing and they accept you for who you are?

Did you know your Costco membership permits you to shop at any Costco wholesale location nationwide? That there’s bargain TP to be had in states as far-flung as Idaho and Arizona, free pie from New Jersey to New Mexico?

What can Sam’s Club offer you on par with that?

I couldn’t say, actually, since I’m blindly loyal to Costco and could never step foot in a Sam’s Club (Northern Virginia contains a measly two). My mother-in-law could, though. She’s a Sam’s Club employee, which is too delicious a juxtaposition to not mention here. When we Skype, I nudge her to only complain about her supervisors and coworkers and never tell me the good bits so I can feed my own confirmation bias.

My only bone to pick with Costco is that it doesn’t offer more items and services—though make no mistake, it offers a lot.

But the scope of what could be was recently presented to me when I visited the Costco optometrist, who works in an office directly attached to our Costco, whose receptionist made me a same-hour appointment, and whose exam lasted a grand total of four minutes and 30 seconds.

Would I see him if I suffered from glaucoma and macular degeneration? Truthfully, I would not. Again, he examined my eyes maybe a total of 90 seconds. The exam room was quite small and directly attached to the wait area, and I watched him check Facebook two of the three minutes I sat there.

But I had my $200-before-insurance glasses in hand three days later and whee! Glaucoma’s a snooze, anyway.

How far can we run with this? Could we install Costco dentists? Dermatologists? I’ve got a new mole on my leg that doesn’t look funny, exactly, but if someone could confirm that for me quickly, cheaply and on my way to buy dog food, I’d be there—because I’d already be there.

Even my parents, who are the most disciplined people I know, cannot resist Costco. They’re the ones who first turned me onto the pie. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them eat dessert on a non-holiday before Costco came out with that cherry pie. Then last year they didn’t, and my mom handwrote a letter of complaint to the service department. I noticed the pie made a return appearance this year.

Costco has shaped their marriage in more ways than one. Last year my mom said my father couldn’t possibly be tuning her out, on purpose, to the extent that he was, so he had to go have his ears tested by an audiology tech. Wouldn’t you know Costco houses an audiology tech? One who declared my father’s hearing perfectly fine, for better or for worse.

And isn’t that so typically Costco? The taking of sides. You have to be a member to shop there, after all—by its nature, some people get in. Others are left out.

Though before we pass judgment, consider this: A Costco membership costs you $50 a year, and most people can scrape that together. And on your way out of the store, you have to show your receipt so an employee can make sure there aren’t any big-ticket items in your cart that shouldn’t be.

Is Costco, in fact, our great equalizer? The message here seems to be while we might all be members, we might also all be thugs.

Actually, we’re almost definitely thugs, or at least thug-prone, since that article about the sample psychology said a whopping 75 percent of us are going to swipe that free food with no second thoughts. “‘The more positive experiences people have with Costco, the more likely they are, presumably, to shop at Costco, to bring up Costco in conversation,’” quotes that one Atlantic article from October 2014.

Well. I wouldn’t know anything about that. What I do know is my husband and I went in for our own Costco membership last week, since we’re now 31 and 39 years old respectively and recently decided it might be time to stop mooching off my parents’ membership. It was destined to be a big day for us, but the camera they use to take their ID card photos happened to be down, so we were issued a sort of flimsy, 20-day membership that I’m pretty sure the girl just drew up on Microsoft Word while we were standing there. It wasn’t laminated.

After about three seconds, we got over our disappointment and started working through our shopping list, stopping at every sample station, even the ones we didn’t really want because we were members now! The world was ours. We had earned this. Only at checkout did things take a turn.

I guess usually Costco’s camera for photo IDs isn’t broken, at least not in the long-term. So usually the Microsoft Word temporary memberships were only good for a day. Ours, you’ll remember, was good for 20 days—buckets of time to return for more samples. Before we could point that out to our cashier, though, she snatched our membership from us and shredded it to bits then smiled openly at us and asked for our credit card.

You’ll be relieved to know we got everything straightened out in the end.

(Which the November election may or may not do.)

(If it does not, come find me at the cherry pie station.)

(I’ll be there anyway.)

(May 2016)

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