Costco: The home of mutant consumerism

00:47, Sep 19 2011

Let me ask you a strange question: under what stretch of the imagination could you fathom a shop where a $450,000 diamond engagement ring is sold under the same roof as a 400-pill pack of anti-diarrhoea medication?

The inherent ridiculousness in the above statement is why I love Costco as I do. 

Costco is a membership-only wholesaler and the third-largest American chain (behind Wal-Mart and the Home Depot). The company operates 429 stores in 40 states across America, employing 107,000 people in warehouses that range in size from 73,000 to 205,000 square feet.

If you pay $50 a year you can shop there, soaking up low, low prices and bulk, bulk offerings. The company operates on a "buy a million items for a dollar... sell a million items for a dollar and three cents" model. It stocks (nearly) everything.

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Think of any product, bar vehicles... and maybe bridal gowns, and I'd put money on it that Costco sells it.

Were you looking to pay less than $20 for a 23kg bag of rice? Or pick up a discount six-foot-tall American flag set? How about a new car battery? Is your home lacking a mass-produced old-fashioned lamp-post? Were you looking for 50 Snickers bars, or just a flat-screen television?

Because of the space needed to feed the beast, Costco stores hide out beyond city centres. I realised this week that there was a store in walking distance from the outer limits of the Boston subway system, at the Gateway Shopping Centre in Everett, Mass.

I quickly set about convincing LP to come with me on Saturday morning.

I feel a magnetic pull to Costco each year. I've never bought anything there. I just walk in circles for an hour or two, cooing at strange finds or products I use myself, sold in denominations I never really thought to ask for.

My heart raced as I approached the entrance to Costco on Saturday morning, as it always does.

The stores have a visceral impact on me. They are capitalism at its most pornographic. There's something about walking in and feeling swamped by the high ceilings and vast rows of shelves and seeing 42-inch television screens stacked on top of each other like pancakes that I find affecting. I can't help it.

Costco stores are all identical. I've been into four of its stores and they're all aesthetic replications of each other. They're mammoth, but somehow barren, with high, gaping ceilings and produce stacked in on shipping pellets, factory-like. The stores all lean heavily on red as the colour of choice.

Saturday's favorite finds were: 25kg packets of dog food and cat pate (for the pet that has everything, but still wants more...), "pleasure-packs" of 48 Durex condoms (for the man that never, never, ever wants to get caught short...), meat sold by the case (for when regular helping sizes just won't do...) and a four-feet-five-inches tall teddy beer (for the child who likes to be afraid of his toys...).

Each visit to Costco is also identical to the one beforehand. There's the strolling and marvelling, as outlined. But there's also a large culinary component.

Between every aisle, a harried Costco worker prepares samples of product at small workstations. I imagine this to be a strange hell for the sample preparer. The more popular items - cookies, burritos, miniature wontons - lead to a group of needy shoppers parking their overstuffed trolleys indefinitely to stand by and greedily eyeball the underpaid chef as they churn out more.

It adds a miniature smorgasbord facet to each Costco visit. As we strolled, LP and I supped on animal crackers, minestrone, pizza, coffee, crackers and lobster dip, cakes, wontons, cookies, juice, burritos and fruit.  

The final stop is always the food court. I bought LP lunch. Our order comprised two large drinks (with free refills), a slice of pizza the size of my head and a quarter-pound hotdog.

I got change from a $5 note.  The food was a low point though, a culinary car crash of sorts. I find these sorts of meal opportunities undeniable. But inevitably, as I'm midway through a hot-dog that doesn't taste like any meat I've experienced, wedged between a flimsy, sickly sweet bun that doesn't bear much resemblance to bread, I usually end up debating my life choices.

*****

LP and I spent the next hour walking sheepishly through the rest of the shopping centre. We walked amid the giants of American chain shopping, like Target and Home Depot.

I wanted to call the Gateway Centre a shopping mall, even if it was nearly a mile long and comprised mostly huge department stores.

LP disagreed vehemently with this labelling. "A big box outlet centre", was the correct American vernacular, she told me.

These malls/big box outlet centres are a peculiar American construction. They're so big as to suffocate the chance of any other commerce in the vicinity. Thus, the whole surrounding area becomes a cultural dead spot.

It is as if someone took all of the commerce and none of the charm from a town and dropped it in the middle of nowhere.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in being so affected by extreme consumerism. But if anyone wanted to outline to me why this was weird, I'd be happy to listen.

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