Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rethinking the family shopping experience at Costco

There's a place we often go on Sundays. A place so big it seems to hold the entire world between its walls. A place that's so vast, you can't help be awed in its presence. A place so overwhelming that some believe miracles can be found. A place I'm simultaneously drawn to and yet fear. I'm talking of course about Costco.

Ah, Costco. Where else can you pick up a lawnmower, a new couch, and a rotisserie chicken all in one visit? Only at Costco do you find a tank of live lobsters just a stone's throw away from a 12-pack of men's boxer briefs. (I'm guessing that's as close as most men would like live lobsters to get to their underwear.) Costco, the place where you can supersize your entire life.

3 years ago when we left the mean streets of Royal Oak, MI behind for the tree-lined, idyllic looking enclave 40 miles to the west called Brighton, I never imagined warehouse shopping would become part of my life. Probably because I was too busy fantasizing about the Brighton Woman I would become. (Keep in mind, I was 7 months pregnant with our first child, so hormones no doubt played a role in these delusions). I imagined myself pushing the stroller down the city's quaint Main Street, joyfully combining errands with playdates at the park with all my new Brighton Mom Friends and their children. Yes, Brighton Mona would shop local to supplement the vast harvest of produce Brighton Mona would grow in her backyard garden (I'm not sure what Brighton Mona's plans were for winter?). Brighton Mona would tiptoe lightly down Brighton's streets, ever conscious of her carbon footprint. That was before Brighton Mona knew there was a Brighton Costco.

Fast forward 3 years and our actual Brighton Life is somewhat different from my prenatal fantasies. We're now a family of four and as for shopping on Main Street, I've learned that man, woman and toddlers really can not live on bread alone, not even if it's that delicious High-5 Fiber stuff from Great Harvest Bread Company, and not even when topped with an artisanal gouda from the local cheese market. We do in fact have a backyard garden which provides delicious summer produce for many of Brighton's finest bunnies, chipmunks and squirrels, who are kind enough to leave us the occasional shriveled zucchini or half-chewed tomato. And we shop at Costco.

To get to our local Costco you must first drive around the nation's first double roundabout, two treacherous traffic circles placed back-to-back which I usually refer to as "The Ring of Fire." Local city planners claim it moves traffic efficiently, but I believe it might be God's way of setting up a final pre-Costco roadblock, His way of asking "Do you REALLY want to go there?"

If the answer turns out to be "yes" and you survive your go around the 'bouts, you will gain access to the Promised Land (assuming you've paid your $45 membership dues) and blink several times as your eyes adjust to the environment. I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame by the dozens of giant, flashing, flashy, flat-panel TV screens right at the entrance. They are enormous but in the enormity that is Costco, it's easy to lose perspective when it comes to size. Inside Costco, a 72-inch flat panel doesn't appear all that big. Just wait until you get it home and it turns out to be larger than any wall, or any room, in your house. Same goes for the 50-pound bag of cat litter, the 2-gallon tub of hummus, the muffins that are the size of my head, and the oversize bottle of laundry detergent which nearly causes a dislocated shoulder every time I attempt to pour into the machine. Those "Take and Bake" pizzas sure look delicious, don't they? Too bad they don't fit into my oven. I think Costco needs a giant rearview mirror-like warning: "Objects in store are larger than they appear."

If warehouse shopping is hereditary I'm in big trouble because my mom is Costco-obsessed. My Egyptian parents, who live alone, have turned their 2-car garage into a mini-version of Costco itself. There is enough Gatorade to rehydrate the entire USA Track and Field team (all the more odd given the fact that my parents are in their 70s and not exactly exercise enthusiasts) and enough toilet paper to build a full-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
And they're not alone- Costco-philia runs rampant in their social circle (translation: other Egyptians). The Egyptian men often go to Costco together or meet up there after church. There's a running joke that goes: "Why did (fill in the name of the Egyptian woman) cross the road?" "Because Costco was on the other side." Maybe it's an immigrant thing: they came to this country with nothing and thus are drawn toward a place that allows them to stockpile. Or maybe they just really like the free samples.

Last month we threw a double party for our kids whose birthdays are about 2 weeks apart. Having heard great things about Costco's bakery, we decided to give it a try for the cake. As I've mentioned before, our 3-year-old is a tad obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, and wanted a train on his cake. But Costco is not in the business of making a 3-year-old's dreams come true, so their cake designs are somewhat limited. We settled on a happy sun and flowers, which was probably appreciated by my 1-year-old daughter, who does not necessarily share her brothers railway passions.

Then there was the size: at Costco you have a choice of Giant, Gigantic, or Ginormous. We chose the smallest possible, which feeds 50 and costs $17.99. That is far cheaper than any other cake, we reasoned, even as we knew we only needed cake for about 25 people, several of whom have fewer than 4 teeth.

At the last minute, I felt bad about the lack of trains on the cake and stuck a ridiculous cardboard cutout into the frosting to assuage my personal guilt. Then, once the candles were extinguished and the party was over, we pawned off cake on everyone we knew. We ate leftover cake until cavities formed (does Costco offer a dental plan?) and we still ended up throwing out nearly half of it. Happy disposable birthday. Our "cheap" cake left me feeling... cheap.

Yes, we've made all the requisite financial calculations, and yes, we do indeed save money buy buying certain items in bulk, but I'm beginning to feel like we're selling a piece of our souls in the process.

Buying in bulk was supposed to free up all this time and money for us to spend on the things that really matter to us, but has it really? When we get back from Costco (a trip guaranteed to take at least 2 hours and $200) we spend at least another hour unloading the loot and dividing it into real people portions, which we still often find ourselves unable to use. I fear we are teaching our kids that more is better, just because it's more.

Once upon a time, families of four (and five, six, seven) got by just fine without 10-pound bags of Goldfish crackers. I'm all for saving a little money especially given the current state of the economy, but sometimes shopping Costco's crude, cold aisles, stripped of every consumer comfort leaves me feeling empty. We're a family, not a business venture and we don't need to "cut out the middle man" on every transaction.

I'm not quite ready to give up the membership for good (at least not until we're out of the diapers and wipes phase, since bulk is the ONLY way to go on those) but I think it's time we gave our Costco purchases more careful thought. No more blind devotion, no more bowing down before the altar of the almighty dollar. And maybe from now one we should go on Saturdays instead.

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