I Shopped at Costco for the First Time and This Is What I Learned
Fans of Costco are quick to praise its prices and products, especially when it comes to groceries. Up until now, I've resisted the warehouse store because of the membership fee, and instead did my shopping at Target, Meijer, and Kroger. But I decided to finally get myself a membership to see what all the fuss is about. Here's what I noticed on my very first visit.
The first thing you notice walking in is a sign stating the days Costco closes. There's only seven, so if you're still scurrying around for last-minute gifts on Christmas Eve, you know where to go. (Costcos may close early before holidays, though, so check your store's schedule.)
The biggest catch to shopping at Costco is the membership fee. For $60, you'll be a Gold Star member, a fancy term for the lowest tier. For $120, you can become a Gold Star Executive member and earn 2 percent cash back on Costco purchases. Both types include two membership cards, one for you and another adult in your household. To save money on membership, look for Groupon and LivingSocial deals. Those often include a gift card and free items when signing up, effectively making a $60 membership fee lower. Or, if you have a friend with a membership, ask them to get you a Costco cash card to make purchases without a membership.
You'll need to show your Costco card to enter the store, but if you're signing up like I was you'll be directed to a membership desk just inside the exit area. The customer service reps were friendly and efficient in signing me up and taking my photo for the back of the card. If you ever have to return an item — Costco has a very generous return policy — this is where you'll come as well.
Items such as food, paper goods, office supplies, diapers, and personal care products are all sold in large packages — this isn't the place to come to buy a single orange or loaf of bread. That means that if you live alone or in a very small apartment, a Costco membership might not be worth it. For large families or someone with plenty of storage space, a membership makes more sense.
Because everything is in such large packages, and to save time, goods are usually sold right off the pallet it was shipped on. The aisles are wide so carts loaded with items — and, after hours, forklifts — can get through. I didn't notice any employees helping people load things into carts, but I'm sure if you asked for help with that 40-pound bag of dog food, someone would step up.
Those bulky items demand a choice for carts when you walk in the door. Choose either an oversized grocery store style cart, or go with a flatbed. If you're buying lots of heavy beverages, for instance, you'll probably want a flatbed. It'll easier to move things on and off.
You'll be bombarded with images from huge LCD television when walking in. These big-ticket electronics grab the attention, whether you're in the market for a new television or not. Expect big sales around the holidays and right before the Super Bowl.
Unlike grocery stores, you can get a new phone and wireless plan at Costco. There's a kiosk in the electronics department and usually a dedicated wireless employee. Most of the major carriers and phone manufacturers are represented. On Black Friday, warehouse clubs such as this can be the easiest places to score great cell deals.
The computer selection at Costco isn't huge, but unlike if you bought online, you can actually try computers before buying. Chances are you'll see a kid or two playing with them while waiting for their mom to finish shopping.
You can still get digital photos printed at some locations, along with getting canvas prints, photo books, custom greeting cards, and passport photos. You can order photos online and pick them up in store, or use kiosks at the store for ordering.
Locations that have a photo center can also refill a home printer's toner. Prices start at $7 and go up, depending what type of toner cartridges you have. Look for a brochure or a price chart around the photo department or printer ink for sale.
Store layout isn't intuitive, so departments along the outer walls of the store are marked with big red signs that can read from practically anywhere. It helps if you're looking just for meat or paper goods, which are in the back of the store.
Aisles don't have signs identifying what's there. So as you walk past huge, long, towering aisles, you just have to look down them as best you can for what you're looking for. Items are at least grouped, so all the cereal is in one aisle, and all the spices in another, but beyond that, there's little help for finding what you need quickly.
Costco sells large appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, but you can buy them only online. The items in-store are for display only, to let you browse before you buy. There are many more Costco options to choose from online.
Small appliances, such as microwaves and toaster ovens, are available to buy in-store. There's only a small selection; if you're looking for a specific model, check online to see if they even carry what you're looking for.
There is a jewelry and watch kiosk near the electronics. It's well lit so the diamonds and gold really sparkle and attract attention. To buy anything from jewelry, take a merchandise slip to the checkout counter, because there are no employees dedicated to the section.
I wasn't really expecting to see a lot of home office supplies, but there were quite a lot. From filing cabinets and office furniture to huge packs of pencils and labeling machines, you can really get a home office set up and organized.
I was also surprised to find mattresses. Like a lot of the larger items and appliances sold by Costco, there's a few in store, but you can find more selection online. Most are well-known brands, such as Sealy, selling at a discount at Costco.
I found a small selection of tools, including a large tool set that would make a nice gift for a new homeowner, and a pressure washer. Again, the selection wasn't large, but it's worth checking out if you're looking for something specific to save a few bucks.
On the other hand, I also saw items I'd never have any use for, and don't know what anyone else would do with them. Case in point: a 42-inch wine glass. You'd have to be one heck of a wine enthusiast to have this in your home. Maybe it'd make a good wedding decoration?
Groceries are at the back of the store — managers make customers walk through other sections to get to the stuff they need. But the produce was fresh and neatly arranged, and worth the trek.
One of the tricks for keeping the more delicate produce fresh was a giant walk-in cooler. In it, I found all kinds of berries, greens, grapes, pre-cut fruit, and salad kits. (It's also a great place to hang out for a couple minutes if it's super hot out.)
It's hard to miss the huge ovens and racks of just-baked breads behind the bakery, and the section smelled like freshly made cookies. That smell is a great way to entice shoppers into buying bread, pastries, and muffins. (Speaking of muffins, they're enormous, and you can mix-and-match two flavors.)
Have you ever seen a 4.5-pound pie? I hadn't either, until I saw them at the Costco bakery. They looked delicious, but I need an occasion to buy one, or I'd be eating 3 pounds myself.
I've heard rave reviews of Costco cakes, and they sure looked lovely. You can special order them with flavors and decorations of your choosing, but there were plenty ready to go — many filled with what labels touted as "2 pounds of chocolate mousse." It's clear they do a lot of cake business.
... And people love it. Unlike in many grocery stores where customers tend to avoid "generic" or store-branded items, Costco customers love the Kirkland brand. It appears on everything from lunch meats to mouthwash.
One of the best departments to score real deals: the cheese section. For instance, Jarlsberg, a cheese similar to Swiss but imported from Norway, was only $5.50 a pound. At Target, it's $18 a pound. That's a massive difference.
Price savings carried over to other products, especially when it came to gourmet items. Kerrygold butter, known by cooks as a superior imported Irish product, was significantly less than what I've seen it for in other grocery stores.
One of the busiest spots in the store was the rotisserie chicken counter. The whole chickens are cooked all day long in big ovens with rotating spits, leaving them tender and juicy. They're packaged and kept hot until you take them home, and they're only $5. (If you're extra thrifty like me, use the carcass to make chicken stock when you've eaten all the meat.)
Beef and pork were the best deals on fresh meat. New York strip steaks were $8 a pound, a great price around here. Some packages had steaks with better fat marbling than others, so be sure to hunt for the best package. Boneless skinless chicken breast, on the other hand, was a little under $3 a pound, but is regularly $2 at Sam's Club and local stores.
The in-store deli makes heat-and-eat meals ready to go. I was tempted by a few, including beef- and rice-stuffed bell peppers and a giant chicken parmesan sandwich that looks like it could serve four people after only a few minutes of heating in an oven.
To go along with that chicken parm, how about a salad? They're made in huge containers of 2 or more pounds each, so you can serve them family-style right out of the container. I liked the variety of toppings on the spinach salad.
Naturally, Costco is the place to shop if you're throwing a big party. Some party trays are available all the time, such as chicken tortilla sandwich roll-ups; if you plan, you can order party platters ahead of time. Look for order forms to fill out and a box to put them in near the deli's prep area.
Besides food, Costco carries practically everything you'd need for a party: folding tables, paper plates, serving utensils, and maybe most importantly, Kirkland brand red party cups.
Taking up an entire back corner of the store are the freezers and coolers. They are really imposing, but not much different than the smaller ones at other grocery stores. These are just designed as walk-ins for employees that get stocked from the back instead of the front.
Warehouse stores are big, so you'll need a little extra energy to get through them — or at least that's what I told myself after my fourth free food sample. Every day, not just on weekends, there are carts cooking up products to snack on. It's not only fun, it's a great way to sample new products, though some people go over the top when it comes to filling up.
Just because everyone raves about Kirkland doesn't mean Costco lacks in brands. There are plenty of popular name brands, including Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Frank's Red Hot, and Horizon Organic. I even spotted Buffalo Wild Wing sauces, something I've never seen outside the restaurants themselves.
Dry herbs and spices such as Mrs. Dash and Lawry's seasoned salt come in huge containers, too. They're very cheap per ounce this way, but can start to lose flavor if not used within a year or two. If you don't go through a lot of spices, this may not be the best place to buy them.
My local Costco has a sizable liquor department that spills into the produce section. There are quite a lot of whiskeys, beer, and wine. Most were reasonably priced and came in 1.75-liter sizes. A handle of Jack Daniels was $40, about $10 less than other stores in the area. There was also a locked case with a few rare items, including a $700 bottle of Johnnie Walker Private Collection.
In the middle of the store are things such as clothing, toys, housewares, and seasonal items. Clothing changes seasonally, and right now in September, winter coats are displayed, along with the last of the grills and patio furniture and some random Halloween decorations. Unlike the rest of the store's aisles, this middle section changes often, depending on the time of year.
A book section with kid and adult titles is a little hard to navigate. There's a lot in a small space, with books kind of on top of each other. Still, that makes it a little like a treasure hunt.
Here in Wisconsin, the seasonal section was full of Badger- and Packers-themed merchandise, from sweatshirts to pop-up tailgate tents. Each store gets a stock of local sports-themed or other local-interest merchandise. I suspect Florida stores won't be getting sidewalk ice, and Minnesota stores won't have flip-flops in January.
Everyone (except maybe your spouse) appreciates gift cards. Get a bunch of shopping done at once and buy a pack of gift cards — most come in packs of four of equal amounts at a savings of about 25 percent. That's essentially buy three, get one free. I'll be buying stocking stuffers here this holiday.
If you're heading to a party, there's a lot of options for host gifts. Some items, such as boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, are in a pretty, crystal-like display box. A bottle of wine is always appreciated, and there are also bouquets of fresh-cut flowers to choose from as well.
Costco carries a lot of organic products — clearly marked on the price labels, usually highlighted in green. If you prefer to buy organic, that makes finding options much easier than reading the item's packaging.
If a price sign has an asterisk printed in the upper right, that means it's almost gone — whatever is in front of you is all the store has on hand. If an item's price ends in .97, that means it's a closeout item, and chances are that price won't be going any lower.
There are monthly ads and other limited-time savings events throughout the year. I found an ad for the monthly savings at the membership desk, but that wasn't until after I was done shopping. Luckily, items with instant savings have the discount marked clearly on the price labels, along with the discount end date.
... which could come in handy, considering there are no bags at the checkouts, but since most items are so large, they don't always make a lot of sense. And you can always bring your own reusable shopping bags, but the common fallback is to hunt around in the box bins near the checkout area: Items get shipped in smaller boxes that get put there so customers can more easily carry purchases home.
Most Costcos have a pharmacy. It works just like any other pharmacy, but some medications may be cheaper here, especially for people without insurance. And since federal law prohibits stores from denying health services to anyone, you don't have to be a member to use the pharmacy.
Besides prescription drugs, there's also a large stock of over-the-counter medications, from NyQuil Severe to Zyrtec and other allergy meds. Like at most stores, the biggest savings come when you buy the Kirkland brand as opposed to the name brands. There's also tons of vitamins and supplements.
Most stores have an optical center that includes a staff optometrist. They offer eye exams and tests, and when you've got a prescription, you can buy glasses and contacts at Costco as well.
If you feel like your hearing is getting bad or you have a parent you suspect is hard of hearing, hearing tests are free. Hearing aids aren't, of course, but the tests are a great free service and can be a surprisingly busy spot in the store.
Because most items are so large and heavy, the checkout lanes are set up a little differently than a grocery store. They split you from your cart once it's unloaded, as indicated by a sign on the end of the item belt. Put anything small on the belt and leave anything large in the cart or on the flatbed. The checker will grab your cart on their side of the lane and scan anything big without you having to move it. It was a little confusing my first time, but it makes sense as soon as you see it in action.
Every store has a cafe and eating area on the other side of the checkout. People are kind of obsessed with it — so much so that when Costco recently discontinued the Polish sausage, people went a little crazy. The food I ate was good and inexpensive, and is another feature you don't have to be a member to participate in. The cafe is open to everyone.
The most popular item on the cafe's menu is probably the hot dog combo. For $1.50, you get a quarter-pound hot dog and a 20-ounce soda with free refills. It's pretty hard to beat (unless you're in Wisconsin, where you can get a locally made brat combo for the same price). A giant slice of pizza is only $2.
That same pizza sold by the slice in the cafe is available to buy whole in the deli section to bake at home. I like that you can try a slice before deciding to buy a whole pizza — though at only $9, it's not a huge investment anyway.
There's usually a car parked inside Costco stores — advertising not only the tire service centers, but that you can actually buy a car through Costco. Members can go to Costco Auto Program website, choose a vehicle to research, and get sent information for a dealership where the car is available. It's a good program for people who want a competitive price without shopping around or negotiating. The average discount on cars is reputed to be more than $1,000.
Members have access to all kinds of services, including discount travel booking, home, auto, and life insurance, mortgage services, Budget truck rental discounts, and home bottled water delivery, just to name a few.
Warehouse club stores such as Costco check your receipt as you leave. Employees generally just glance at it and at your cart to do a quick item count, but it's still a bit of a hassle if there's a line and you're in a hurry. Try to avoid putting the receipt away before the checker without thinking.
Many Costco parking lots are equipped with gas stations open only to members. Prices at mine were a couple of cents cheaper than other stations in the area. But if you're at Costco often or you pass by a lot, those few cents can really add up over the course of a year.
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