Price points to shopping paradise

Costco in Irvine, CA, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Costco in Irvine, CA, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Stalking Costco’s aisles is much more than a spectator sport for bargain hunters

Our anniversary is coming, so naturally when my husband told me he needed to “go to Costco,” I was sure he was going to buy me that Chagall lithograph I’ve had my eye on.

When I heard that Costco was beginning to sell fine art, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before we got lured into the excitement. My normally shop-o-phobic husband has a hard time resisting the temptation of big box bargains.

We once ate hot dogs every night for an entire summer, just to use up the enormous vats of relish, mustard and catsup he couldn’t resist. And we’ve still got 39 cans of pickled brussel sprouts sitting around from the time my son swore they tasted delicious, “the way that Grandma made them.”

Pretty much anytime we walk into Costco, we save so much money that we go broke.

So when I read that an original crayon drawing by Pablo Picasso sold at for $39,999, I knew that the $8,799 Chagall would soon be on my walls, because when you enter Costco, Costco logic prevails.

Which is why I have an unopened ten-gallon bottle of Tanqueray Gin still making a dent on the top of my fridge, from a long ago party where “someone might want a gin martini” and an industrial-sized kennel of baking powder for all of the cookies I was going to make for holiday gifts one year.

While high-end retailers hire merchandising specialists to help move you through their stores, Costco logic relies instead an unwritten law. “Whatever you look for at Costco will be on the far opposite side of the store. And in your quest to find the desired item, you will always find a minimum of seven other items you can’t live without.”

Try it sometime. It’s science.

I know that eventually, at some point in the future, I’ll come out ahead on my Costco purchases, but I’ll have to live to be 107, because that’s how long it’s going to take me to eat all of the chicken noodle soup I bought three flu seasons ago.

At least the soup purchase had some practical application. Lately I’ve been lured in by “new” products like Sierra Mist Free — which is really just Diet Sierra Mist with microscopically different packaging — or Wheat Thin crackers with zero trans fats (and exactly the same ingredients as the old crackers).

While customers are buying in mass, Costco is taking its profits in bulk. In a flat retail year, gross profit was up 13 percent last year with annual revenues of 47.5 billion dollars.

That’s an awful lot of Cherry Pepsi Free.

What else are people stocking up on?

In my case, there are the 14-foot-long rolls of coordinating wrapping paper, that I may need someday, and the gigantic tub of cinnamon-spice hand cream that I couldn’t resist. My husband’s temptations usually relate to outdoor activities — which is funny if you know him — like the tent could literally house a village, or the ice chest that could surely hydrate them. Costco’s marketing gurus even have a name for these items — the ones that never make it onto your shopping list, but somehow inevitably make it into your shopping cart — they call them the spice.

Then there are the actual spices, like Piment Despelette, which I bought a gigantic jar of once, because a woman who looked like Betty Crocker told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime bargain at 20 dollars an ounce

If the spicy new packaging or the advice from fellow customers doesn’t tempt me, the free samples usually do. While my dad usually trolls the Costco aisles for the “cheapskate special” lunch, I’m more likely to get sucked into the illusion that if I just bought that case of Jennie-O-Turkey with tequila-lime marinade, I’d somehow get in tune with my inner domestic goddess, the one who’s been MIA the past 40 years.

Sure, you’d expect the soccer moms hoarding juice boxes and the college kids stocking up on Easy Mac ‘N Cheese, but I’m most intrigued by the flocks of chic women who buy their thirty dollar Cabernet at Costco and their 200 dollar jeans at Blue Bee.

“Is that a good wine?” asks my husband, ever on the look out for both a bargain and the chance to chat up a pretty young thing.

“Oh yes. It’s quite a good value,” says Ms. Second Wife, as she bats her eyelashes at my First Husband.

“I hear the Chagall’s are quite a deal too,” I say, showing them both the lithograph print from my computer. My husband’s eyes go wide. Is he tempted?

“Wow, $8,799 for a work of art at Costco,” he laughs, in a way that tells me my chances of attaining it are dismal at best.

I wonder if Chagall does multi-packs.

Originally published inĀ South Coast Beacon on February 17, 2005.

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