Like most shoppers, I believe I am smarter than most shoppers. I shop at Costco, for instance—so I tell myself—because I’m savvy about the quality of the products I buy, about knowing what I want and finding it without assistance and about the savings of buying in volume.
But in truth, I also shop at Costco because, oh holy God, do I love shopping at Costco. Piloting that massive shopping cart, like a trader of old navigating a merchant ship full of cargo from faraway lands. Those massive shelves, reaching to the sky and the horizon of the warehouse, a greater tribute to the abundance of this nation than any stock-market chart or plutocrat’s vault. (I shop at a Costco in Brooklyn, reportedly one of the busiest in the country; it’s always packed with immigrants of a vast range of nationalities, picking up economy-sized boxes of American plenty, as true a testament to the call of America as any Ellis Island swearing-in ceremony.) And the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing other shoppers, their carts straining under goods acquired for parties, for giant families, for business. (At my Costco last weekend, I saw a man with what must have been 50 boxes of mangoes on a pushcart, I’m guessing for a restaurant or sidewalk cut-fruit stand or the like, although I guess he may have just been an avid juicer.)
I don’t often watch CNBC business documentaries, but I was instantly drawn to tonight’s The Costco Craze: Inside the Warehouse Giant, which was both a fascinating education about the big-box store and a sobering education about myself. Costco, it seems, has me figured out. Yes, I’ll go there for the deals on practical merchandise that I know I’ll use. (See the excerpt above, about the billion rolls of toilet paper Costco sells a year, a figure I’ve contributed my share to.) But I’m also drawn by the goodies, the impulse items. (To be fair to myself, I do eat every one of those prosciutto-and-cheese stuffed cherry peppers when I buy a tub of them.) And I’m mesmerized, as Costco knows well, by the sense of possibility implied by what they call “treasures”: the unpredictable, often luxurious big-ticket deep-discount items that range from electronics to jewelry to caskets.
The Carl Quintanilla documentary itself strikes a balance between fun and analysis, between delivering shopping-porn and asking big (or big-box) questions. On the one hand, there’s plenty of materialistic eye candy and gee-whiz stuff like an investigation of how the giant sources hot-dog ingredients to keep the frankfurters at the same price it’s been offering for years. But there is also a more hard-headed look at how a seller this large—like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart—can sway entire industries; there’s something almost poignant about how manufacturers of candy, toys and the like will bow and scrape to meet Costco’s requirements and get their goods in the store. (One thing I’d have liked to see more of was discussion of the effects of big-box stores on local businesses—not that, as a Costco shopper who lives in a neighborhood full of small retailers—I have a right to be that sanctimonious about that personally.)
And there’s an overarching question: for all the volume discounts and bargains, do stores like Costco encourage savings, or simply stimulate us into overspending? Do they make us penny-wise and hundreds of pounds foolish? That is probably a grave danger. For other people. You and I, as we know, are much smarter consumers than that.