No big surprise, but Cascadia isn’t nearly as hospitable to Walmarts as were Delosa and even the hip parts of Estacado. There are absolutely none in Cascadia. Google Maps says different, but Google Maps is lying. The nearest one is just outside of Uniontown a bit to our north. I think that the only reason they got to build there is that it’s on an Indian Reservation. It’s about fifteen minutes away and despite what a couple websites say it’s not really a Supercenter. They have a couple aisles of food but that’s about it. There’s another one that’s twenty minutes away and that is an actual Supercenter, but that’s more than a bit of an inconvenience. And my shopping habits are all about convenience.

A while back I wrote that the real advantage of Walmart for a lot of people isn’t the low prices but the convenience and availability. Big city people are free to scoff at Walmart because they have so many other options. The same is very much not true in a lot of smaller towns (and no, it’s not always because Walmart destroyed options that used to be there). I said the following about CostCo:

A lot of Walmart opponents like to prop up CostCo. Leaving aside the fact that CostCo is more a competitor of Sam’s Club than Walmart, there aren’t nearly as many of those around. If I’m in a town that has both a Walmart and a CostCo equivalent, I’d be more than happy to shop at the latter. But Walmarts are everywhere and CostCos are not. Whereas CostCo is apparently spending its money paying its employees a more liveable wage, Walmart is pumping its back in to expansion into places that don’t have a whole lot of retail options. It’s great that CostCo has the HR policies that it does, but living out in BFE it’s Walmart and not CostCo that is providing service.

For me it isn’t about price, it’s about convenience. I really like being able to have a shopping list that can almost entirely be satisfied by going to a single place. I can get some headphones, some sliced cheese, some cool aid, and some shoe inserts all at the same place. A shopping trip that used to take me four stops and two and a half hours is now forty-five minutes. I can stop on my way from anywhere to anywhere and if I see that sign, I know that I can get a wide array of products. I don’t even have to know where in the country I am. I know what’s there (for the most part), I know where it is (usually), and I have a pretty good idea what it costs. As we look at different places to live, how close the nearest Walmart is will be a selling point since it would otherwise take a great deal of time to find out what all is available in the area. The fact that I pay less for all this is merely an added benefit. One that I would gladly give up if I got to keep the convenience.

I now live in an area where CostCo is as geographically convenient (more, actually) than Walmart. So I decided to be true to my word and make a point of going to CostCo. I made my first trip out there the Sunday before Labor Day. I got there at about 6:30 or so and… they were closed. At 6:30? It must be because it’s right before a Holiday. Maybe it’s because it’s a Sunday. But really, is closing early on Sunday a good idea for an outlet their size? Whatever, I decided, I’d go back the next weekend.

The next week I happened to be in the right part of town at about 7:00 on a Saturday and decided to take the opportunity to go to CostCo…. and they were closed. Again. When I got home I looked at their hours and discovered that they closed at 6 on every Saturday and Sunday and they closed at 8 on weeknights. They were losing some really serious convenience points with that. My ability to get home from work by 8 is limited and I like to do my shopping at night. But I decided to be a good citizen and support the valiant retailer by altering my shopping habits.

Last week I made my third appearance, this time at 4:30. Not a whole lot of time to shop, but I’d at least be able to look around and decide if I wanted to blow $50 on membership. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me in without having a card. Oddly enough, they weren’t even checking everybody’s card. Maybe I just looked like I didn’t belong because I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. For whatever reason, I was waved down by the greeter, asked if I had a card, and told that I would need a card before they would let me in. It was one of those odd things where if I was a teenager or a minority or something I’d swear that I had been profiled. Whatever the case, I decided to go ahead and get membership. After all, good citizens support retailers with responsible employment practices. Everything I’d heard about this place told me that I could shop here regularly enough to justify the cost-of-admission.

The good news was that there was no line. The bad news was that the card-printer was down. There was a mechanic-person looking at it and every ten minutes or so I was told that it would only be another ten minutes or so. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Then at about 5:45 or so they had it working. I paid my money and got my card and the greeter lady let me in. I was actually somewhat impressed by the selection and thinking that the card was a pretty good investment. The prices were comparable to Walmart’s, though the selection a little more spotty. But I was expecting that. One of the ways that CostCo keeps the prices they do is by signing on with fewer brands. Some take the position that fewer options are better because brand-overload leads to buyer’s remorse. I’ve never believed that, but I am not a brand-loyalist at the sorts of things I purchase at retailers (though I am an absolute loyalist when it comes to a lot of things). I figured that it was a sacrifice worth making.

The problem is that they don’t just have limited brands, they have limited options in other ways. I figured that the brand-limitation mostly worked on brand-substitution for a comparable array of overall products than at Walmart, but that turned out not to be the case. Certain items, such as low-fat cheese or turkey pepperoni, are absolutely nowhere to be found. These are staples of my shopping, so that was not good. On the other hand, some of their economy-size packs were really good. I could get a 30-pack of my usual 10-pack of insta-burritos and save money and have selection because they’d put 15 of one kind in the pack and 15 of the other. Sweet! They also had an excellent selection (and good prices!) on instant oven meals like premade pizzas and things like that. Unfortunately, that’s not conducive with Clancy’s diet.

Nonetheless, I figured that I would be able to work it out and split my trips between the Honorable Corporation of CostCo and the somewhat more expensive but more comprehensive and convenient Safeway. That could work. Unfortunately, I’d only done a little looking around when it was 6 and they had to close. I had actually already decided when I went in there that I didn’t have time to buy anything cause the lines were extremely long. After I left there I went to Safeway and got all the stuff that I actually needed. I’d go to CostCo the next week, I decided.

So last Sunday I made my second trip. This time I already had my card and got there at 4 to make sure I gave myself plenty of time. So I’d definitely be able to get stuff like the John McCain and Barack Obama biographies and maybe some foodstuffs. There were only a couple things that I needed and I knew that they had that. Except that they didn’t. They suddenly had low-fat cheese (of certain varieties if not others) but absolutely none of the main product that I’d specifically gone there to get: FiberONE Cereal. FiberONE or a cereal like it was non-negotiable. But it wasn’t there. It wasn’t a batter of their being out. The shelf space had been turned over to a Honey Oats of some sort. Not much fiber, more sugar. They did have GoLEAN, but that brand has significantly more sugar and less fiber. So even after shopping at CostCo I was going to have to go to Safeway or Walmart anyway. Worse, the lines at the counter were incredibly long. If I was going somewhere else anywhere, I needed to just go ahead and get a move on. So I left once again without spending a dime.

So it looks like The CostCo Experiment was a bust. I tell myself I may go there again if I need something that I know they have, but apparently I can’t know what they have until I get there. They probably keep a lot of stuff well-stocked that I can count on, but I don’t want to have to shop twice every weekend for a couple months just to find out what those things are. If they had a good brand substitute, I’d feel better about it, but that’s not what they seem to do. Which is unfortunate because I was totally looking forward to being the Conscientious Consumer.

Category: Market

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2 Responses to The CostCo Experiment

  1. David Alexander says:

    Around here in NYC Metro, Wal-Mart and Target have so far refrained from offering full-blown supermarket-like offerings, and have stayed with smaller stores that offer frozen foods, limited dairy, and non-perishable foods. Some have alleged that supermarket unions would fight tooth and nail against their operations, and others have stated that the small lot sizes simply prohibit the development of the bigger Super Centers.

    IIRC, I remember once seeing a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but that was in Airmont, NY which is somewhat exurban by New York standards.

    As for big box warehouse stores, my family signed up with BJ’s Wholesale Club. Unlike Costco, they’re open until about 9 PM on Sundays, but as you pointed out with Costco, their selection is limited to what’s available. We had signed up in order to buy rice in bulk, but the brand that my mother preferred was no longer available after a few months, and her preferred olive oil disappeared as well. I’ve had some of my favourite frozen foods vanish to be replaced as well. Mind you, their prices beat Wal-Mart, especially for my bulk purchases of cookies, juice or butter, or the supermarket for beef, poultry, and deli-sliced cold cuts,. In contrast, I stay away from highly perishable items in large quantities, or non-perishables that are lightly used.

  2. Peter says:

    Around here in NYC Metro, Wal-Mart and Target have so far refrained from offering full-blown supermarket-like offerings, and have stayed with smaller stores that offer frozen foods, limited dairy, and non-perishable foods. Some have alleged that supermarket unions would fight tooth and nail against their operations, and others have stated that the small lot sizes simply prohibit the development of the bigger Super Centers.

    It’s the unions, for sure. Supermarkets are a strange exception to the usual non-union nature of retailing.

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