Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Went To Costco And Survived... Just

"I Went To Costco And Survived" - that should be made into a t-shirt I think.

As you may have heard, Costco has recently opened it's first store in Australia. The media buzz surrounding the opening of the store was phenomenal. I must that admit that at first I didn't care too much but by the time it actually opened, I too was caught up in the hype. As has been written in countless articles, Costco is a US bulk retailer that sell a variety of products. It has single-handedly brought the masses to the previously derelict Docklands area. Who'da thunk it that a US store could do what hundreds of millions of development couldn't do and bring people of all sex, race and religion flocking to one location. I guess the message that Costco shouts out loud and proud is "WE ARE THE CHEAPEST".

It is true that Costco are cheap, but as Duncan has written, will it actually save you money? Before you can even begin to buy anything, you need to sign up for a membership of $60/year. There already is an outlay that you need to recoup.

My experience of it on Saturday was chaotic to say the least. Getting there is a bit of a travel as I live in the south eastern suburbs. But to get a car park was pure hell. I assumed all the traffic was for the footy match at Etihad Stadium, but I was to be proved entirely wrong. Again, who'da thunk it that so many people would turn up.

Once we did get inside, my head started to hurt immediately. The foul smell of pizzas and hot dogs from the food court hung in the air, just to make you feel even worse. It was sensory overload as the shelves were stacked so high it could have been a factory. Everything was oversized, from the trolleys to the products. Now I know how it feels to be a person of unusually short stature (ok I mean a dwarf) in the normal world.

If I take away all the frenzied people and chaos, would Costco actually be somewhere I would shop? I would say, yes but extremely infrequently. It would be more like if I happen to be in the area, I might drop in, but not as a purposeful trip. The mere fact that you need to buy in such large quantities makes it unviable I think. Unless you're Octomum and have eight children to feed, I can't seem this style of buying working well for most families.

Let me take some examples. The alcohol that was supposedly cheap (the newspaper picked a bottle of Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon 06 as an example) didn't really turn out to be cheap. I'm partial to a nice drink so go to Dan Murphy's regularly and look at the prices. Costco is no cheaper and obviously has a much smaller range.

The denim jeans, which were my main reason for wanting to go, turned out to be old styles and in very extreme sizes (very small in this case). The rest of the clothing range was outdated off items that you wouldn't really buy.

I didn't get round to looking at the electronics, but again, unless the one you wanted just happened to be there, the choice is limited and you would be better off going to a normal store and bargaining for the price.

I concentrated mainly on the food items as that's my interests. The usual brands of snack food that we are used to were there, but who can seriously consume a whole box of Tim Tams or Snickers bars. My favourite chocolate Lindt balls were cheap, but a saving of about $1 for a 150g equivalent pack is not worth buying a kilo. I love Chupa Chups as much as anyone and will consume on average one a day, but 1000 of them for $189, how will I ever get through that.

The deli department had a range of pre-packed cured meats as well as items like this huge pizza. A 1.4 kg pizza is extremely large and as Duncan wrote, would hardly fit into your oven. There was a glass windowed area showing all the pizzas and other similar items being made on the spot, so possibly it is of decent quality.

The bakery area smelt quite nice to be honest, with the smell of cakes wafting about. However, looking at the products just reminded me of the hideous creations that I love to read about on Cake Wrecks blog. How would you like a 1 kg Tiramisu, or maybe three loaves of butter cakes take your fancy, or better still, 24 of the largest cupcakes you've ever seen all clinically wrapped in plastic for your easier convenience. To top it off, all the baked goods has used by dates that were only 5 days away. Unless you got a birthday party for those octuplets, it's going to be hard to consume so much cake (I would try but they just look unappetising).

As Duncan noted, the cheeses and butters did look good. I was temped to get some Victorian Goats cheese and some Lescure butter. Again, the large quantity would be a problem and I would have to purposefully eat those items more, thereby counterbalancing the saving as I would consume more than I normally would. Cheeses were sold in blocks of 1 kg, cream cheeses 2 kg, caviar by the half dozen jars, white anchovies in 1 kg tubs and the list goes on.

The meats and seafood section looked like that from a supermarket, supersized. Care for 3 kg packs of rib eye steaks? How about a couple of kilos of lamb, or maybe a whole salmon takes your fancy. I think you get the point by now. You gotta buy a lot at once. Otherwise, the selection does look quite decent and there is a saving.

The fruit and veg section was a sparse selection of items. The strawberries smelt really sweet, and I would normally buy a kilo at once, but I would have to transport them in a hot car a fair distance home. Other fruit and veg were sold in fairly generous quantities, but nothing as shocking as the other items in the store.

Well, I guess that sums up most departments in Costco. Despite my headache getting worse and worse the longer I stayed there, people were queueing up for miles to pay for their massive trolleys of items. I'm not sure if their mentality is more "since we're here and paid our membership, we might as well make it worth it" or "we use this in these quanities anyway so this is great". I can only guess and I think it would be more of earlier than the latter.

I shall not be going back to Costco too soon as its currently too crazy for me, and the membership and savings does not justify buying such excessive quantities. However, it may work for some families and they may genuinely cut down their food bills.

Have you been to Costco? What do you think about it? Will you be shopping there regularly?


  1. A friend told me that Costco's clientele, much like its products, are "super-sized". A meeting point of sorts for the chunky folk of Melbourne. Can you confirm or deny?

  2. Hey Christopher, the clientele wasn't super-sized, just regular people all wanting a bargain it seems. Their trolleys were all filled so high with masses of stuff, it was scary.

  3. Thanks for that insight Thanh, we live close to Costco, and although I'm curious, the thought of facing the crowds is repugnant and keeping us away. I think I have seen all I need from your photos.

    Ever since Mr Stickyfingers decided that we would eschew Coles and Safeway - for their bad practices that had sent some local producers/farmers bust - we have been buying some items, such as cleaning products in bulk, direct from the manufacturer. We then divide it between a group of our friends, sharing the cost.

    Of course by buying direct we are cutting out the middlemen (supermarkets), so it has been very cost friendly, but we obviously don't buy items such as French dairy products. Perhaps however, you could consider applying this approach of sharing your purchases at Costco with your friends too? That way you can also share the cost of the initial $60 debenture.

  4. I'm freaked out from just reading your post...if I was in Melbourne etc then a visit for anthropological study reasons might be in order but the crowds...oh the crowds....

  5. LOL sounds like Costco would only be beneficial to bigger families, particularly Greeks who love to buy t heir meat in bulk.. lol

  6. Did you happen to remember how much butter was? I'm organising a few friends and I to go down there once the opening fever has died down a little. We'll be splitting purchases if possible, but I can easily go through 1k of butter a week and have a huge freezer, so bulk buying like that works for me.

  7. Sticky, buying the products and then sharing it is definitely a great idea. But you do have to find people that want the same items as you. I guess it would work for necessities, but it does take a lot of organising. I think I will stick to buying in smaller quantities in the supermarket.

    Aptronym, you will definitely get an insight into what people will put up with for a bargain. But I guess that has been happening throughout human history, so you might not gain too for your anthropological studies.

    Ling, it would be useful for people who really can use up the large quantities.

    Seraph11, I don't know how useful it is to you as I was only really looking at the fine French Lescure butter. That was $12.49 for 500g, as opposed to $10.99 for 200g at places like Prahran market and Simon Johnson food stores.

  8. Hehe, I save on the membership fee by making my dad take me - he bought a business membership, and can take 2 guests at a time when he goes :-) So I'll be saving money from the get-go!

  9. Oh yes, one other thing about the electronics: my dad went to look at the TVs, his opinion is that you could get at least as good a deal, if not better, by going somewhere like the Good Guys.

    On the cheeses, he picked up a 500g Margaret River vintage cheddar for only a dollar more than what you'd pay at Coles for the 250g size.

  10. Anna, I believe the "gold" membership (i.e normal membership) allows you to take two guests at a time as well, that's how I got in.

    I've heard the same regarding electronics, that you can get similar prices at places like Good Guys.

    Some items are definitely cheaper, but sometimes the quantities you have to be are so excessive that it wouldn't be worth it.

    Will you be going back in future? I might go back once the crowds start disappearing.

  11. I stumbled on your blog after typing in "Bulk things sold at Costco" because I live in New York City and we are getting a Costco.

    It's a suburban phenomenon, not to mention the excessive bulk logic is purely American as well. Even city dwellers here aren't familiar with giant mega malls and warehouse stores.

    The logic is for large families to load up in bulk and save money long term. In high school, my friends always went to a friend's house after school and his mother would heat us up chicken cutlets, burgers, giant pieces of tiramisu--all from Costco.

    Realistically, I'm curious on if the bulk items can even fit into a NYC apartment. I was thinking on the terms of "enough toilet paper to last me months on end, laundry detergent by the bulk"---I didn't know they sell fresh meats, giant vats of caviar, and monstrous pizzas. Thanks for the summary.

  12. You really need to go there during the week to avoid the crowds, but of course not many people can do that. If you're happy to wait for specials & sales you would probably do just as well at your local supermarket for things like laundry detergent, paper towels etc and the other problem is where to place all the bulky items once you have purchased them in bulk!

    It's good to keep in mind if you are having a party and are likely to go through a lot of food in one night though. I just got lamb loin yesterday and the quality is really good.

  13. Postmoderna76, it will be interesting to see if this type of bulk selling will work in Melbourne.

    Cin, most items can be bought for similar prices on sale. It will definitely be good for parties to go and pick up foods that you will use up immediately, otherwise, finding a place to stash all your purchases could be hard.

  14. i really think that you dont have a lot to do with your time its a great read but so incredibly negative the fresh foods at costco are fantasic and if you are hosting a party there is no better place to go the birthday cakes there are only twenty six dollars and will cater for approximately a fifty people costco has helped me out many times and i will remain a customer for many years to come maybe you should try shopping there again mid week when it is not so busy it really is a very interesting place my husband and i travel the world regularly for our busines and i still think this is the best place to buy fresh foods