Friday, April 13, 2007

The Cost of Costco -- Big Box Shopping

Even though Costco represents everything I hate and am against, even though it is in many ways a nightmare of consumerism on psychotic steroids – my wife and I go about once a month and I enjoy the experience. She believes, with some evidentiary support, that Mangosteen juice is beneficial to our health, and Costco is the only way we can get it without complicated on-line shipping arrangements (it can’t be “grown locally”). I get a kick out of the hour or so that I spend at Costco.

First off, I like the food samples with their immigrant women employed to prepare the samples and say, “Come and try, come and buy” – in some cases, perhaps the only English words they know. I sample everything and will unashamedly return for seconds if I like what I’m tasting. It serves as my brunch for that day.

I’m fascinated by the enormous portion sizes of the products available for purchase. We don’t own a car, so we have to shop so as not to exceed our carrying capacity. The bus ride back and forth is pretty much a straight shot, but we still have to be careful not to buy more than we can haul by hand. We are invariably the people in the line with the fewest purchases. Everyone else has their oversized shopping carts filled with huge packages of products which they will then haul down to their cars and drive home. I sometimes expect the checkers to say, “You folks can’t buy that little; get with the program,” but of course, they don’t.

We live in a city with a large immigrant population (why be coy; we live in San Francisco) and a large majority of the people shopping at Costco with us are foreign born. It’s almost like visiting the Grand Canyon – hearing every imaginable language being spoken, a product-stocked tower of Babel. And I can’t blame them for shopping at Costco. Considering the level of deprivation that they have emigrated from, it must seem like an overwhelming heaven of abundance to be able to buy huge quantities of consumer goods, and feel like they’re saving money and being smart shoppers in the process. They may have heard about global warming but concepts like peak oil are not part of their knowledge base. They are not informed enough to understand the complexities of how the manufacturing and shipping of goods to places like Costco and the other big box stores contributes to the process. Can we really ask or expect them to spend more money to buy smaller quantities grown locally so they can be “ecologically correct”?

People who criticize people who shop at Costco (and Wallmart, and Target etc., etc., etc.) do come across as elitist. Expecting “regular” folks to “get it” is unrealistic. Of course Wallmart is a bad employer and a company that spoils towns by driving business out of business through undercutting prices. We know that, but we can’t blame folks who don’t read blogs and follow current events and study the issues to do the same. They’re too busy trying to get by and asking them to forego cheap prices on principle will get nowhere.

The big box stores will go out of business if and when (I’m betting on when) gas prices and shortages make shipping the products to the stores no longer cost effective and profitable. I wonder what will become of the buildings if and when that happens. The fact that a lot of liberals and progressives disapprove of people shopping there will have no affect on the ultimate destiny of these weird and fascinating institutions.


Anonymous Norah said...

Well written article.

7:21 AM  

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