Last week I went to Costco, to buy a chocolate fountain. Possibly the most obscure, hilarious item I've ever purchased. It's for an upcoming party, and once I decided to get one, I absolutely had to find one. There was no turning back.
There are no local chocolate fountain stores, per se, and rental can run you $300, so when I realized I might find it at Costco, my heart leapt at the possibility. Sure enough, the Costco website showed two or three different ones, ranging from $40 to $200. Amazing, I thought, and only at Costco.
One year ago, I wrote about Costco in an admittedly whiny way. I said that the store's giant products require giant houses, and that therefore, Costco is not for me. I still find most of the industrial-size items impractical, but nonetheless, I'll confess that trips to Costco have crept into my life with greater and greater frequency.
However, over the year of my membership, the motivation has changed. I used to crave Costco's low prices per unit - its great deals on commodities. But when that didn't pan out logistically, I started to discover the other side of the clever retailer. Now, I shop at Costco for big-ticket, hard-to-find and extremely special things. Why? Because I've been trained to seek them out.
The treasure hunt mentality is one of Costco's founding principles. Diamonds and iPods and plasma TVs are right in there with the ketchup and soap. My favorite-ever Costco purchase was a giant trampoline my family bought when I was 16. More recently, it's been king crab legs, an all-in-one printer and, of course, the chocolate fountain.
What exactly is Costco doing to earn my treasure-hunting dollars? For starters, while a Wal*Mart Supercenter might carry 100,000 items, each Costco only has about 4,000. Yet every one of those items is carefully considered. There aren't 60 kinds of toothpaste; there are two, and both are great. But the great products rotate in and out all the time. Surprises are everywhere. Samples encourage trial. The lenient return policy lessens the risk. Prices drop one day; deals disappear the next. It's a roller coaster of thrills and letdowns.
In 1983, when Costco first appeared on the scene, these seemingly inconsistent practices were certainly not the norm. I have to imagine consumers were initially confused. But over time, Costco has trained its shoppers. Trained them so well that they literally behave differently inside its warehouses than in any other store. Sane, rational people turn into pirates.
Never has this been more evident than in my chocolate fountain shopping trip. When I called the store to check availability, they said it was $37.99, and that they had "about 16 left." I immediately understood that once those 16 were gone, they weren't coming back. I planned to visit the very next day.
Then, when I marched down the appliances aisle and arrived at my coveted fountain, surprise! It was only $19.99! Half price on an already-great deal! I felt like I was beating the system in a big way. Take that, $300 fondue rentals! I grabbed one, found two 5-pound bags of chocolate, and made my way to the front.
But the best part was the checkout. As the cashier was ringing me up, she says, "This is twenty bucks? Are there any more left? Because this would be great for my daughter's wedding." I laughed and told her there were. Then the guy in line behind me starts asking questions. "How much was that? Twenty dollars? What kind of chocolate goes in it? And twenty dollars? Hold on, ma'am, I'm just gonna run back." She goes, "Hey, can you get one for me too?"
Costco shoppers - and employees - are behaving exactly as Costco wants them to. Over many shopping trips and many years, they have learned to expect the unexpected. To recognize a great deal when they see one. To look at what other people have in their carts. To buy things they don't need, simply because they are scarce. To shop the whole store, because a great find could be just around the corner. To visit often, because you never know what you're missing. And to buy it now, because it might not be here tomorrow.
Costco's unique blend of merchandise speaks to both our practical and impractical sides. But the practicality of the bulk of the store affords a little madness. I can imagine typical in-store conversations: "But honey, we saved 100 bucks on tires. We can afford this deep fryer!" "Sweetheart, we saved 60 cents a pound on steaks. Can we please get this memory foam mattress?" Or me: "This item is too cheap, obscure and amazing not to buy!"
Costco, you won me back. I came for the deals, but I stayed for the treasure.