Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Taste of America


We finally landed in the USA this Saturday. Sorry, did I type USA? I meant Costco.
We weren’t alone; hordes of fellow Melbournians flocked around us, clinging to their shopping trolleys. They have to: these beasts are nothing like your average supermarket trolley; they’re more like their 4WD gas guzzling giant cousin. So big the rear wheels are fixed, making them steer like a car.
Yet we needed the big leviathan. We spent $700 at this first visit to Costco. Sorry: we saved to the tune of $700 on our credit card. There are savings to be found at each corner, and they all start when you buy more!
It seems everyone I discuss this Costco phenomenon with is curious. I will therefore move on with a high level review of the Melbourne shop.

As stated, I was looking forward to my Costco visit on account of their white goods. Well, now I can report local white goods resellers have nothing to worry about. While Costco does host the occasional white good, their range is minimal and their prices do not appear to be unobtainable elsewhere. In some cases Costco is even worse, selling a PS3 for $400 at a time when JB Hi Fi was advertising them for less than $250. Things are a bit better with TVs, where there are more [older models] to choose from; but again, the prices were not at the realm that a little bit of haggling or finding that special discount that is always available somewhere could get you.
The photography section was interesting, offering print and speciality photo printing services for prices at about 30% to 50% off Harvey Norman's. Assuming the quality is similar (haven’t tested it), that is definitely an attraction. Bear in mind, though, that most speciality orders would have you visit the shop twice. There is always a Harvey Norman near you, but a Costco?
The rest of the shop is more mainstream supermarket/warehouse like, whose unique nature stems from (a) carrying relatively smaller number of catalog items compared to the shop’s size, (b) the ginormous size of said catalog items, and (c) the relative ubiquity of American brands that are otherwise unavailable or rare in the land Down Under.
The first thing we noticed were the chocolates, the sweets and the snacks. You can buy them in sizes ranging from buckets to standard oil barrels. With prices that make one want to start one own collection of oil barrels these are hard to resist: we bought a treat bucket for our son, for example, and thus far it proves successful in getting him to eat his vegetables (“finish your veggies and you can get a dip”). Me, I bought a whole sack of crisps. Actually, two sacks, in case of a pending zombie apocalypse. Starvation is no longer on our agenda for the upcoming year.
The plot thickens, though. We got our supply of dishwasher powder for the next year and then some, but we could not say the same about washing machine powder: while Costco stocks the brand we use (Omo, probably the most popular in Australia), they only stock the basic type for top loaders and front loaders; they do not stock the “sensitive” type, which is the one we prefer to use.  In toilet paper, you can buy yourself a huge pile of them – and given that I’m full of shit I was always dismayed at Aussie supermarkets always selling me them in tiny portions – but alas, Costco did not seem to stock toilet paper made of recycled paper. Again, we are back to our regular supermarket.
Size is definitely an issue, too. What are we going to do with all the Colgate Total toothpaste that we now have? It will last us almost two years. Or the rice bran cooking oil: a few weeks ago the wife bought half a liter at the supermarket for $5; at Costco we bought 3 liters for a bit over $10. That’s a great bargain, but what are we to do with all that oil? It would take us years to go through it, which erodes the financial benefits given that we are be paying interest for our mortgage and storage space does come with a cost.
Moving onwards, the Costco’s fresh food section is impressive. If you are happy to buy in bulk, you can get anything from fresh cakes and pastries to whole fish that seem to have been only recently alive. If you are planning on hosting people over, or running your child’s party at home, look no further than Costco – nothing can beat it in price, period. What about the rest of the time? We are currently finding ourselves in that great battle to beat the expiration date on all the fresh food we just had to buy. Had to, because you know – when you buy more, you save more.

Given this overview, do I recommend Costco? As with most things there is no black and white answer here.
Yes, the prices are good, but not always. Fresh bread and many other products are still better priced at Aldi, where the portion sizes are more reasonable, the shops are nearer and no $60 yearly membership fees are required.
On the other hand, if you really do need large portions, say when entertaining, then go for it. Better yet, if you can find friends to share the spoils with, Costco might offer not only potential discounts but good socialization opportunities. You might laugh, but to this socially disconnected person this is not an opportunity to ignore.
Then there is the matter of environmental friendliness. Costco finds it worthwhile to import German made Swiss cheese and sell a kilo in Melbourne for roughly $13.50. Given that Victoria is a milk product manufacturing giant by its own rights, this has to raise some question marks: how can it be that such a move is financially worthwhile? And what about the carbon footprint of importing fresh and cool products all the way here – do they do it by sea, or, heavens forbid, is it all flown in? Hell, we deserve a zombie apocalypse.
It’s not like Aldi doesn’t import stuff. Its chocolates are usually European made, and its cereal that I ate this morning came from Belgium. Yet Costco seems to raise the bar much further with bucket loads of stuff imported from the USA, from pretzels to chips. All the while similarly priced Aussie alternatives are clearly available elsewhere. Why should the Australian economy agree to this American invasion? I suspect the answer lies in the trade agreements our government is so proud of. Remember to keep feeling proud when you lose your job.
Buying in large quantities is already introducing some quality issues. For example, my wife announced today that the liter of balsamic vinegar she got from Costco is "crap". Fine; I consider vinegar a chemical weapon I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. However, we are still about to throw away more WMDs than Sadam ever had. WMDs that cost us more money than, say, a small 100ml bottle.
Last, but not least, there is the problem of obesity. I don’t know about you, but I am no Tony Abbott; I’m a human being. When I have bags of snacks at the house, with their salt and fat, I will eventually succumb and do what was meant to be done with them albeit at too quick a pace for comfort. I will eat them, especially when expiration dates start ticking. Couple cheap prices and being forced to buy in bulk, and you get a ticking bomb; my stomach is already showing some evidence of overfilling less than a week later. Our will powers are simply not designed to deal with Costco scale temptations.

Back to my original question – do I recommend Costco? And my answer is yes, but for very specific items. Do your shopping list and do not stray from it; calculate exactly what you need and you might even be able come true on the joke and save more by buying more. I bought white t-shirts for work that I couldn't find elsewhere and a quilt like thing for the sofa that we wanted for winter, both for prices unimaginably low. Good purchases can be found! Oh, and try to buy ethically.

As a sidenote, if Costco is – in one way or another – a mirror into American society, then the image reflected is a problematic one.
Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off for a snack.


Uri said...

Costco was well worth the annual fee when we were buying diapers and formula. Once that was done with – not so much.
They had really good hot dogs that we didn’t always find in other stores (and they were kosher too).
My favorite thing about Costco was the Very Berry Sundae they had in their cafeteria. I just love the name.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're not the first to make the diaper comment...
As for the cafeteria, we did not try it. For three reasons: first, it was crowded. Second, it did not look that appealing. And third, you have to get out of the shop (as in, pay) to go there. It only occured to us later that we could have sent someone to buy the food while the other looked after the 4WD trolly.
Regardless: IKEA does food better.

Sarah said...

Have never been to Costco so that is an interesting report.

As for the balsamic vinegar you can do an environmentally friendly clean by sprinkling bi-carb soda onto sinks, baths, and toilets and then pouring white vinegar on top to fizz up and then wipe/brush/rinse clean. I wonder if the same would work with the balsamic? If you are going to pour it down the sink anyway might be worth cleaning it as it goes...