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Retail Insanity

Costco. A truly amazing testament to being an American. It is a place where we can buy enough mayonnaise (or salami or cereal or whatever food you feel hungry for) to feed an entire office building. For a week. Nothing says “I’m American” like buying food we don’t need in bulk. But this is not something you haven’t heard before. The over excess of Americans is a topic that has been covered in nauseating detail from inside and outside the country. What you may never have heard or experienced is an actual trip to an actual Costco. Please, if you have a weak stomach, stop reading now. You have been warned.

My family and I made a recent trip to Costco. There is a joy that comes from the opportunity to buy a TV and ten pounds of cheese in the same place. However, it was quickly replaced by another emotion after our entry. Abject fear. Some people express their joy at Costco by navigating their carts as if they were in the middle of a Category 3 hurricane. Within 30 seconds of entering the store, my wife was nearly run down by a gray haired gentleman. He seemed concerned the store was about to run out of...well, everything. Moments before his mad dash ended in a two cart pile up with my wife, he pulled up, apparently recognizing she was in fact another human and not a display. My wife, being the astoundingly patient person she is, gave him a look that would have paralyzed most normal people in shame. This man, however, was on a mission. He was not to be stopped by things like courtesy. Or other humans. His inner GPS quickly re-routed him to another path with, presumably, fewer obstacles in his way and off he went again. I briefly watched him scoot away in sheer amazement before I remembered I was in the middle of the aisle and likely to be in a hit and run if I didn’t move.

As we turned the corner down the main store aisle I was reminded of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You know, the one where they run the Indy 500. Carts had transformed into high performance racing machines as the drivers...I mean customers drove towards their purchases. Apparently the belief that the store was going to run short on everything was not only held by the original gray haired man. We merged into traffic and tried to match the prevailing speeds. Fortunately we only had a few things to pick up or I’m sure we would have ended up as roadkill.

An even funnier characteristic of this bastion of excess is that once people found the area where their target purchases were, they became one of two types. First were those who stayed in Indy Car mode. When they spotted what they wanted, they performed a drive by. These customers did not even stop next to the item. They just slowed down as they approached and then grabbed what they wanted in mid-stride. At least I assumed it was their target item. If they miscalculated their strike, they could have ended up with powdered sugar rather than the salt they were aiming for. And at that velocity, there was no way to stop. They would have had to circle the aisle and come by again for another pass. I think most people just accepted whatever they grabbed on the first attempt.

The other type of person was the “Browser”. They would actually stop their cart and stare at the item, often oblivious to the fact there were other people nearby wanting the same item. It was as if they had formed a blockade so they would have time to calculate the per-ounce cost of the twelve gallon can of peaches. The entertaining part was when both types would pick up the same thing. As the browser would be furiously doing the math for their unit cost, you could see the drive by coming down the aisle. As they approached the target area, they would see the blocked item and and quickly signal “Abort! Abort!” Denied in their attempt, they would veer off, presumably to circumnavigate the aisle and take another pass.

Having made it through the gauntlet of the entry to Costco, we were able to navigate past the Browsers and the Formula One wannabes to obtain some of our intended purchases. But now we came to the beginning of the second obstacle, samples. Throughout much of the store, there will be employees giving out free samples of food items. But, what should be a simple, good will, “please buy our stuff” offer by the store turns normal people into hunter-gatherers. Customers act as though they are milling around trying to find something nearby. But as soon as the unsuspecting employee puts out a fresh set of samples, the hunters pounce. It reminds me of piranha attacking a recently released piece of meat. I always have to check after the initial wave of sample hunters that the friendly employee still exists. Many times I have found them cowering in the next aisle, quietly counting their fingers.

There are usually several sample carts spread throughout the store, so it is imperative to keep alert for these tribes of hunters, lest you get swallowed up in their rush. I have seen a number of tactics to avoid being caught by them. The easiest, and most used of these is to hide out in the fashion or electronics aisles until it is safe. However, that requires collaboration with other patrons, and you can never be sure if they will transform into sample hunters when confronted with a sample cart. So I would discourage that path. Instead, I recommend watching for the indicators that the tribe is about to pounce. Milling about randomly is the first one. Their eyes begin to dart back to an area nearby. Salivation often begins shortly before the event. Once you see those, just stand back against the wall and wait until the samples are offered. Then, guerilla warfare style, quickly grab the item you need while the natives are distracted. I have found that this approach offers the best chance of survival.

Once we escaped the sample jungle and found all the stuff on our list, all that was left was checkout. This process is chaos personified. The checkout islands are at the end of the second main aisle in the store. All shoppers converge here to get to the islands, much like the Mississippi river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Except in this case it empties into a small holding pond. There are usually a dozen checkout islands, only three of which are permanently open. The rest open and close in a Whack-a-Mole randomness. This causes exhausted customers to try and dart to newly open lanes before anyone else. This strategy only works for the first person there, the rest get caught in the logjam. The lane will sometimes close again as quickly, forcing the rest of the runner-ups to reintegrate with the other permanent lanes. There are rumors that some people have been caught in this loop for months at a time. We have learned to hold steadfast in one of the permanent lanes, bringing extra snacks in case we miss a meal while we wait.

We were able to checkout before requiring our mail to be forwarded, but there was one final obstacle to navigate before we could return home. The exit lane. Costco funnels all customers who aspire to actually leave the store through one medium size lane. There they try to tempt you with further purchases. Unlike normal grocery stores that stock impulse buys like gum and tabloid magazines, this place thinks tires, siding and air conditioning are last minute purchases. I don’t normally think, “Oh, I forgot to pick up a furnace while I was here”, but some people must. Finally, if you can resist the impulse buy of steel belted radials, you have to present yourself to the Marker. The Marker is a person who stands at the exit door and compares your receipt with what you have in your cart. He or she then marks your receipt with a highlighter to grant you release. I have yet to understand what would happen if you left the store without the highlighter mark. Perhaps indentured servitude or the surrendering of your first born. I’m not man enough to tempt fate.

Once we had the Mark, we were able to escape to the parking lot. The parking lot is chaos as well, but after enduring the store itself, this chaos is tame by comparison. This Costco safari having ended, we returned home to rest and regain strength for a return trip, sometime in the next decade.

I hope this description of an average Costco shopping trip has been of some assistance to you. If you are contemplating a Costco membership, please make sure you have a good plan drawn up for your first visit.  Perhaps I can recommend a guide, a shopping sherpa of sorts. If you decide to venture into the store alone, make sure to notify your family. It could be months before you are heard from again.


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