I was out running the other day, as you do in lockdown. To make your head, and maybe even some body parts, feel marginally better. I happened to be listening to a Goop podcast which I hadn’t done for a while – they can be interesting but often totally woo-woo too.
One minute Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen is talking about ending the war of self, whatever that means, and the next she and her guest segue into eulogising about Costco. Yes Costco, the world’s second biggest retailer after Walmart, with 95 million members and 731 branches – 28 in the UK.
Loehnen said something like, “I keep asking my husband – ‘When can I go back to Costco?’ ” and the other woman replies: “OMG, nothing brings me greater joy than a four pack of plastic-wrapped cereal”. Instantly I liked them more.
If you’ve never been, you may now be thinking: “That’s the aircraft hangar sized shop that people queue around the block to buy 100 rolls of loo paper”. And you’d be right. Personally I’ve rarely had to queue during lockdown – you don’t if you time your visits carefully. But there is something about this temple to consumerism that makes it the perfect retail destination in a pandemic. Let me count the ways.
Firstly, it feels very un-English, as if you’ve stepped inside Boise, Idaho for an hour, instead of Wembley or Watford. Every visit seems like a tiny escape. And who doesn’t love a lockdown breakout?
The American-ness of it all comes down to its enormity. The aisle widths are at least three metres, perfect for social distancing and no need for the Waitrose Aisle Foot Shuffle. (“You go”. “No, you” “Really, after you”.) Then there’s the shopping trolleys that are in fact carts and which actually feel more like tanks. They could fit a small family inside them. Some actually do. I get their thinking here because they scream: Fill me up! Or maybe they’re simply extra large because many of the items are XL too.
I ask my middle child what she loves most about her Costco trips and she immediately says: “Everything is massive. Just looking at a huge jar of Skippy peanut butter seems cool.” This from a 18 year who thinks almost nothing is cool.
She can keep her horrid palm oil hydrogenated Skippy peanut butter. I prefer the Bonne Maman strawberry jam – three quarters of a kilo in an oversized iconic-shaped jam jar for less than four quid. Lasts forever. Or three kilos of Delverde Italian spaghetti for £3. Or half a kilo of delicious Manchego cheese for £5.49, at least 50% cheaper than even Tesco’s Finest and which never lasts long at all. Or 400 gram glass jars of line-caught Ortiz Spanish albacore tuna for £8.50, half the price of what you’d pay in Waitrose. Or bags of organic dark chocolate Belgian wafers covered in salt, almonds and toasted coconut from the waistband-busting nut and chocolate aisles. I’ll stop now or I could carry on and seriously bore you.
I should add here that it’s a misconception that this is no place for single people with little storage space. Whenever I proclaim I’m Costco-bound, I get “Take me, take me” from a huge variety of friends, including those who fly solo. Because one of its other great attractions is a varied and bizarre product selection.
In virtually all Costcos, the first thing you see as you enter is a galaxy of TVs and white goods. My 15-year-old son likes to stand in front of the LG fridge freezer, all 569 litres of it, opening multiple drawers and doors and fantasising about buying it for his first home. It costs £5,499.99. Dream on, kiddo.
The Lancashire girl in me hankers after more achievable curios. A sucker for new fangled cleaning machines, I recently flirted with buying the Bissell Crosswave all-in-one multi floor cleaner for £215.98 (£179.99 ex VAT if you can persuade your accountant it’s an office expense). Gill, who had accompanied me on this latest jaunt, assured me it’s “amazing”. Who knew she was even interested in cleaning floors? Anyway, with a RRP of £249.99, it’s on my birthday/Christmas wish list.
As it’s only July, I promise not to mention the C-word again, but when it comes round to the festive season, be assured this place is present heaven. A £28 art kit with about a billion paints and pens has kept the two teens occupied all lockdown and now litter the whole house. The Calvin Klein PJs are just £21.58 a set. Gill didn’t bother waiting for Santa and popped all three colourways in her cart. You can barely buy a pair of CK knickers for that price in the real world, and who knows, you may well be able to get your VAT taken off – surely PJs are now officially workwear?
However the showstopper of our visit was no inanimate tech object or nosh for a lockdown bouffage, but a living 80-year-old olive tree in a 130 litre pot. The bark looked gorgeously gnarled as it stood incongruously at the end of an aisle of multiple packs of beef hot dogs. This piece of Mediterranean history that began life sometimes during WWII cost just £399.99. My friend Ann Mari had spotted these in Wembley’s Costco a few months back and was suitably furious – she’d paid £550 for hers from some fancy nursery.
How the hell would I get that home, I hear you say? You can hire a van on site which can be driven away with said ancient olive tree in the back from just £15 an hour. You can also have your eyes tested, buy a new car tyre and order a headboard from £49.99 for your bed. What’s more the check-out staff are the fastest in town – apparently some can scan up to 20 items a minute – and elsewhere you’re free to roam without anyone breathing down your neck.
Having spent an entire month’s household budget on God knows what, you might want to exit this emporium clutching something from their legendarily cheap cafe – three giant scoops of gelato for £2, or perhaps a hot dog for £1.50? They used to serve free coffee and cake to early birds who arrived between 10 am-11 am, Monday to Friday, but in the UK, Covid-19 put paid to that. (When Costco reintroduced free food samples in the US recently, it made TV headline news. Even Bloomberg covered it.)
An outing I’d make maybe once every three months to stock up on essentials has become a three weekly sojourn, often an hour before closing, to ogle at Mulberry handbags (did I not mention these?) and covet noise-cancelling Sony headphones and sometimes buy Cloudy Bay for £19.17 a bottle and to avoid the crowds in Tesco and frankly, to just get away.
So yes, I’m with the Goop girls in regularly thinking – when can I realistically go back to Costco? In these uncertain times, I want the certitude of knowing the house is well stocked. That whatever happens, there will be enough loo paper and that if we can’t go to out for a pizza or to the cinema or even on holiday, we can amuse ourselves with other indulgences.
There is, of course, a price to be paid for most of these. If you don’t care to find out precisely what this is, step away from the whizzy weighing scales on aisle eight.