To Costco or Not to Costco

Until yesterday, I had never been to a Costco. Though its products seem to have pervaded most middle-class pantries, I had yet to experience the temple of all things bulk.

Until now, I have been divided. On one shoulder, my little she-devil eyes our bank account and scolds me for not investigating Costco sooner. On my other shoulder is the all-too-perfect slow food angel whispering, “don’t do it” with great earnest.

But just as I believe that you can’t critique a book unless you’ve read it, I was ready to take part in a little Costco challenge.

It was a stinking 31 degrees yesterday as I waited at the front door for my friend – you can’t go in without a membership card. Just like the Catholics are sticky about baptism before communion, I couldn’t buy at Costco unless I was fully committed. In the meantime, my cousin was offering up her membership and debit card so that I could participate.

With giddy anticipation, I was in. I looked around. I was expecting to be spellbound, expecting to be enticed by outrageous deals that I would not be able to pass up. But there were no cleverly merchandised aisles. What lay ahead of me was essentially a warehouse, a bulk store with aisles of goods stacked to the ceiling. No cathedral of temptation here, only the goods and prices were going to save me now.

We visited the garden section first. I was looking for tall grasses. Nothing. In fact, the variety was very slim. I had to give them credit. The limited number of choices made shopping easy – buy it now for a good price (and this is all we have) or take a pass. What a sensation this creates. There was no dillydalling from the customers. If they wanted a cheap hanging basket, well, this was it. There was nobody standing around causally thinking of alternatives or adding up the prices if they put a basket together themselves – you know, the kind of customer you might find in a conventional garden store. They saw the baskets and bought them simply due to the lack of choice.

And it was that kind of mentality that guided the rest of the store. The produce section had approximately 20 choices of fruit and vegetables. That was it. You want fruit? Well, this is what you are going to buy today. And you’re going to buy 12 of them because that is how it is packaged. No scales. No picking over the fruit. No dawdling.

Weirdly enough, the limited choice was much like the Farmer’s Market. Only I knew that the limits in Costco were driven by market forces rather than agricultural/seasonal ones.

I felt myself failing miserably. I had come expecting to be uplifted by consumerism. But I wasn’t feeling the pull. I grabbed a package of cucumbers in desperation. Wait a minute. These were from an Alberta greenhouse? This was a nice surprise.

And further down the store, BBQ sauce. Made in Alberta and organic? I wasn’t ready for this. Could my slow food angel actually reconcile its differences with my she-devil of capitalist tendencies?

Other products that I ended up buying that I was impressed to see: Nature’s Path cereal, Annie’s noodles for the Bear, flour that was milled in Alberta.

I left feeling somewhat vindicated. I had got my fill and hadn’t completely abandoned my convictions. I said a silent thank you as we made our way through the exit. Not for the products, but for a sense of relief that I hadn’t been turned into a malleable, consumptive lemming like I had feared.

And the verdict….?

We won’t be getting a Costco membership.

As chances had it, I curled up in bed last night with the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (kindly recommended to me by Perpetua). And that’s when it hit me. For me, Costco was about food and money. Not food and taste, or food and ethical treatment of workers, or food and local producers. Even if I can get organic and local foods from Costco, the reason I would be there in the first place would be because of the savings. And do I want our family’s eating habits to be driven by cheap food? Is that the kind of world I want to contribute to? A resounding ‘no.’

So, for our family, Costco just isn’t in the cards. But hey, if you do shop there, consider grabbing some of those Alberta cucumbers and BBQ sauce. You may be buying from a big warehouse store, but in a roundabout way, you can still support the cause!

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book I haven’t yet finished but would already highly recommend:

“Raising food without polluting the field or the product will always cost more than the conventional mode that externalizes costs to taxpayers and the future… Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food – in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement… It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer demands.”


9 Responses to “To Costco or Not to Costco”

  1. 1 cheapest car in the world May 9, 2013 at 3:47 am

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  2. 2 Mama Tortoise May 23, 2010 at 9:17 am

    @ amoment2think

    You know, things like this really depend on the family. When I was working full-time and the Bear was in daycare, grocery shopping was my least favourite thing to do because of the time it took up. Now, I’ve embraced it as a challenge and an activity with the girls. Just different circumstances…

  3. 3 patientpenguin May 21, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Dear Mama Tortoise,

    It seems to me like you may have just contradicted yourself in replying to amoment2think. The cost of food items seems to drive some of your shopping choices, therefore you are choosing to buy items (not local organic ones, but staples like ketchup) at cheap box stores (Superstore). Would you buy ketchup at Wal-Mart or a local corner grocery store (for an increased price)? Why do you feel more comfortable buying local and organic items from somewhere like Planet Organic but it is okay to compromise on ketchup? I love your post and I do have a Costco membership where my family saves money on developing photographs, the odd electronic purchase, some books, and most recently solar lights for the yard. Often we also buy produce, which, living in BC, is very often local or at least from within my province. Just not sure where you draw your lines?

    thanks for the thought provoking blog,


    P.S. I also loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Great book. Loved learning about the reproduction capabilities (or not) of turkeys!

    • 4 Mama Tortoise May 21, 2010 at 11:39 am

      Good comment. THanks for keeping me on my toes!

      There are several criteria that drive my purchases –

      1. Product itself (taste, organic, ethically produced, etc.)
      2. Source (ethical practices of company?)
      3. Distance it travels
      4. Distributor (the store – are they a multinational, a local ma and pa kinda place, won’t let the workers unionize – Walmart- etc.)
      5. Price

      It would be wonderful to buy a product that met all criteria.An apple out of my backyard is the ultimate food – it meets all 5 criteria easily.

      But when it comes to most other products, as consumers we have to make decisions about where to by them. Sometimes one criteria overrides other criteria. It’s impossible to be perfect.

      So, yes, you’re right that price is a driver of some of our purchases. I just don’t want to let it be the ONLY one. I give into the price driver on some things (ketchup) and that leads me to Superstore. But when I look at our entire grocery bill, only a quarter of it comes from Superstore. My fear of joining Costco is that I would feel obligated (due to the membership) to do more than a quarter of my shopping there. Or, out of convenience, I would end up buying most of our stuff there. Knowing myself, the decision to join would be driven by the opportunity to buy cheap food.

      I’ve also been thinking that part of what we’re doing is taking a journey away from being driven by price. If a quarter of my shopping is determined by cost today, but only 10 per cent of it is driven by price a year from now, then I will have made progress. Costco was not going help us move in that direction.

      However, perhaps you have a Costco membership but only opt for organic or local (which I was impressed to see them carrying). If that is the case, then you’re further down that path than I am.

      It’s not about being for or against Costco. I guess the point that I was trying to make was about what drives our purchases. And, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, as long as we are being mindful, we are already in a better place. We need to be conscious consumers.

  4. 5 Perpetua May 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Glad you are enjoying the Kingsolver. I figured it was right up your slow food alley. 🙂

    We belong to Costco, mainly because we can get bulk non-food items there for cheap, and also because they have better policies for workers than most other stores in our area (this is probably a bigger concern in US than Canada)

    • 6 Mama Tortoise May 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Perpetua! Costco was actually a bit of a pleasant surprise. And yes, policies for the employees are still a big deal here in Canada too. I know that Costco has a good reputation for relatively good compensation for the workers. In fact, if it wasn’t for the membership thing, I think that I could have been convinced to start shopping there. Like I said to amoment2think, I just don’t want the price of food to be my only criteria when it comes to my purchase power. And if we had joined Costco, that would be the road I would be going down.

  5. 7 amoment2think May 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    First, I love when I discover someone on the internet, start reading their blog and THEN discover they actually live in the same neck of the woods, well at least the same province! Hello my neighbor to the north! Yeah Alberta!

    Anyway, back to the point of your post. Your point about why one would shop at Costco is thought provoking for me. I don’t shop at Costco, but I do shop at a large low cost chain (Superstore) primarily because of the price. I was also happy, as I started to shop there more, with their selection of organic options (although they aren’t great on the local). But I do primarily shop there for the price. I used to buy all of our meat and dairy from the farmers market- but that was before I had A and we had more disposable income.

    My point is that I totally hear you about paying attention to the reason behind why you shop somewhere. That being said, it isn’t always an option. Sometimes you have to shop where you can shop and do your best to spot the local and the organic in the mix.

    Love this post though. Got me thinking.

    • 8 Mama Tortoise May 20, 2010 at 12:48 am

      Why, hello neighbour to the south. Love your blog too!

      I should admit that I, too, shop at Superstore. We have this entirely complex process of getting food – Farmer’s Market, Planet Organic, Italian Centre, Superstore and Safeway (for the airmiles!). I think that shopping somewhere like Superstore or Costco is like choosing the lesser of the evils. There are certain things that I am going to buy that are available in most stores – take Nutella. How do I choose where to buy Nutella? In my case, it goes on the Italian Centre list because of both price and the fact that I can support a local business. THings I buy at Superstore are soups, ketchup, and other non-perishables. How does this make it better than buying them at Costco? Well, I think that the fact that I don’t need a membership keeps me buying only the necessary items. I think that if I joined Costco, I would feel obligated to buy more there.

      It’s choosing my battles, and price is only one of my food battles and not the only reason I want for changing supermarkets.

      • 9 amoment2think May 22, 2010 at 4:29 pm

        Its funny, because we too had a very complex mix of getting food, until about 14 months ago (yeah babies!) it became more important for me to get in a get out of one place once a week. We used to also do the Planet Organic/Safeway/Farmers Market thing. We still do the occasional stop at one of those, mostly for produce as Superstore produce sucks the big one. But for the most part, I get in, get out one night a week and be done with it. But there are many weeks where I miss our more complex food acquiring system, even though it did come with a much higher price tag (not to mention the extra gas used to drive to all those different stores).

        Anyways, just sharing…. no real point to what I am saying except “I hear ya”!

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