If it seems too good to be true. . .

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is; or never mistake the opinion of the many for good sense, taste, or judgment.

First, let me say that I love my husband.  Second, he is human.  He does bone-headed things like we all do.  Trying to tape the vacuum cleaner back together once it had been bounced down the stairs (ah parenthood), then acting like it still worked (instead of spewing grit out of every crack and orifice it now had) was pure denial.  So when I in good faith tried to use it in the bedroom, then put the kids down for a nap- surprise!  gritty bed.  The other vacuum is forty years old, and wheezes like an old man with emphasema but Husband won’t get rid of it.  The Hoover upright is 15 years old and works about as well as I do with a mouth full of straws.  The low boy that got bounced, well, is absolute refuse now.  I put my foot down and said, “I’m going to Costco with Dad to get a vacuum.”

So I took my over-seventy year old father for his first trip to Costco.  I had not been since I got our membership this past summer.  All the parents in the play-group looked at me stunned last week when I said I got our membership after four years of not having one, because we were not that impressed the first time.  “Oh I just love Costco,” several people piped up, listing all the things they bought.  Well, I had gotten the damned membership and needed that vacuum, so I decided to go explore and took Dad along. 

Hence, the Visit.  Here is what I learned:

1. When one gets a big wholesale type club membership, one expects to pay less for items.  These “clubs” even market themselves this way.  While walking around with Dad, we noted that almost every durable good we saw was a former model of that item–something that was not produced anymore, or something we knew from experience we could get cheaper elsewhere (on the internet or in another store).  Also noted: DVD’s?  $18.99 for a film I just got for $11.99 on Amazon?  Come on!!  OOOh, an 80 gig Ipod Classic for $249?  Oh my, I can get it on Apple’s web site for that- and engraved for free!

2.  I walked around and did the math in my head (call me a geek, I can take it) for every grocery item I was considering and found that I could get it significantly cheaper elsewhere in town, especially when it was on sale (such as garbage bags).  Bigger is not better, or cheaper.

3.  Variety in selection has no meaning here.  Think Big Lots with only two types of labels.  The Costco label dominates, and the only other brand available (it is never the same across objects) is often some strange name, and in a size that is utterly useless unless you run a large foster home.

4.  As all the “I hate Costco” web sites point out, the other shoppers do tend to be of two types: over-weight poor folks who think they are getting a deal, and thin, upwardly mobile types who are buying for a business or party.  I guess we were the odd “gawkers”, a small minority of people who go in, stay away for years, go back once, then never again.

5.  Costco has little cubicles when one exits, wherein the company is trying to save money by expanding their on-line ordering system.  Let me get this straight:  the selection is still minimal, the prices still laughable, and you want me to buy sight unseen?  I don’t need a membership for that.  I can do better in the same style on the Internet already.

6.  At check out, the clerks are rude.  I am not alone in noticing this, so I mention it.  “We don’t take Visa”,  sneer.  Ok, so I didn’t read the fine print you snot, here’s your cash- and I am never coming back.  Who won’t take Visa now days?  That’s like saying “We take Diners Club but nothing else”.

7.  Bring your own bags, or grab a barely functional used box out of the bin at check out.  Fine.  Save the earth and all that.  But at a store like this, people tend NOT to bring their own bags and watching folks try to load super-sized containers of everything into their carts, THEN into cars- it’s pathetic.

8.  Lines are long.  Long, confusing, and slow.  And there are lines when you go in so some sour faced woman can check your card, lines to pay (where they check your card again- what, did I rip my mask off like some cut rate Batman villain and say “AH HA!  Fooled you!” between the mayo and the weenies?), and lines to exit- where a different sour faced person compares your receipt to your cart.  On our visit, the exit monitor managed to embarrass my cart pushing, white haired old father when, not being able to read her store’s own lingo, she harassed him about the vacuum.  When he pointed it out to her on the short list of items (five), she nodded and waved him past as if we were then free to cross the demilitarized zone into the West.  

9.  Yes, I got a vacuum.  They only had three to pick from.  A very cheap, bag style upright (49), the Infinity (a Dyson knock off) in a model no longer made (179- and I could have gotten it for 120 on line), and an older model Dyson (499).  I got the Infinity.  It works.  It is a pain to clean, and has gotten iffy reviews for less than stellar motor power, finicky performance if one does not clean it every two times (and cleaning it is a b****–this thing has more strange, flimsy, unwieldy parts than a Hugo), bad belts, and possible overheating.  Greeeaaaaaaat.  I am keeping the receipt.

10.  There seems to be no useful logic to the layout of the parking lot, or the store.  AND the geriatric sample people at the end of every other isle creep me out.  Shouldn’t they be watching grand kids, enjoying some sun, playing rummy, those sorts of things– instead of wearing rubber gloves and hair nets, looking bent and tired and trying to remember details about the snacks they are pushing?  I am sure someone, somewhere, thinks it all makes sense.  Maybe they liked playing Candy Land a lot as a kid. . .

In sum, I lost money getting a membership to this “club” because I won’t go back.  But experience is a good teacher.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  No third time.  Oh yea, what did Dad think?  His strongest rejection: the shake of the head, no words and a profound look of disgust on his face. 

What do I think is a better option?  Certainly not the mega-super-WalTarK’s dominating every ‘burg in the country.  No, I’ll take my well stocked, unbelievably well informed, kind and usefully staffed local Ace hardware right up the street and my whacky little residential, family owned grocery store right out of 1955.  When I say little, I don’t mean bodega sized.  It is a grocery store, complete with deli, fresh veg, meat department, frozen foods, the lot.  Until last month it still offered green stamps.  It has a “cheap meat” section where we get good cuts close to the sell-by date (often even the organics), and freeze them.  It has friendly cashiers.  It has amazing fried chicken (small batches, you can watch), and the best deli ham and turkey in town.  Limp vegetables and aging meats are used as much as possible by the deli for the hot meals which vary from day to day, and are sold in small portions at reasonable prices, a boon to the elderly people who frequent the store.  It carries the regular brands, and a few funky ones I can’t find anywhere else but really like (Red Rose tea, and a company that produces canned veg, using label designs circa 1964!).   Staff and customers cut out coupons and tape them to items for folks to use, and a ubiquitous hot dog cart is always just outside, the food donated by the store, run by a shifting set of charities (Boy Scout troop ## one week, the Word of Hope Thrift the next two- you get the idea).   It was built in what is still a residential area, and we can walk to it.  A Giant corp. arm called Martins invaded the other side of town this summer, but I still prefer my little store and Kroger for organics and general shopping.  Even Food Lion has good “cycle” sales (think toilet paper, freezer bags). 

All in all, I like small-ish stores that are easy to navigate, offer good prices, and which don’t require me to spend my monthly gas ration to get to them.  Call me a dinosaur.  If any investors are reading, I’d also like to open up my own old-school grocery, like the one my great-grandmother and I walked to.  It was down the block from her house and it was small, with an ornate wooden screen door, metal signs and ceiling, and a curved glass candy counter.  In addition to this sort of aesthetic, I’d like to be able to carry all local produce, as much as possible being organic.  Only open 7-7, and closed on Sundays.  I can dream can’t I? While I wait, there is always my quirky local store.  At least until the ninety-five year old owner dies. . .maybe old ideas will come back into fashion.  With gas prices and a looming recession, they might come back into necessity.

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