What Is It About Warehouse Shopping?
June 18, 2015 • Food for Thought
I find myself amidst a sea of cars in the already jammed parking lot with even more cars circling like vultures, their eye on their prey – an open space close to the entrance. I pause to allow the train of fifty carts to pass, strapped together and engineered expertly into a neat line at the front door. Like all who frequent this mecca, I obediently flash my identification card to gain entry. But I’m not here to shop today, I’m here on a mission: to try to understand what draws people in large crowds every day of the week to these massive warehouse shopping centers.
Once inside, thirty large, flat-screen TVs immediately bombard me, all blaring in unison. As some members purposefully forge ahead past the televisions, a few shoppers huddle around the latest technology in awe. As I watch the steady stream of members enter the store and begin their shopping, I make note of two distinct types of members. Some are here to browse, perhaps purchasing a few items that they didn’t even know they needed – that is, until they saw what they assume is an incredibly low price and then couldn’t resist it. These folks meander slowly, picking up items to study them, and seem to take an awfully long time to purchase a relatively small number of things. I wonder, is it really worth braving the crowds and bracing yourself for this chaos to purchase just two items here?
Others, it’s clear, are here on a power-shopping mission. They quickly scan the towering forty-foot high shelves, and silently load their carts with oversized items. Some walk methodically down each and every aisle, while others flit around the store like hummingbirds. Regardless, it’s clear they are here to shop, rapidly filling their baskets and moving quickly to the checkout stands. These shoppers don’t appear to even check the prices – and indeed seem convinced from the minute they walk through the door that warehouse pricing must be the most competitive.
On every aisle in this massive warehouse shoppers find pallets stocked on top of each other, their colorful products nearly bursting through the shrink-wrap plastic that holds them together. Their advertising messages compete to gain the attention of the next shopper. The backup supply seems to stretch all the way to the fifty-foot high ceiling. With this much product on hand, it’s incomprehensible to see that they actually have run out of some items. Perhaps this soaring visual display is meant to convey abundance and attract shoppers by conveying a sense of security. I mean, when you buy toilet paper thirty rolls at a time, it’s hard to imagine you may some day run short when you need it most.
Throughout the store, I hear the constant hum of shoppers communicating with each other. Children negotiate with moms about what items they are permitted to buy, husbands and wives argue over which products are really cheaper, and distracted solo shoppers chat on their cell phones. As I watch and listen, I can’t help but ponder how long it takes to consume twenty five pounds of dried pinto beans, fifty pounds of jasmine rice, or an astonishing twelve pounds of baking soda. Whatever the item is, it’s clear that most shoppers believe they are getting a better deal buying in bulk. But I wonder how many actually compare the unit pricing to that of a regular grocery store, or what part of the massive bag of fresh spinach must be thrown out because it spoiled before the shopper could consume it?
Meandering through the store, the aromas from food samples entice me to venture further. Ravioli, tossed with garlic and cheese, competes with the latest Kona coffee blend to gain my attention. It’s clear from observing the constantly nibbling crowd that many shoppers will consume the equivalent of a large meal during their trip here. It’s hard to deny the physical and psychological draw of all of this food cooking, and I’m sure the warehouse management has done elaborate studies that link increased sales to the samples offered. Meanwhile, I try to calculate the calories consumed in half a mozzarella cheese stick, two tablespoons of potato soup, and a one-inch segment of chicken and apple sausage, a half-hearted attempt to stick to my diet.
As I battle to the front of the store to get in line to pay for my haul, I observe that personalized service can’t possibly be the draw here. Shoppers are made to stand in long lines, and generally must unload the shopping cart themselves – and place the cart on the correct side of the check stand or risk admonishment from the checker. They won’t provide shopping bags, only large boxes that are cumbersome to lift out of a cart, and nobody offers, “Would you like help out today?” like my traditional grocery store checker might.
As I head toward the exit, holding the receipt for the obligatory check at the door (are they concerned I’m stealing something, or that their checker charged me for one too many cartons of gum?), I finally reach my conclusion: warehouse shopping is just plain fun. There’s plenty to look at, food at every corner, and relatively cheap prices. Yes, it seems the weekend Costco run in the 21st century might have actually replaced the Saturday morning drive of the 1960s as a form of quality family time on the weekends. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is anyone’s call, but one thing is certain – everyone seems to be doing it.
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