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Posted by gustav at 04:01AM, Sunday, December 02nd, 2001

Americans Like It Big

A foray into the dark underworld of the warehouse store shopping experience

Last weekend I was looking for file cabinets. I'd tried the usual suspects (OfficeDepot, Home Depot, Target, etc.) and not come up with anything satisfactory, so I decided to give Costco a try, as I know a couple people with memberships, and it had been recommended to me by one of them.

It's no wonder these places seem to be doing well. There was a large line to get into the parking lot, followed by an exciting round of "watch the distracted eurotrash in a honda trying to run over the asian-American family of six" as we made our way to the underground parking garage. Upon entering said garage we were greeted by the site of numerous cars -- maybe a third of them -- parked diagonally across two spaces. Neither of my companions could offer an explanation. Ruminations varied between "a preventive stance against parking-lot door-dings" and "we're here to be consumers, and that applies to parking, too."

After making our way up past the three-level shopping cart ramp and through the entrance, we were greeted by impossibly high ceilings, warehouse-type halide lamps suspended from a corrugated metal ceiling punctuated with distant skylights, and row upon row of multi-level shelving. Ones cart here is an extra-wide jumbo model, which presents the first difficulty to navigating Costco: two carts can barely squeeze by in an aisle if both operators are cooperating. Sadly, the parking-spot mind-set extends to the shopping-cart driving philosophy, and drivers, although saddled with a lower mean number of offspring than, say, Target shoppers, tend to be pretty oblivious to their surroundings.

Another thing one notices about these shoppers is that relatively few of them seem to fit the Cleaver-family archetype of your Average American Family (you know, the one that Republicans pretend is 99% of the voting public). There was an interesting mix of Eastern Europeans, blacks, Asians (possibly Asian-Americans, although with a lower percentage of English speakers than one would expect out in the 'burbs), and just a few hispanics. This is certainly not your average northeastern suburbs demographic. Closer, perhaps, to the City Schemes customer profile. I wonder whether it has something to do with trying to be American, to fit in with perceived notions of Americanism. What could be more American than purchasing 12-pound jars of Skippy in the biggest store this side of an IKEA? Maybe all these foreign nationals are jumping at the chance to undergo the quintessential American shopping experience during their stay.

Anyway, back to the shopping. I'm struck by a few things. One is that this place seems to be more about the idea of warehouse style discount shopping than the reality. It's a far cry from Building 19, and really about the same perceived floor-space as a large Target or Walmart. While there are indeed some bargains to be had (yay, San Pellegrino by the case), there's a lot of stuff that's not really cheaper than anywhere else (booo, overpriced Altoids). The selection isn't phenomenal -- although you can buy everything from tires to socks, you only get a selection of at most about four different models of each. And the sheer amount of stuff you can buy is less than you might surmise looking at the outside of the building. Sure, there are big warehouse shelves. But, most shoppers not appearing to be blessed with humming bird wings and the ability to hover in midair, these are only for storage and show, making the shoppable volume much less than the impression you'd get from outside. Call this the Barnes and Noble phenomenon.

Strangely, this wasn't really a negative experience for me. The food section was a little over the top in terms of roiling crowds of people, but overall it wasn't as unpleasant as it might have been. People were more dazed, wandering in their own little worlds, than downright nasty, and it wasn't as frightening as, say, shopping at IKEA on a Saturday. I was likewise all a-boggle, reveling in the splendor of Bigness, and wondering what traveling Brits must make of it all.

And no, their file cabinet selection wasn't up to par. I found those, shockingly, at Staples.

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