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The Picky Girl’s Guide To Costco

February 21, 2011

Let’s imagine that you have a significant other who loves Costco. And you, like me, don’t like big box stores. Even if you think big box stores are bad, you might still make an exception for Costco. It’s often referred to as the “anti-Wal-Mart” due to its outstanding treatment of its workers, including solid healthcare coverage and high wages. This might be a place to compromise.

But this still doesn’t change the fact that there isn’t much at Costco you feel like buying. If you stick to unprocessed, local, and organic food, what are your options, from a food standpoint? (Clearly these positions wouldn’t stop you from finding good deals on things like clothes hangers, iPods, and Tums.) Overall, Costco has:

  • Not a lot that’s unprocessed: An awful lot of what Costco sells is heavily processed. It’s what I think of as “factory food,”  the exact opposite of “bottom-up food.” Aisles upon aisles are dedicated to prepared foods you need only heat up to serve.
  • A surprising amount that’s organic in letter, though not in spirit: A decent amount of what Costco sells is organic, but you could argue that this is evidence of the coopting of the term “organic.” Nearly all that they have is what Michael Pollan terms “industrial organic.”  At Costco’s scale, it has to be.
  • Nothing local: I don’t think I’ve ever spotted anything remotely local at Costco. If Costco has anything local, it’s probably an accident. It would be hard for a large company like Costco to do otherwise, but it’s not impossible. I’m guessing that Costco has nationally centralized purchasing, even for produce. Maybe there’s an opportunity for Costco to do some regional produce purchasing, but it doesn’t look like they’re taking advantage of that opportunity right now.

I’ve found a few bright spots that make me willing to return:

  • No one yells at you for horsing around with the carts. Where else can you push the cart as fast as you want, step up onto it, and ride down the aisles with impunity? And all kinds of other types of cart-play that other stores would immediately put a stop to.
  • Free cat toys in all shapes and sizes. Nothing makes our cat happier than a nice Costco box! To a cat, a box is a castle. At least, for a few days. Then it becomes something else to ignore, just like everything else in the house.
  • King Arthur Flour is dirt cheap. I’ve always been a fan, and living within a few miles of them gave me many more opportunities to admire this employee-owned small business. Costco has 25-pound bags of KAF all-purpose white for $11.99, which compares nicely to the local retailer’s price of $4.99 for 5 pounds. If you make a lot of bread – and we make a LOT of bread – this is good news indeed.
  • Pine nuts are no longer almost prohibitively expensive. Costco has a lot of spice blends and spices I’d never use like dried onions and pre-pressed garlic. But they also have pine nuts in bulk, which is a blessing for those of us who use three handfuls when the recipe calls for one tablespoon. They also have good almonds and pistachios.
  • Frozen berries so cheap you can eat them every day. Buying fresh berries in the winter is uncool, not just from a price perspective but also from a carbon footprint perspective. Frozen berries? Much better, assuming they’re not frozen in Chile and shipped up. I eat frozen berries maybe ever other day, though, so I like to buy a large bag. Costco has good frozen mixed berries and blueberries. Sometimes they’re even organic.

Curious to know how other similarly-minded folks feel about Costco and what they will and won’t buy there!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 11:25 pm

    I buy a lot of things at Costco, but as you mentioned, rarely the processed stuff. Our Costco carries Fage yogurt, which I tend to eat a lot of (when I’m not making my own) so I buy it in the large sized containers. Frozen organic blueberries are a staple for my breakfasts, so I get them as well. Cheese and milk are less expensive (see above about making my own yogurt – I can get 2 gallons of Horizon organic milk much cheaper at Costco). And frozen seafood of all kinds – I eat a lot of fish and shrimp and can find it at good prices.

    Other than that, I don’t tend to buy a lot of food there. I do use it for photo processing (my side business is as a photographer) and electronic/computer related items.

    • February 23, 2011 11:13 pm

      Kara, we also buy Fage there, but I am ashamed every time we do because I would rather be making our own! It is definitely one of Costco’s best deals.

      We haven’t seen Horizon milk at the Costco near us, but we are definitely going to keep our eyes out. All they seem to have near us is Kirkland and Kirkland organic, both of which are ultra-heat treated – bad for nutrition, killer for cheese-making.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Nancy G. permalink
    February 26, 2011 3:46 pm

    I buy the very large bag of broccoli florets and the fresh berries. They aren’t organic though. I also like their cinnamon and other spices, some are labeled organic but don’t know where they are from and I never loooked. The large bags of frozen shrimp are great and they have good deals on vitamins. My husband loves granola bars — but that would fall under “prepared food” wouldn’t it?

    In terms of non-food items, batteries, kitchen supplies, winter gloves and socks are a common purchase for me.

    • February 26, 2011 4:00 pm

      An even better place to buy bulk spices is Market Spice. They are in Pike Place Market in Seattle, but you can buy from them online. Their prices are fantastic and their quality puts Costco to shame. Here’s a link:

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