It was to be one of my Canberra Christmas highlights. My sister had promised, for the purchase of our festive lunch ingredients, to take me to Costco. And in the light of what was to come it was an even better idea, if only for purposes of comparison, to preface that with the Fyshwick markets, whose early morning queues at that time of year for seafood were legendary. Glorious markets – dazzlingly heaped displays of fruit and vegetables, warm bread perfuming the air, the frenetic milling around takeaway coffee outlets, meltingly ripe bries outside delis smeared on to crackers for sampling – nothing will ever beat this sort of market, in which the world increasingly proliferates, to our good fortune. Even if the forty- minute shuffle toward the eventual prize of a ticket to be served seafood resulted in the disappointing news that the bugs had sold out by 6am, we still came away clutching fat tiger prawns.
And then on to Costco, out near the airport. All my sister had really mentioned was that it was about supersizes: the quantities sold; the people who bought. Indeed as we crossed the massive expanse of car park toward the building I was struck by very fat people whose girths were camouflaged by the width of the shopping trolleys. Even the shopping trolleys are huge!
The Canberra Costco opened in July last year, the third one in Australia – although according to the Courier Mail, which cited Costco advertising for store managers, a Brisbane one beckons. In nine countries there are 560 Costcos. What, then, is Costco?
It is the largest warehouse club chain in the US, a bulk retail outlet, the mother of all supermarkets. I was expecting something similar to a place called the Metro outside Florence in Italy where restaurateurs and store-holders shop to stock up on absolutely everything, all of it coming in vast quantities or huge sizes, and I was not disappointed. Except that Costco is available not only to businesses but also to the average shopper, for a small membership fee of $60 a year. In return what you get is not only scale but also extremely low prices. (God, that half kilo block of Triple Creme we tossed blithely into our trolley only cost about $14.)
Costco was launched in California by two brothers who called it Price Club; it was in a warehouse and for business shoppers only. After three years it had 17 locations and 1.3 million members. Typically, what it sells is bulk-packaged; customers must supply their own carrier bags; most products are delivered to the warehouses on shipping pallets which are then used to display them, thereby saving on shelving. Skylights, monitored by electronic light meters, ensure that lighting costs are kept down. Fresh produce – meat, dairy, seafood, baked goods (pizzas, cakes), flowers, clothing, books, computer software, fine wines, jewellery, home appliances, art, furniture – you can get it all at Costco. Everything.
And there I was – enamoured of farmers markets and locally-sourced acquisitions, fiercely loyal to concepts like food miles and low-carbon footprints and shopping seasonally and specialised stores, sensitive to issues like the destruction of town centres as a result of out-of-town megaplexes, and factory workers in poorer countries working long hours for minuscule wages in order to keep prices low for western consumers – there I was in Costco and I might have been in heaven. I offer no apology, and I was certainly not alone, judging by the swarms and swarms of other worshippers, wielding their large trolleys from wide aisle to wide aisle. The half-side of fresh, filleted Atlantic salmon we later feasted on, charred from the grill, was, I hate to say, every bit as superb as were the tiger prawns from Fyshwick market.