I went to Costco for the first time in my life and it was completely overwhelming — but I get what the hype is about

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Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock
  • I’ve never stepped foot inside a Costco, despite often hearing about the low prices and large selection.
  • Recently, I invested several hours into visiting a Costco store to see if I wanted to become a member.
  • Here are the most surprising things about my first Costco experience, from the size of the bulk items to prices that were sometimes not as low as I’d hoped.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I’m not quite sure how, but I’ve managed to avoid stepping foot in a Costco throughout my entire adult life.

I’ve occasionally been interested in checking out what the hoopla is all about – the chain was a case study in a marketing class I took in college, and friends have raved about the cheap food court – but the annual membership fee and bulk-item philosophy always given me pause.

Recently, though, I bit the bullet and visited a Costco near me in Los Angeles.

My experience included all the hallmarks of a classic Costco visit, including a trip to the gas station and a stop at the world-famous food court. And of course, I checked out dozens of bulk deals shoppers can get with their $60 membership.

Related: I’m a die-hard Costco fan who shopped at Sam’s Club for the first time – and I know which store I’ll continue to visit

The experience was practically overwhelming, but by the end, I saw exactly why the warehouse chain is so popular.

Here’s what Costco is like through the eyes of a first-timer.


I’d heard about the cheap food and large portions at the Costco food court many times before, but I expected it to be inside the store — not outdoors, like the concessions at a football stadium. So I started my visit with some lunch.

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Dave Johnson

A quarter-pound hot dog and refillable soda for $1.50? I spend the better part of $10 for that exact same lunch at a hot dog stand across town. Culinary review: The hot dog was fine, but the enormous churro, which looked delicious through the glass, was tough and crunchy. I threw almost all of it away.

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Dave Johnson

My first stop inside was the membership desk, where I intended to get a guest pass. But I was shocked to learn that Costco doesn’t offer any — I’d have to buy a full annual membership if I wanted to wander around the store. Luckily, I was able to continue my tour for free, but I was unimpressed by the need to spend $60 just to see what the store had to offer.

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Dave Johnson

I noticed right away that the groceries are as far from the door as the laws of physics allow. I was greeted with giant TVs, jewelry, clothing, office supplies, and more on my way to the necessities. It’s the same idea as the Ikea floor plan, but without the labyrinthine maze.

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Dave Johnson

Describing this Costco as gargantuan does a disservice to the word. The average Costco is 144,500 square feet — more or less comparable to a Manhattan city block. I was expecting it to be large, but my Fitbit reported that I took over 3,000 steps just exploring the aisles.

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Dave Johnson

I don’t remember a lot from college, but I do recall my marketing textbook explaining that Costco intentionally maintains a warehouse-style ambience to visually convey that the prices are low. That’s why I was not surprised to find myself in what’s essentially a giant warehouse.

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Dave Johnson

I’ll admit that I had low expectations for the conditions inside Costco, imagining a Dollar Store vibe and few employees on the floor. But I was completely wrong. There were so many employees that I was almost always within sight of at least two of them, which is astounding when you consider how large the store is.

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Dave Johnson

Likewise, I expected the store to be something of a mess, but nothing could be further from the truth. This misplaced package of madeleines was the rare exception to the rule. Virtually everything was in its place, and messes were clearly cleaned up promptly enough that I simply didn’t see any.

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Dave Johnson

I haven’t seen a photo center in a retail store in a long time. I initially wondered: Does Costco still develop film? The idea excited me, as I pondered pulling my old SLR out of the closet. Alas, no, they don’t (I asked). But they have a robust set of digital photo printing services, which is handy if you’re not comfortable using online photo-printing sites.

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Dave Johnson

I obviously couldn’t price-check everything, but I did compare some prices. I was surprised that Costco doesn’t seem to have especially good deals on electronics — at least not the ones I checked. For example, here’s an Xbox One S for $299. I found the exact same deal for $285 at Amazon.

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Dave Johnson

Likewise, Costco offers a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro for $1,999.97. I found it selling at Best Buy for the exact same price (actually, two pennies more).

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Dave Johnson

In the middle of the store, positioned between the electronics and the groceries, was a vast sea of tables covered in clothing. It seemed to mostly be pants, tops, and jackets, and while the prices seemed low, I thought that the selection is better (and more interesting) at Target.

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Dave Johnson

At a certain point I started to wonder if there was anything I wouldn’t be able to find here. Near the living room furniture, dining room table, and steel frame carport canopy, I found this enormous fireplace. It’s across from office supplies and a few aisles away from jewelry.

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Dave Johnson

As God as my witness, these are the largest bottles of alcohol I’ve ever seen. I came prepared for beer and wine in bulk, but this 1.75-liter bottle of tequila kind of blows my mind.

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Dave Johnson

Admittedly, I don’t buy a lot of alcohol. But it’s not just me — this bottle of whisky is ludicrously oversized, right?

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Dave Johnson

I never expected to find fresh seafood on ice at Costco. And yet, here it is — right around the corner from more fresh fish and an entire deli department.

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Dave Johnson

There were surprises waiting for me in the back corner of the grocery department — like completely separate rooms for dairy and produce, each the size of a small grocery store, and each chilled well below the rest of the store to better preserve the inventory.

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Dave Johnson

By the time I was done wandering the store, I was looking for reasons to sign up for my own membership. But as much as I wanted to love Costco, it’s really optimized for large families and people who have storage to buy in bulk. Even when I found something that was only moderately oversized, it turned out you had to buy it in pairs.

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Dave Johnson

I was endlessly entertained by the industrial size of some of the boxes. Here are 72 Eggos, which I estimate would take a family of four about two months to consume. I assume this product exists mainly so Jim Hopper of “Stranger Things” can keep his freezer stocked for Eleven.

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Dave Johnson

Here’s a genuinely amazing deal — so good that I studied the packaging for a solid 10 minutes making sure it was for real. Costco sells gift cards for popular restaurants, theme parks, and fitness centers for $25 less than their $100 face value. That means you can earn your Costco membership fee back in just a couple of purchases. Seriously, this is a deal.

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Dave Johnson

I should stop being surprised at the sheer scope of this store’s inventory, but Costco sells books, and even has a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it magazine newsstand. The selection of books is narrower than your average airport shop — I’m guessing this section is for people who make reading choices based on whatever is on sale at Costco, rather than looking for particular books.

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Dave Johnson

One thing that does not surprise me: Shopping carts overflowing like bears prepping for winter. No surprise here, though. Even the oversized Costco carts fill up quickly when all the packages are so bulky.

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Dave Johnson

As a semi-frequent visitor to Ikea, I was ready for enormous lines at the checkout. But there were a lot of registers and most of them were open. Even on a Saturday, when I expected it to be crazy busy, the lines were short and moved quickly.

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Dave Johnson

Like with the hot dogs and restaurant cards, I kept finding random deals that were so good I could barely believe it. On the way out, I found this water bottle vending machine. These 16-ounce bottles of water cost a quarter each. You’d be hard-pressed to find something comparable for less than $2 anywhere else.

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Dave Johnson

I understand that Costco can get deals on TVs, Eggos, and salmon, but how much cheaper can gas possibly be? I checked out the Costco gas station — which had a line of cars I hadn’t seen since the 1973 oil crisis — and it was 50 cents a gallon cheaper than at the Mobil station in my neighborhood. I rarely care about finding the lowest gas prices (a few pennies make no difference), but at Costco, you can save $5 on every full tank.

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Dave Johnson

It was overwhelming (and exhausting) to take in all of Costco for the first time. I was not surprised to find that you needed to buy most things in bulk — I expected that — which is why it doesn’t fit my lifestyle. But I was amazed by some of the huge deals the store offers, and that’s almost enough to sway me to join. I just need a slightly bigger freezer.

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Dave Johnson