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How Costco became an unlikely middle class status symbol

Jun 15, 2022

How Costco became an unlikely middle class status symbol: We sent a foodie to the store that sells posh food at budget prices

  • Costco is one of those severe-looking warehouses you drive past on the bypass 
  • However, the produce it sells in fact cleverly curated by in-house experts 
  • Rose Prince has discovered the best that the wholesaler has from coffee to wine

The mature Scottish beef was melt-in-the-mouth perfection, nestled on a bed of mushrooms and washed down with a fragrant glass of Antinori Rosso. 

Reclining in his seat, eyes almost glassy with pleasure, one of my satiated guests declared the meal ‘the best’ I’d ever cooked, with the meat showing ‘real depth of flavour’. 

I basked in the compliment. Although I was hosting a group of close — and polite — food-loving friends, and I know when they’re being kind. 

Even if I say so myself, the food was gorgeous. From the succulent prawns to the homemade hollandaise sauce, cheeseboard and after-dinner chocolates and coffee, there was nothing on my table that would have looked out of place in a great restaurant. 

Rose Prince (pictured) has discovered the best that wholesaler Costco has to offer from Scottish beef to petit fours

Because the thing that set this dinner party apart from my usual offerings was the sheer quality of the produce. 

I didn’t buy it from a farmers’ market, nor have I been trawling artisan grocers. And I certainly didn’t go wild in Waitrose with a budget to make an oligarch blush. Nope, I bought the lot from Costco. Every item from the meat, veg, butter and coffee to the wines, seafood and petit fours. 

For the uninitiated, Costco is one of those severe-looking discount warehouses you might drive past on the bypass, but don’t know how to access. 

A giant, windowless box with its name stamped on the side, it differs from other discount superstores chiefly in that it’s ‘members only’, i.e. to shop there you have to apply and fulfil certain professional criteria like at a private club. 

Those allowed to apply for membership are business owners or those in certain professions such as teachers, Post Office employees and NHS workers. 

Once you’ve been accepted, there’s an annual £33.60 (£26.40 for those in the retail trade) membership fee, which sounds genius — you pay the firm for the privilege of shopping there. 

What it is, however, is a clever way for Costco to keep their much more cost-effective wholesaler status (with its cap on the proportion of sales to the public), keep prices low and make sure it attracts loyal customers of a certain type and spending power.

The Channel 5 TV programme Costco: Is It Really Worth It? explored the gold rush of middle-class aficionados who, facing a global cost-of-living crisis, are casting snobbery aside and making a beeline for one of its 29 warehouses around the country

Produce that Costco sells is carefully curated: buyers of its homeware, clothing — even car tyres — choose only from a small selection of top-of-the-range brands. 

I’m not the only one catching on to the unique Costco shopping experience. The Channel 5 TV programme Costco: Is It Really Worth It? explored the gold rush of middle-class aficionados who, facing a global cost-of-living crisis, are casting snobbery aside and making a beeline for one of its 29 warehouses around the country. 

It is the third-largest retailer in the world with 815 warehouses in 12 countries. In the UK, Costco launched in 1993, and latest figures show profits rising by 32.4 per cent in 2018/19, to £19.2million. 

The thing you have to appreciate about Costco is it’s all about bulk: it’s a wholesaler, after all. You buy big to save big and you need a lot of storage and freezer space — plus a good grasp of mental maths — to appreciate the savings. 

As I approached my nearest branch on an industrial estate in Croydon, I immediately got a sense of the scale. I could see shoppers pushing trolleys piled with more loo roll than they can surely fit in their cars. 

Antinori Rosso Red wine: COSTCO: £9.79 a bottle TESCO: £16 a bottle SAVING: 39%

As I pushed my (giant again) trolley into the centre of the warehouse — let’s not be in any doubt this place is a shop — I spotted the first of the fabled middle-class shopping renegades poking around a blast freezer cupboard. The well-spoken pair were in raptures about a 70-pack of gyozas for £8.49, which doesn’t sound cheap, until you work out a 12-pack will set you back £3.95 in supermarkets. That’s 12p a dumpling compared to 32p — less than half the price. If you’re planning to feed a large number it is definitely worth it. 

It’s the same with the luxe Crosta & Mollica Margherita pizzas: £6.29 for two, it makes the Waitrose price, £5.50 for one, seem a rip-off. 

Lavazza Ground coffee: COSTCO: 500g, £4.99 TESCO: 250g, £4.50 SAVING: 45% (per kg)

As I scouted the enormity of the space for my dinner party ingredients, it became obvious this was going to be an expedition. With fewer than 30 stores to choose from across the country, just getting there is a trek (eight miles for me) and once you’re in, prepare to not see natural light for hours. 

There are barely any signs, so you must prepare for a treasure hunt unaided by staff, who are just as difficult to locate as anything on your shopping list. 

As I zigzagged around Costco, the app on my phone registered I’d walked nearly two miles. 

But it was worth it. I came up trumps and found a fillet of British beef costing £77.90 for nearly 2kg. A huge amount of money, I know, but considering it normally costs £60 per kilo elsewhere, it suddenly feels cheap. And luckily, I have a chest freezer with a lot of space. 

Comté Cheese: COSTCO: 650g, £8.99 WAITROSE: 200g, £3.95 SAVING: 30% (per kg)

I added 750g of asparagus for £5.29, a little disappointing. But adding seafood, butter, double cream, baby new potatoes, three top-end cheeses, a huge box of strawberries, 500g smoked salmon and a 12-bottle crate of San Pellegrino sparkling water at less than £1 per 75cl bottle, the Costco experience began to make sense. 

Next I went in search of booze. Costco do wine two ways, by the case or you can mix individual bottles. None of the latter is what most of us think of as cheap wine, with the minimum price being approximately £10. 

But here you can benefit from huge savings. Miraval Provence Rosé wine costs £12.99 but £19 in Tesco. The difference is similar with other wines whether made by Latour in France or Antinori in Tuscany. None of these is for every day, but it proves Costco is a destination for special occasions — in the same way as hosts cross the Channel to bulk buy cheaper quality champagne for parties. 

The ultimate cost of my trolley was just under £400, but only half of it would be used for my dinner party that evening, the rest would be stored and eaten over time — making exact, like-for-like price comparisons a headache. 

San Pellegrino Sparkling water: COSTCO: 12 pack, £8.49 WAITROSE: 6 x one litre, £6.50 SAVING: 35% (for 12)

But by my calculations, I reckon I snipped at least 30 per cent off what I would have spent on the same produce elsewhere. When I consider the quality of the food and drink, this is a serious steal. 

Yet only at home, cooking and tasting my bounty, was it possible to value it. On the whole, it was impressive — the beef was tender and matured. The giant prawns were clean-tasting and untainted. 

The smoked salmon was expertly cured and I loved some of the brands available — a 500ml bottle of Tabasco; a chic box of chocolates made by a tiny company in Dorset; some ever-so-traditional pure-butter Madeleines that made me think of holidays and the Comté cheese, a slab of perfection.

Not so remarkable was the fresh produce. Largely imported, bred to have a long shelf life, neither the berries nor asparagus had much flavour. Also, I did a second shop elsewhere for fresh herbs and salad which Costco don’t sell. 

As a money-saving mission it would be wrong to hail Costco as the answer to the cost-of-living crisis as it affects most people. But for those who’d like to shave a sizeable chunk off their shopping bills, this place, given a credit card and a chest freezer, could become a money-saving shopping habit. 

Would I go again? Yes, but with purpose. If I had a large family, or if I was a young mother facing the summer holidays, I would make a bi-monthly trip to fill the freezer. 

Judging by the speed at which my guests scoffed their gourmet dinner, I might need to re-stock sooner than I thought! 

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