We have to admit that The Shophound had never actually been inside a Costco before last week, but we had heard tales of the tasty baked goods and giant, mutant jars of mayonnaise, so we set off to investigate the highly anticipated branch that has just launched the East River Plaza big box shopping complex. Making our way across 116th Street, we found ourselves in a quiet, almost genteel part of East Harlem and then, suddenly, a gigantic parking structure appeared and we were whisked to suburbia on the edge of the FDR.
Of course, you can't go into Costco unless you are a member (minimum $50). One would think that might be a steep entry fee for the neighborhood, but there was still a small crowd of eager future shoppers outside the store last Friday ready to pay up, get their cards and start shopping. We let our curiosity get the better of us, and soon had our own Gold Star membership card along with a $10 promotional gift card to lessen the sting, and in we went to the immense warehouse store.
First of all, we must report that the Chanel handbags that bloggers were buzzing about last week were nowhere to be seen —either sold or possibly pulled at the request of a famously litigious brand, perhaps?. There were a few Tod's, Burberry and a single Ferragamo bag in a small case near the entrance, but if you think that Costco is a bonanza of designer bargains, then you will be sorely disappointed. We're not sure where these bags came from (or the single Rolex and Patek Phillipe watches, for that matter), but these things are not Costco's stock in trade.
We were initially struck by the randomness. We shouldn't expect careful store design in what is literally a warehouse, but one minute we are looking at TVs, then around the corner it's pots and pans and then towels. All these arbitrary items were peripheral, however, to the main departments, which essentially consist of your supermarket and drugstore on steroids. Keeping us entertained and fed as we tour the immense store was an abundance of sampling tables placed at the end of nearly every aisle. The fresh faced and cheery staff clearly had not yet become accustomed to the voracious free-sample habits of New Yorkers, and we were merrily encouraged to try some ice cream before we had even made it to the end of the aisle (as if we ever need encouragement to try ice cream). After tasting penne alla vodka, antipasto, confit of duck, roast pork, potato chips, goat cheese, chicken salad, tiramisu and apple pie to name just a few, we were full, and left to ponder how Costco could possibly fit into our usual consumer activities.
Sure, those baked goods are tasty, and we might want to buy a muffin, but we probably won't be needing 12 at a time even if they amortize out to about 53¢ each. This is the store's appeal and at the same time its drawback. We couldn't possibly use the famous brobdingnagian gallon jar of mayonnaise, let alone the three packaged together as a unit, but that's what Costco is all about. We don't think we could even fit those jumbo cereal boxes in our tiny New York City kitchen cabinets at all, and then there's the challenge of getting all those huge packages home. 117th street and the East River is not especially convenient to the subway, and imagine dragging those huge boxes on the bus. Oddly, there's little selection by brand within each category. Want mayonnaise? It's the giant Hellmann's or nothing, and so on.
Ultimately, we can see how Costco would be a boon when you're having a big party, have a highly populated household, or simply have the room to store 20 rolls of paper towels until you need them. Otherwise, now that Costco is here, we can't really imagine when we might need to go back before our yearlong membership runs out —yes, you have to renew every year.
Did we find anything for ourself? Yes, a package of 18 Scotch Brite scrubbing sponges. You can never have too many of those. They efficiently used up our $10 gift card, and we could carry them on the subway without much trouble.
Costco 517 East 117th Street at the FDR Drive, East Harlem