Since taking over the Retail Watch column in April, I have received emails, phone calls and face-to-face inquiries regarding Costco Wholesale, the national warehouse club retailer that may or may not be coming to Lower Macungie Township as part of a proposed $140 million shopping center.
The project, currently in limbo, hit a snag in June when Lehigh County commissioners rejected a plan that would have given tax benefits to the project.
Some readers questioned whether the Lower Macungie site was the best option for the Lehigh Valley. Others simply vented their frustrations with Lehigh County commissioners. All, however, said they were eager to see a Costco in the Lehigh Valley.
Unfortunately, as a Costco virgin, I couldn't relate. Instead, I either admitted my ignorance or nodded along like I knew every detail of the business.
I cite three main reasons for my inexperience:
1. I have never been one to buy in bulk, and I assumed that was the company's main draw.
2. The idea of paying to shop gets me as excited as visiting the dentist for a root canal.
3. Even if I wanted to tag along with a friend or family member, there's no Costco in the Lehigh Valley.
I thought it was about time that I delve into the seemingly cult-like obsession first hand.
I sought out a Costco devotee to accompany me on a shopping excursion to the Montgomeryville store. Then a retired couple from Bechtelsville, Berks County, suggested that I join them at the Pottstown location, as "it is newer and has all the peripheral services — pharmacy, photo, hearing aids, eye glasses and gasoline." So I made a change of plans. The store, which opened in 2011, technically is in Limerick Township, Montgomery County (next to the Philadelphia Premium Outlets).
After meeting the couple, Dave and Ruth Anne Starnes, I knew that I made the right decision. The husband and wife of 22 years were more excited about shopping at Costco than any business owner I interviewed about opening a new restaurant or store.
Rambling off items they've purchased at Costco, including a leather office chair, an iron, eye glasses and almost everything Dave Starnes was wearing, the couple made their loyalty known loud and clear.
"She suffers from withdrawal when we don't visit Costco at least every other week," Dave jokes. "We purchase almost everything here — from food, clothing and tools to furniture, a laptop and my hearing aid."
The Starnes, who have been shopping at Costco since 1995, spend about $9,000, or about 14 percent of their yearly personal expenditures, at the membership-only warehouse chain. They are executive members, which mean they receive 2 percent cash back (up to $750) on annual eligible purchases, as well as additional benefits through various member services such as auto, travel and pharmacy. An annual executive membership is $110 compared to $55 for business and gold star memberships.
As full-time RVers from 2000-2008, the Starnes have shopped at Costcos all over the country. Their motor home is now permanently parked in Tucson, Ariz., where they live during the winter. Luckily, there is a Costco within a 10-minute drive there.
On this shopping trip, the couple was not on the hunt for a cart full of items because they had bought a large order the previous week. General Manager Scott Riekers tagged along to offer additional insight into the second-largest retailer in the U.S. and the fourth-largest retailer on the planet, based on worldwide sales.
"We're absolutely growing," Riekers says. "An average Costco building will bring in about $150 million per year. It's impressive considering we don't advertise. All growth is mainly through word of mouth."
Upon entering the warehouse, we are greeted by televisions, audio equipment and other electronics. Dave notes the couple had bought two televisions here.
"Even after shopping online, Costco still had the best deal," he adds.
The couple, who previously had been members of rival warehouse clubs BJ's and Sam's Club, also like Costco's return policy, which allows customers to return any item at any time, except for electronics (within 90 days).
"You can return just about anything here — no questions asked," says Ruth Ann, a former art teacher at Phillipsburg High School. "I brought a pineapple back one time because it wasn't ripe — no problem."
Traveling a little farther into the store, we pass a one-hour photo station where Dave is a regular. "We produce the newsletter for our community in Bechtelsville, Spring Valley Village, so we are very into photography," he says. "At Costco, we can upload pictures online and pick them up at the warehouse in as little as an hour."
I frequently shop at Giant for most grocery purchases, so I notice Costco's smaller selection of goods. According to Riekers, the warehouse's low number of items (about 4,000) is intentional, as it is meant to make the shopping experience less stressful.
"We limit our merchandise to the best-selling items in each category," Riekers says. "For example, you might find just a couple types of ketchup here in comparison to many more types at your average grocery store."
There are also no big signs, intercom announcements or salesmen.
"The goal is to create an enjoyable shopping environment with no pressure," Riekers says. "We realize most people just want to come in and do what they need to do."
In 2012, a Consumer Reports customer satisfaction survey conducted on 10 major retail chains revealed Costco to be the most pleasing. Beating out other retailers like Sam's Club, Walmart and Target in the survey of more than 26,000 readers, Costco was the only one to receive an outstanding grade for its quality of products — both in store and online.
It also received high marks for value and ease of navigation. The warehouse club's two downfalls were in-store selection and long checkout lines. Its overall score was 84, while its main competitor, Sam's Club, scored a 77.
Costco also is known for more generous pay and benefits than most retailers. Workers start out at $12 per hour and top out at $22 per hour. Full- and part-time employees receive seven paid holidays, and health, dental, vision and life insurance. The retailer has a turnover rate of just 6 percent for employees of less than one year of service.
Venturing into the food department, Ruth Anne picks up an item she rarely passes up — a three-pound seasoned rotisserie chicken for $4.99. The item is a product of Kirkland Signature, Costco's house brand. Riekers say the poultry's popularity results in an average of 2,500 chickens sold per week, per warehouse.
Other popular Kirkland Signature items include 12-inch pumpkin pies ($6 each), high-end extra virgin olive oil ($11.99 for a 1-liter bottle), toilet paper ($15 for 30 two-ply rolls) and men's button-down dress shirts ($17.99 each).
In addition to the chicken, other items the Starnes put in their cart include sweet potato salad, Phillips crab cakes and blueberries.
"We buy almost all of our meat here," Dave says. "We especially like the ribs, which we cook on a grill that we bought at Costco three years ago."
Traveling around the perimeter of the warehouse, I notice many seasonal items — including beach chairs, fertilizer and Halloween costumes — are placed in the center.
"The middle of the store changes the most," Riekers says. "We believe in 'early in and early out,' which means we won't have items after the season is over. Christmas decorations, for example, will be gone by the middle of December."
Costco also offers specialty departments to help make it a one-stop shopping destination. They include a gas station, tire center, pharmacy, optical department and hearing aid center.
As we approach checkout, which doesn't entail long lines, I suddenly realize something. I am riding alongside Dave and Ruth Anne, as well as other Morning Call readers, on the Costco bandwagon.
Maybe it was my passionate accomplices or maybe it was my inner bargain hunter, but I had become completely wrapped up in the Costco experience. From the affordable prices and alluring return policy to the signature items and unique services, it was an intriguing shopping experience.
I still don't think I'd travel nearly an hour to shop at one, but I can definitely see why many Retail Watchers have been pleading for a closer location. And since the company will refund your membership fee at any time if you're not satisfied, I suppose I wouldn't have much to lose either.
As for the Starnes, the couple continue to love Costco, but not more than they love their cats, Rhett and Scarlett. I'll give you one guess where they buy their kitty litter.