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).