Walking into Costco for the first time can feel overwhelming, I think it’s safe to say. I have a vivid memory of my first time shopping there: My then-boyfriend, now-husband of a ridiculous amount of years (she said lovingly) brought me to the Costco in central Massachusetts, near his family’s home. I spun around in a dazed joy, eyes pulled upward to the towering stacks of...stuff. So much stuff. I remember discovering the largest can of tomato paste I had ever seen in one of the aisles and holding it aloft as I ran toward Gary shouting something like, “Oh my god, would you look at this?”
The man next to us leaned over and said kindly, “First time at a Price Club, huh?”
Now, many years later, I consider myself somewhat of a Costco pro. I know what products I like, what I will use in Price Club quantities, and which items will just take up too much space in my fridge and go to waste.
But, like yoga or mediation, we'd be wise to consider Costco shopping a practice to be dedicated to, and to be filled with ebbs and flows, always presenting a chance to learn something new. Here are some of the things I've discovered in the past few months though assiduous shopping, research, and conversations with Costco employees:
1. The cents in the prices may not be arbitrary. I had heard the rumors, but Assistant Manager Lori at a Costco in Connecticut confirmed this very useful tidbit: If you see an item with a price ending in ".97" that means it’s marked down and going out of stock, possibly for a long time, maybe even forever. You’ll see this often on seasonal items, like gardening merchandise or holiday decorations. It’s a very subtle way of putting things on clearance, though the prices may or may not not drop all that dramatically. You should definitely buy the product if you want it, and if it’s something you use a lot of and it’s nonperishable, stock up. Prices ending with ".00" or ".88" also indicate something is on sale, for any number of reasons, usually because there is a small amount of the merch that needs moving. These are usually sale prices set at the store level, versus nationwide.
2. Look for the star (aka asterisk) on the price card. Rob in the electronics section of the store explained this to me, and Lori corroborated: A star means that this item has been deleted from the inventory, and is on its way out. Again, it may come back someday…or it may not. The takeaway: If you like it, buy it.
3. Beyond cheddar. Costco has lots of your more basic cheeses, like cheddar, fresh mozzarella, Gouda, and shredded Mexican blends. Goat cheese, Brie, and Parmesan come in a whole bunch of varieties and are very well priced, as well. But if you were looking to put together a more sophisticated cheese board, take a closer look at the cheese section. On my last trip they had authentic Italian DOP Taleggio, P’tit Basque cheese from France, and Le Pico cheeses (also from France), sort of like a Camembert-style cheese made with goat’s milk. Prices are terrific: In my store I saw the Taleggio for $6.99 a pound and the Le Pico was two for $7.99, where you might pay double that at a cheese shop or counter.
Try using these cheeses in:
4. Vacations and cruises. Lori said do not miss the cruise offerings. Cunard, Royal Carribean, and Uniworld River Cruises from Alaska to Denali to Europe...the offerings are vast and there are some great deals to be had.
5. Anyone can use the pharmacy. No card needed, and the prices are highly competitive.
6. Plants. Lori also said that their deals on plants are pretty spectacular, especially in late spring. I would make one trip to see what they have, then plan out your plantings, and return with a list. As always with Costco, make your turnaround time tight—inventory changes fast.
7. If an item goes on sale after you bought it, you can get the difference refunded. As long as it’s within 30 days, bring your receipt if you have it, but basically since you used your Costco card when you bought it, they can track previous purchases and will have a record in their system. Without a receipt you will get the lowest sale price refunded, so that’s a good reason to keep your receipt. Apparently, a little known fact is that you don’t even have to bring in unsatisfactory produce to get your money back—just the receipt.
8. Consider the Executive Membership. I started with a basic membership, but once I listened to a particularly persuasive cashier’s pitch, I upgraded to the Executive Membership level. Here’s why: The regular membership is $60, and the Executive membership is $60 more. The main perk is that you get a refund of 2 percent on all of your purchases at the end of the year, so if you're a regular shopper and think a $3,000 annual total might be in your sights, then go for it (P.S. if you're contemplating any big purchase, whether a TV or a vacation, it’s definitely something to think about).
Also, you get lower pricing on things like auto insurance (another thing Costco offers!), plus free roadside assistance and discounts on check printing (yet another service!). But here’s why you can’t lose: If by the end of the year you haven’t spent enough so that you make up the upgrade fee of $60, they will give you back the difference. NB: You do have to make a note to ask for it.
9. Back to the food: organic poultry and meat. If you compare prices with other organic chickens or meats sold at markets or butchers, you’ll see that Costco’s prices are terrific. Prices on all meat at Costco fluctuate with the market, but they are always very competitive. I love buying organic chicken thighs to make my Greek Roasted Chicken Thighs, chicken breasts for my Chicken Stir-Fry with Peanuts, or ground beef for my Deviled Burgers.
10. More chicken thoughts. That Costco's rotisserie chickens are delicious and a bargain at $4.99 is not a secret. What’s kind of interesting, though (and definitely makes you feel like a smart shopper), is the fact that they actually lose a bit of money on each cooked bird they sell. Their rotisserie chickens are what are known as “loss leaders,” which means items that are intentionally sold at a great value for the customer, even though they don’t make a profit for the store. The big reason Costco (and other merchandisers) do this is because, well, look at your cart! Not many people go in for just a roast chicken and leave with that single item—there’s plenty of profit in those other items for the store. And listen while you shop: When you hear a bell ring, that means they're putting fresh, hot rotisserie chickens out for sale.
11. Even more good news in the chicken department. Sure, you can buy one of their inexpensive birds and shred the meat yourself to use in all kinds of recipes. Or—especially if you're a fan of white meat—you can buy a package of hand-pulled shredded chicken breasts from their rotisserie chickens with all of the work done for you. The chunks are nice and substantial. Plus: $15.89 for a big 42-ounce package. I like to buy these packages to make any number of meals, like ramen, quesadillas, and chicken Caesar salad wraps.
12. Organic produce is a very good buy. Lettuces, berries, carrots—Costco has a huge range of organic products, many with recognizable and trusted brand names (Earthbound Farms, Driscoll’s), and their prices are excellent. According to several sources, Costco is the leading seller of organic produce by volume in the U.S. so that bulk purchasing power translates to savings for us.
13. Order a whole cooked pizza when you know you have about 20 minutes left of shopping and checkout time. Won’t you feel like a smarty-pants when you sail from the checkout line to the food court to pick up your hot and waiting pizza? Then either sit with the fam and dig in, or bring it home to the waiting, cheering crowd.
14. Check out their coupon book. Anything from microwave popcorn to laundry detergent to a grill might be on sale. At the time of this writing, a KitchenAid 8 burner gas grill was on sale from $1,999.99 to $1,499.99—a $500 savings! The discount is applied automatically at checkout, no coupon clipping necessary. The Costco mobile app will show you what’s on sale if you forgot to check the coupon book you should have received in the mail, and there is signage posted throughout the store highlighting their coupon offerings as well. Sales offerings change often.
15. No card? No problem (sort of). In some states you can shop in their liquor store without a card. And if you have a friend with a card, then they can buy you a Costco gift card, which will get you in just like a regular membership does (because you’ll just use it to pay). Some stores may limit the number of times you can do this per year, so check your store first.