Not sure why Costco is such a big deal

They expect me to pay to shop at their gargantuan warehouse

With the recent opening of another Costco, this one near Nisku at Edmonton International Airport, I have to once again wonder why people are obsessed with the place. And I do mean obsessed.

My experiences with Costco are limited. The first time I went into a Costco about 20 years ago, I remember a friend of mine saying, “You have to stick by me. You’re not allowed in without a membership.”

To which I answered, “Are you crazy? We have to pay for the privilege of shopping here? Ha, ha, ha. You’re not serious are you? Oh, you’re serious.” After spending a few minutes in the warehouse, I saw nothing on their shelves that isn’t available somewhere else for the same money. In my opinion a well-managed Canadian Tire has all of the offerings of a basic Costco. But that’s not the real topic of this column.

I personally do not believe Costco is cheaper than other shopping experiences; a couple of years ago when I moved to Wetaskiwin, I was in the market for two large appliances. The local Wetaskiwin Sears outlet had the cheapest price; Costco was no cheaper than other box stores, plus the appliances had to be shipped from Edmonton.

Those who are obsessed with Costco tend to exaggerate Costco’s benefits, while ignoring its drawbacks.

First and foremost, Cost does virtually no advertising, and to someone who is in the newspaper business, this is a concern. Apparently, Costco only sends out junk mail to its members, and relies on word of mouth to spread the word. There’s no doubt people reading this right now saying, “Damn right, who cares if they advertise. Who cares if the community newspaper is left out.”

Well, all of you who want to know why city council hiked your taxes, who in the community is accused of a crime, what the sports team did on the weekend and what offerings the fine local business community is offering could be out of luck, because advertising is part of the newspaper business. And I guarantee you Costco won’t be explaining to you, nor does it care, why city council raised your taxes.

Speaking of taxes, Costco doesn’t pay any taxes. Well, Costco does pay taxes, just not in Wetaskiwin. Costco wants to draw customers from Wetaskiwin who, if they’re drawn, spend their dollars out of the community, away from the businesses here, on things like groceries, clothing, appliances and fuel. The Wetaskiwin businesses that offer those services are left out in the cold, and if they shut down, the city loses that tax revenue. But that doesn’t affect Costco.

Similarly, local business does a lot to support the local community; I think about some of the charity barbecues and donations made recently, plus the support given annually to groups like minor hockey. Costco, on the other hand, is not going to do anything to help the Wetaskiwin community. Some corporations make large donations to major charities, but none of it will ever be seen in Wetaskiwin.

As an aside, I think small business can compete very well with biggies like Costco, but have to focus on things like customer service. But that’s a subject for another day.

Local businesses, even ones like Walmart, pay wages to local residents. Those local residents, in turn, spend their pay at other local businesses and the wealth stays in the community. But Costco isn’t part of this community. They’re remote, as if on a desert island. When you travel to Costco, your money leaves the community forever.

Then, we have pollution. Costcos tend to be located in relatively remote locations. You don’t just zip down to the Costco for a cup of carrots. Planning and executing a trip to Costco is at least a half-day job, sometimes more. And that means driving. Costco has hundreds of thousands of members who all have to drive to get to Costco. How far they drive is a question, but the fact remains that instead of driving two blocks to the local grocery store, some people are driving 200 kilometers round-trip to the Costco, and belching pollution into the air as they do it. That affects all of us, not just those who are obsessed with Costco.

I could go on, but I think I’ve already made my point. Costco isn’t paradise, and there are actually consequences to rural Alberta for shopping at Costco.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and spends most of his pay cheque in Wetaskiwin.

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