It's a Mann's world: Wholesale wonderland

Olly Mann

This month Olly Mann waxes lyrical about the nostalgic, all-American charm of Costco…

Our new fitted kitchen is full of gadgets and gizmos. Every plug socket has a USB connection. Every drawer closes with a sexy stealth Alan Partridge might hail as “nice action.” There’s also a voice-controlled speaker, a “nutrient extractor,” and even a wine cooler (which, in an outrageous affront to the bourgeoisie, cost three times more than a beer fridge of the same size).

In the corner of the room there’s a floor-to-ceiling cupboard. It contains no cantilevered shelving. No spring-loaded spice rack. It’s just a cupboard. An un-pimped cupboard. It’s my favourite thing in our new kitchen. It’s my Costco cupboard.

You see, I’m lucky enough to live a mere 20 minutes from a branch of Costco. There are only 28 in the UK, so you may have never stepped foot in one; in which case, just imagine a really big warehouse where members can buy stuff in bulk from industrial sized buckets of mayo to wholesale dresses.

Except that doesn’t do it justice—that’s a bit like saying, “IKEA? Just imagine a flatpack distribution centre, beneath a meatball restaurant,” or “Hollister? A homoerotic nightclub in a library, where everyone smells of sandalwood.” Such statements only paint half the picture. When a retail environment is so distinct from its competitors, it’s actually quite hard to describe.

One thing is clear, however: once you step over Costco’s unprepossessing concrete threshold, you never look back. My Dad was a fervent fan, often turning up very early to grab the complimentary muffins and coffee they supply to the first shoppers of the day. From 1993 until his death in 2016, he never relinquished his membership. The cemetery in which he’s buried happens to overlook the Watford branch. I can sincerely say he was laid to rest somewhere that made him very happy.

Dad first took me to Costco when I was 14. Lilliputian disbelief overwhelmed me. The sheer size of the merchandise! Catering-sized ketchup bottles as tall as traffic cones; sacks of coffee so substantial they could protect a house from flooding; inflatable swimming pools that could feasibly be used for diving. The next thing I noticed was the insane range of products on the shelves: everything from car tyres to SodaStreams to birthday cakes. Merchandise was displayed in wooden crates, all the way up to the ceiling. There were epic walk-in fridges, full of fruit and dairy. Stacked cardboard boxes were offered at the till, in place of plastic bags. It was unlike any shop I’d ever visited.

But the real reason it resonated with me was because it felt so American. Growing up in the 1980s (and 90s, before Britpop), everything that seemed cool and clever came from the US: Levi’s, Letterman, rap music, The Simpsons. My favourite movies were all American, and featured children of my own age as protagonists: E.T., The Goonies, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park. I envied the lifestyles depicted on screen, where all the homes seemed massive and all the kids projected confidence and everybody wore baseball caps and ate Reese’s Pieces. I basically wanted to be American. And Costco felt American.

"The knowledge that I won’t have to leave the house to get table salt for a decade is a delight"

Plastic umbrellas, signifying food-stations where you could help yourself to free samples, were dotted around the store (Crispy tofu? Don’t mind if I do!). In a concession to British tastes, the in-house café served jacket potatoes—but with a decidedly American “Baconnaise” filling. Behind the cash registers, the productivity ranking of each individual worker was unabashedly documented on plastic “Employee of the Month” noticeboards, just like I’d seen in the movies. Even the toilet cubicles were American-style, fashioned out of stainless steel with those weird little gaps between the door and the frame. And, of course, plenty of imported treats were on sale, such as tubs of Skippy peanut butter, and “family size” Tropicana cartons—both, at the time, unavailable in UK supermarkets, and both exactly like props from a family kitchen in a Spielberg film.

In the era of President Trump, I’m no longer as enamoured with the stars-and-stripes subtext of shopping at Costco, but still find the experience exhilarating. There’s just something wonderful about purloining 500 nappies in one hit, or a year’s supply of dishwasher tablets. The knowledge that I won’t have to leave the house to get table salt or bin bags for perhaps a decade is a giddying delight. But, of course, buying in bulk only works when you have space to store your purchases.

Until recently, we’d kept our huge boxes of Costco swag in the garage. This was an ideal storage solution for, say, multipacks of de-icing fluid. It was, I admit, a less-than-perfect place to store the ten packs of Ferrero Rocher I once bought as Christmas gifts for colleagues: all had been munched by mice by the time winter came. But, in any case, we don’t have a garage any more. It was demolished, and upon it sits our new kitchen, featuring my Costco cupboard.

If I removed the shelves, and formed a bed from the giant basmati rice boxes, I could, just about, live in there. My own little nuclear bunker, with a lifetime’s supply of antibacterial wipes. Heaven.