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The Goods

Living Large

Shopping in discount warehouses is no small thing. But buying bigger can be better if you know a few things going in.


By their fruits, you shall know them: Forty Granny Smiths, seven-bunch bananas. By their dry goods, you shall know them: rice in a 10-pound sack, a cracker box as big as the Ritz. And by their cleaning and paper products you shall certainly know them: Tide in the 20-gallon jug, 35-roll count of toilet paper.

They shop as if they are purchasing agents for the local Widows and Orphans Fund or planning a Shriner's convention--chicken potpies by the gross, 12-year-old Scotch in bottles the size of a 12-year-old--but they are neither. They are members of Price Club, and yea, they are my brethren.

The emergence of the discount mega-warehouse occurred in the early '80s when yuppies ruled the urban savannah, newly bipedal and in search of the perfect baby arugula. They seemed to subsist on air--three grains of rice and a splash of squid ink was considered a meal. Denizens of Price Club (officially Price / Costco since a 1993 merger) and its competitors therefore tended to be the parents of large families, buyers for charitable institutions and agricultural emissaries from newly emerging nations.

Now, yuppies have discovered hunger and other dangers of the verminous pink slip, and saving money has become, by necessity, chic. Even as we speak, there are about 130 discount warehouses in California, most of them Price / Costcos--not surprising since Mr. Price launched his empire from San Diego.

I joined Price Club last year for even more ignoble reasons. I grew envious of the Warhol-like nature of my neighbor's goods, the most outstanding being a canister of processed Parmesan roughly the size of the Space Shuttle. It seemed to represent a stability I felt was lacking in my life. So I got in my car, sputtered out to Burbank, handed over $35 and two forms of ID, was handed back my Price Club card, and the next thing I knew I was pushing a bright orange cart way bigger than me, little Cindy Lou Who trapped in the King's larder. My life has never been the same.

Here is a place where life teems. It is a veritable Tower of Babel, proof that the world loves two things: Jerry Lewis and Ajax, six cans for $2.99. And for those aisle virgins among us, here are a few pointers about the Club and its kindred:

1. Weekends are for family fun. Saturdays and Sundays at Price Club look like "Cheaper by the Dozen" meets "Mi Familia"--the ratio of children to adults being about 17 to 1. 'Course it's hard to tell, the little suckers move around so much, their sweetly pitched voices shattering the air--or is it that gallon jar of mayonnaise someone just dropped? (Normal in-store mishaps take on tragic proportions here in Larger than Life Land.) If you do not possess those traits that turned the carefree novitiate Maria into the Nazi-fleeing Mrs. Von Trapp, try to go on weekday evenings; the Club's open until 8:30. Quieter. Fewer opportunities for unfortunate shopping cart accidents.

2. Give yourself some time. I have been known to skip down to my local 7-Eleven, buy a few essentials, the keystone of which are a pack of cigarettes and some Sun Chips, and call it "grocery shopping." So you can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that a successful trip to the Price Club requires a period of time usually reserved for that obligatory yearly attempt to watch "The Ten Commandments." (I've never gotten past the raising of the Golden Calf--they do get out of the desert, right?)

3. Make a list. It will give you something to crumple in frustration when you discover that they're out of the 25 count boxes of the Pop-Tarts you weren't going to buy in the first place.

4. Do not bother looking for romance, but if you happen to accidentally bump into it, chain it to your cart. Price Club is all about commitment--when you buy a 2-quart bottle of Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner, you are basically stating that you plan to stick around for a while and you don't care who knows it. So, as you can imagine, there aren't a whole lot of single folk milling around. But the few who are, well, think about the level of maturity and stability they must possess.

5. Eat first. If this is true when you venture to Ralphs, it is especially true at Price Club. The presence of so much food, with free samples at every turn, is temptation enough. Add to it the free floating psychosis generated by the sight of canned goods and bakery products, fresh produce and candy bars, fruit juice and condiments, stacked from floor to ceiling, in row after row, as far as the eye can see, and a WPA mentality sets in, a physical need to get your hands on as much as you possibly can. So eat first. Or medicate.

6. They do not bag your merchandise for you, so bring boxes. If you forget, it's OK, there are boxes available, but beggars can't be choosers. I don't know how you'd feel about your neighbors eyeing a carton previously home to "Personal Lubricant, 500-pieces," but I had to move away, that's all. And now I bring my own boxes.

7. Pace yourself. Consider Price Club the Hockney Retrospective of supermarkets. Adopt the sweep search approach preferred by rescue workers and those guys on the beach with metal detectors--and keep moving. Should you remain at rest for more than five minutes, someone may put you in their cart and attempt to buy you. In all probability, this is a legal transaction, as long as he or she is a member in good standing.

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