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Bulk of Stuff Not Sold at Costco Site

February 15, 2001|JENNIFER LOWE |

The last time I went to Costco, I loaded up on the usual 24 rolls of toilet paper, 5 pounds of Swiss cheese and enough contact lens solution for a lifetime. Then I waded toward checkout, where I was buttressed by carts as I stood in line for 15 minutes.

I left thinking: "I'm paying a membership fee for this?" I like the savings offered by a warehouse store, but I must shop at the most crowded Costco in America.

It was a few days later that I had an epiphany: A Costco coupon booklet came in the mail, filled with coupons to use in the store or on the Costco Web site. Web site? Aha! A deliveryman could schlep the toilet paper to me.

I began picturing empty aisles--yes, they'd be virtual--and no waiting at checkout. So what if I'd miss out on the many in-store food samples? The cost of shipping a huge package of toilet paper did cross my mind, but I was determined to buy from the site.

Well, before you jump to Costco cyberspace, let me break it to you gently: The Costco site has no toilet paper. In fact, there are no paper products of any kind. Punch in "toilet paper" in the search window, and the site brings up a few toilets--something I have never seen in a store.

There also are no food staples--the desk-size boxes of cereal, the briefcase-size cans of tuna, the telephone-size blueberry muffins. There's no wine or beer aisle, not even cold cases with the bricks of Swiss cheese and all those big frozen boxes of rice bowls you have to jam in the freezer.

What was up? No doubt much of the perishable merchandise would be tough to ship, and the big though light packages of paper products would cost too much to mail. The more I searched the site, the more I realized that this was a Costco supplement.

Can't get enough of the experience at the store? Come online. You can troll here to see what impulse buys you might have missed pursuing the paper towels in the store. Only 15% to 20% of what's in the stores is available online.

The site also is designed to attract shoppers beyond Costco's 19 million members. Nonmembers pay 5% above the Web site's prices.

At Costco Online, I first looked for the familiar. I started with the only food aisle I could find, gourmet foods, but it appeared to be mostly gift packs: $18.69 for a pound of coffee, a French press and a box of cookies; $14.99 for a ceramic jar filled with biscotti. There were some frozen steaks and some smoked chicken breasts but none of the fresh items I always reach for, such as a package of 20 chicken breasts or two gallons of orange juice.

Health and beauty is another big category for me at the store, so I clicked on it to find contact lens solution. There were more gifty things under "beauty," but I found the lens solution easily enough under "eye care."

One nice thing about being online was that I could run and check my supply cupboard as I shopped. The site did have some of the basics, the kind for which you hate to make a trip to a Costco store unless you need a huge order.

But after this category, where to? Food, paper products, health and beauty. That was my typical $200 haul from the store. I clicked through other departments: home, where you could buy Lladro collectibles, a $160 sheet set and a $129 corkscrew; gardening, where there was an $800 bird feeder made of copper and weighing 140 pounds; women's clothing, which featured Tommy Hilfiger cargo jeans for $46.99; and the fresh flower department.

I also noted the books aisle, one with furniture and one with electronics, but I didn't want to be tempted; I wanted my toilet paper. Then I remembered the coupon booklet and thumbed through that. But about the only thing interesting in it was a cool-looking teak deck chair for $99.99 with the coupon. Unfortunately, it couldn't be ordered until Feb. 19.

After about an hour of browsing, I headed to checkout, but not with the euphoria I first imagined. I had only five items in my cart for a total of $78.92, which included $8.28 in shipping. My purchases shrank even more when a customer service representative e-mailed me two days later. Apparently, she said, my contact lens solution was no longer available. Figured. That was what I needed the most.

So the Costco Web site strategy actually worked quite well on me. It got my patronage online. Then it got my business a week later, when I dragged myself to the store. I needed contact lens solution, toilet paper, 5 pounds of cheese.

I stood in line for 20 minutes. I was buttressed by carts. I left shaking my head but firm in my resolve: Next time, I'm going to a different Costco store.


Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.



Costco Online

(800) 955-2292

The good: You can shop online for some of your usual purchases and skip the mobbed stores. Hallelujah!

The bad: Unlikely you'll find much of what you typically buy at the store. The $800 copper bird feeder is attractive, however.

Bottom line: A site for the Costco fanatic. But no toilet paper--what's the point?

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