With social distancing measures in place, Costco has had to make significant changes to the shopping experience. Shoppers could no longer dine in at the food court or enjoy free samples of food throughout the store. Some locations limited the number of people allowed inside, meaning shoppers might have to wait in line even to enter. The stores instituted purchase limits as well and required customers to wear masks.
Although the warehouse club had a promising March, when sales increased 11.7%, these changes may well have contributed in the next month's dip in sales. In April, sales declined 1.8% compared to what they were last year.
As states open back up, though, Costco is starting a "slow roll-out" of some of the popular features it had to suspend, Costco chief financial officer Richard Galanti said, according to the industry site Grocery Dive. The in-store food courts have started adding more food options for takeout in some locations, and free samples will begin to come back as well starting in mid-June.
Costco is probably eager to reinstate free samples because of how heavily they can influence buying decisions, says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.
"Shoppers appreciate taste-testing products before they buy, especially when buying bulk," she says. "If you end up buying something in a large quantity that doesn't appeal to you, that's a major waste of food and money."
Handing out samples increased frozen pizza sales at Costco by 600% and wine by a little more than 300%, according to 2014 data from Costco's sampling department run by Club Demonstration Services.
Free samples also trigger the social psychological phenomena known as the reciprocity norm. "If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surprisingly strong obligation to do something back for them," Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, told The Atlantic.
That means if someone offers you a small, free sample of a cookie, you may feel obligated to reciprocate by buying a box of the cookies.
Unfortunately, it may not be safe or wise to accept a free sample in a grocery store, says Dr. Carolyn McClanahan, a physician-turned-financial advisor who serves as the director of financial planning for Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.
"At least not for now," she says. "The two major routes of transmission [for Covid-19] have been being in enclosed places with people and eating together."
Costco responded by saying they have no comment at this time.
Costco is working to restore its in-person experience to its pre-pandemic glory at a time when people are open to finding a new grocer. One-fifth of shoppers have switched their primary grocer during the Covid-19 crisis, according to a McKinsey survey of 1,500 shoppers.
The No. 1 reason shoppers are switching grocers is because they are encountering empty shelves where they usually shop. Therefore, they are turning to alternatives like Instacart and wholesale food distributors. The latter can be an especially appealing option for those on a budget.
"Considering the cost per unit is much less, [buying from a wholesale food distributors] is really a smart move right now to save money and stretch your budget," Woroch told Grow earlier this year.
Earlier this spring, Costco also faced push-back for instituting safety protocols such as requiring shoppers to wear face masks while inside the warehouse. After announcing the new mandate, a small but vocal faction took to social media to say they would cancel their memberships in light of the new rule.
Still, some Costco members don't see social distancing or other public health measures as a reason to abandon their warehouse club membership. Some of the store's changes have even made for a smoother shopping experience, says Victoria Leta, 28, who goes to a Costco in Brooklyn every two weeks. "Since they've limited the amount of customers in the store, you're able to move your cart around with ease and avoid bumping into someone," she told Grow earlier this year.
"Getting in and shopping at Costco was quite peaceful."
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