In 2019, 98.5 million people paid for a Costco membership, according to Statista. For a yearly fee of $60, they shopped quality goods in bulk at wholesale prices. They also received access to discounted alcohol, tasty samples, and $1 churros at the Costco food court, among other perks.
During the pandemic, though, many people are trying to make fewer grocery runs to warehouse clubs and other supermarkets. They no longer get free samples, and may not be able to get everything on their shopping list due to purchase limits and fewer items on the shelves as a result of panic buying from other shoppers. And starting May 4, Costco will require all shoppers to wear masks.
Given those changes, is paying for a membership to Costco worth the yearly fee of $60 right now? Consumers think so. This year, membership renewal rates reached a historic high of 90%, according to Investors.com. Overall sales in March 2020 were $15.49 billion, 11.7% higher than they were in March 2019.
Here's why shoppers are sticking with the store and why, in some cases, they think a membership is even more valuable than it was before the pandemic.
Victoria Leta, 28, a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, bought a Costco membership one year ago and shares it with her boyfriend. They go to the store every two weeks, and Leta says they haven't been bothered by purchase limits in place on items such as bottled water and toilet paper.
"The purchase limits have not affected us, really, but that's because we are only buying for ourselves," she says. "The Kirkland brand toilet paper can last us months."
Vinny Tung, a 25-year-old real estate developer in Washington, D.C., also visits Costco once every two weeks. "I got my first Costco membership when I was in college and I've had it ever since," he says.
The purchase limits haven't really affected him, either. If anything, the quarantine has resulted in him having a surplus of food. "Prequarantine, I used to go with some of my friends, but in my current situation, I definitely do not," he says.
Video by Courtney Stith
Although Tung has found himself buying a bit more than he can realistically consume, Leta says the quarantine has prompted her to use everything she purchases from Costco. "To have abundance in this crisis is pure luck and a privilege, and having a Costco membership right now sure as hell is just that," she says.
Before the pandemic, Leta and her boyfriend would get "a few staples and a few novelty snacks and coffee," but inevitably certain items would always expire before she could use them.
"You buy some perishables and end up going out to eat," she says. "You could get bored with the resources you already had and buy others. It seems so silly now. There is a lot less food waste now that we are cooking everything and being more resourceful with what we have before going out to replenish."
After the shelter-in-place order came down in New York City, Leta and her boyfriend stood in a long line for their local Costco. Her anxiety grew, she says, as she heard other shoppers talk about possible product shortages and people they knew who were infected by the coronavirus. But upon entering, she was relieved to see that the store wasn't at all packed with people.
"Getting in and shopping at Costco was quite peaceful," she says. "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."
As the shelter-in-place orders persist and Americans adjust to the new normal, some shoppers find there aren't long waits, either. "I just went yesterday and there was no line," Tung says. "A month and a half ago when this all started, I went and was like, 'Oh god, this is kind of crazy,' and I left the scene and came back another time."
Costco offers deals on travel, prescriptions drugs, and other goods and services besides groceries.
Chris Hoover, 72, lives in Sonoma County, California, and has not gone to Costco once since the shelter-in-place order. Instead, he and his wife are trying to patronize smaller businesses like their independent neighborhood supermarket. "We're staying as local as possible," he says.
Still, he feels like a Costco membership is "invaluable," especially for buying big-ticket items like tires and vacuum cleaners.
"We don't have any plans ever to not be a member of Costco," he says. "I would have a Costco membership even if I didn't go for a year."
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