Has anyone ever emerged from a Costco and not gotten into a vehicle?
Certainly not if they’re coming from the District. Here’s how that goes: You get in your car, cross a bridge, travel along an expressway, enter the megabox wholesaler’s overcrowded parking lot, hunt for a space, hunt for a shopping cart, squeeze elbow to elbow through over packed aisles, fling oversized packages of toilet paper/bottled water/boneless-skinless chicken breasts around, join an interminable line, fish through a steel bin for cardboard boxes to carry your stuff, get your parking ticket validated, load your stuff, return your cart, inch out of the overcrowded parking lot, get back on the expressway, cross a bridge, and then double-park your car while you unload your oversized bundles of toilet paper/bottled water/boneless-skinless chicken breasts.
As you rush in and out of your place, traffic piles up behind your car. People start honking. Dog walkers stop and gawk. Now that’s city living, right?
Not by the textbook. In theory, the city is about the human scale, spaces and places that serve people rather than corporations. It’s about the livable and the walkable. It’s about community, being part of an enterprise bigger than yourself, but not too much bigger than yourself. It’s about sacrificing what’s easy and what’s cheap for a more satisfying way of living.
All of that is perfectly incompatible with mass quantities of goods at low, low prices—which appeals to suburban drones and urban explorers alike, accounting for the typical surfeit of District of Columbia license plates angling for spaces in the aforementioned overcrowded parking lot.
Face it: People of fairly progressive outlooks on matters of sustainability, smart growth, living wages, corporatism, and the like still trek out to Costco. What it lacks in succor to the urban liberal’s mindset, it makes up in convenience, savings, and—face it—spectacle.
How many dollars do the independent merchants of the District lose to Costco each year? Gotta be well into the tens of millions. Think about it: How much did you pay the last time you went to Costco—$200? Five hundred? The Census Bureau estimates that there’s 249,996 households in the District; say 20 percent are bulk wholesale shoppers. Even at the modest spending level of $500 per year, that’s more than $25 million in spending escaping the District (not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue).
Those numbers, imagined though they may be, constitute a crisis for D.C. retailers. There has to be a five-point plan, and it starts right here.
• Repeal all building-height limits. Every time someone talks about the District’s storied limitation on the height of buildings, they invoke the skyline or environmentalism/urban density. How about linking the much-talked-about repeal to the livelihood of the D.C. indie store? Think about it—what does Costco have that we don’t have? They’ve got square footage, and the difficulty of plopping a Costco-sized footprint in the District has helped keep the company’s stores out too long. Building up means more floors, more space, more room for those jumbo-size boxes of Cheerios and Jethro-type containers of Mott’s Apple Juice. And Costco’s reluctance to embrace the multi-floor layout would leave an opening for mom ’n’ pop.
• Slash prices. Clearly the number one draw for Costco is the low markups. Take my closest grocery option, the Best U Supermarket on the 1500 block of U Street NW. This place used to be your run-of-the-mill ghetto grocery, big on the package trade. In recent years, the owners have transformed the place into a yuppie shopping mecca, complete with imported pastas, Scandinavian crispbreads, artisan butters, and microbrews galore. While some folks will be buying those $7 boxes of raisin bran, I am not one of them. So go low to maintain volume! But no need to sacrifice the profit margins, retailers. Just embrace another Costco standby: The membership fee! After all, while at Costco, how often, as you behold that $12 case of Miller Lite, do you remember to amortize your $40 a year into the purchase price?
• Cut back on the selection. I love to buy clothes at Costco. Not because it’s convenient—not without dressing rooms or even a single mirror. Not because the stuff looks great—it’s generally high-quality, sure, but no one’s going to mistake Kirkland Select for Brooks Brothers. Not because it’s cheap—well, maybe because it’s cheap. But most of all, because an indecisive person can stroll in looking for a white button-down shirt, find the white button-down shirt bin, and get the hell out in seconds. No needless prolonging of the product choice experience. Same goes for cereal, bread, clothes, detergent, etc.
• Check receipts at the door. One of the essential moments of a Costco trip is when the drone checks your receipt against the items in the cart. This is such an amazing service that the retailer offers. As they say, they just want to make sure that you’re getting everything that you paid for. Now, how many D.C. retailers deploy a worker just to make sure you go away whole? Hiring such checkers is just the most obvious first step for city businesses to close the Costco gap.
• Cheap snacks. The stresses of navigating the Costco labyrinth are almost wholly offset by the $1.50 hot-dog-and-soda special on offer at the snack stand. Talk about a quality product at a good price: The all-beef franks are delightfully meaty and come on a nicely steamed bun. If a retailer’s unwilling to sling wieners personally, simply recruit a downtown half-smoke vendor to set up shop outside.
• Improve the transportation experience. Sure, you can locate yourself right next to a Metro station or multimodal transit hub or whatever, but the sort of bulk purchasing that people want from Costco is pretty much incompatible with mass transit. At the same time, the free-for-all that is the Pentagon City Costco parking lot isn’t going to cut it. So how ’bout IKEA-style delivery? A Zipcar lot onsite? Or maybe with a $100-or-more purchase, you get a free ride home within city limits. For those driving themselves, there’s gotta be parking, sure, but how about one of those cool automatic free-space light systems like they have at BWI now? That’d be great.
And here’s a kick in the ass for you local retailers: Costco’s not going to stay away forever. The Washington state-based company is becoming increasingly attracted to urban consumers. Just this month, it opened its first store in Manhattan, hard up against the East River in Harlem. The shelves are stacked a little higher, the aisles are a little narrower, the product mix is a little different (not so much on the patio furniture, for one).
Sure, retailers there are figuring out how to coexist with the behemoth around the corner. A local TV station did a piece where a retail analyst predicted death for Harlem’s bodegas. Then the station interviewed an actual bodega owner, who said he’d taken to stocking his shelves with items he purchased in bulk from Costco.
There’s an example of if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em defeatism if I ever saw it. Time is ticking for the little guys: Developers for several years have tried to lure the company to a site off South Dakota Avenue NE near Fort Lincoln. Before a deal gets done, you can eat Costco’s lunch.
Don’t think outside the box. Be the box!