Advertising is often used to showcase the perfect consumer experience. Supposedly, these places really exist, yet we all know that most shopping adventures fall far short of this ideal. How ironic is it that the one place to actually deliver on such a promise doesn’t even use traditional TV advertising.

Welcome to Costco. The most perfect shopping experience available to the average consumer today. A bold claim that I will substantiate in the following five points:

#1. Elitism. Costco appeals to the elitist nature that exists in all of us through their membership card. We are forced to pay Costco to have the privilege to get in the door. And even as we huff and puff about having to produce proof of membership each time we enter, there exists somewhere deep a secret hope that every once in a while some membership pretender will get stopped by the goons at the door and beaten to a bloody pulp for even attempting to enter without proper authorization.

“Ed, we’ve got some non-members here trying to enter the store.”

“Okay Frank, hold them out for ridicule and peer abuse while I ensure they never, ever receive any of the spectacular deals we have in store today.”

It may not seem like much but I can remember when it was a big deal to have a friend who could “get you inside” the Xanadu that was Costco. Who can forget the pre-trip arrangements about who was paying for what and working out the dialogue script of what things not to say, just so the staff wouldn’t get tipped off to the obvious duplicity being paraded in front of them. We were so very clever, weren’t we?

#2. Free samples. No grocery store I have ever visited has the range and volume of free samples that a Costco does. Maybe during a grand opening or on a milestone birthday but in most cases scoring a free sample at a grocery store is like spotting a UFO. Not at Costco. I have skipped meals attempting to more effectively freeload aisle to aisle, scheming to get a second bite of baklava but not look like a gluttonous pig doing it. Meanwhile, Costco is celebrating my petty nature by noting an average purchase rate of $200 per visit, per customer. Is there any question who’s winning on this one?

#3. Variety. This may seem a strange point. The story goes that Costco stocks only 4000 items in any given store while the average Wal-Mart has well over 100,000. On the surface, this seems to be a sickening lack of choice, yet it is somehow made to seem much more expansive due to Costco’s weirdly schizophrenic selection. Tires and crackers. Gold watches and Liquid Paper. Socks and air hockey tables. Kraft cheese slices and a Picasso (yes, a Picasso). Costco is a moving target. You cannot nail them down, ever.

#4. Scarcity. Costco are evil geniuses at creating the urgency to purchase. Certain products are stocked week after week, while being cleverly displayed next to rotating items that come only once and often leave forever. All it takes is one instance of pondering over purchasing, only to return later and find the item long gone. The disappointment we suffer immediately and completely trains us to buy first and think about it later. Pavlov had nothing on Costco.

And finally #5. The Costco return policy. This is the single most effective driver of sales ever seen. I have no fear whatsoever in buying anything at all from them. I know that if I have any problem, no matter how small, lame or stupid I can return the item to Costco with zero hassle. I have returned dozens of things to Costco with absolutely no problems. I can’t say that about anywhere else. Thing is, Costco ain’t wearing the sucker sticker here either. After returning the item I spin around and buy the same thing again and, just because I’m already there, some pepperoni, underwear and a plasma television.

No TV ads. No mascot. No fancy stores. Just square boxes with acres of stuff marked up no more than 14%. Costco is an infinite, yet surprisingly satisfying, cycle of purchasing insanity. Call me crazy Costco, but I think I love you.

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