Fitting in becomes harder once you change economic zip codes. You still live on the same street with neighbors who work at Boeing or Microsoft. They still tell you about their cruises to Mazatlán or their ski trips to Whistler. Or they ask if you’ve seen the latest movie or recommend a new restaurant. But it’s hard to relate when the last movie you saw in a theater featured Harry Potter as a kid, and the only restaurant you’ve ventured inside of is McDonald’s during its two-for-one Quarter Pounder promotion.
Nowhere is this gap more evident than at Costco. We still own a membership, because many basics for a family of four cost less there. But Costco is the land of the well-off. It’s where you can find sun-dried tomatoes in huge jars and chocolate truffles from France and giant crabs laid out on ice.
The clothes carry designer labels: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gloria Vanderbilt. Leather covers the couches, and the TVs are so big they make you want to grab a bucket of popcorn. Costco sells basics. But it makes its money enticing buyers into upscale bargains.
Going to Costco when you’re below the poverty line is like entering a foreign country. Costco doesn’t advertise that it accepts food stamps. Maybe welfare doesn’t fit its image, or perhaps the company figures its customers don’t need assistance. After all, if you can’t afford food, why would you pay the $55 membership fee? Perhaps because food costs less there if you shop carefully and know your prices—even after taking the annual fee into account.
If you ask, you find out the company does accept EBT cards in some states. In Washington, they’ll allow it at the cashier’s checkstands, but not the self-checkout. So one day, I tried it. As I waited anxiously with my food card ready in hand for the cashier to ring up the total, a sales manager approached and examined my membership card. She tapped in a number on her handheld tablet.
“Did you know based on your past purchases you could save $700 a year by upgrading your membership?” she asked brightly.
“Uh, no,” I answered.
She proceeded to tell me about their Executive Membership as I swiped the EBT. The upgrade carries a higher fee of $100 per year, but offers 2% back on purchases. I tried not to laugh or point out that doubling my fee would be insane now. I got the PIN wrong and tried again as the manager droned on about benefits and savings. In front of me, the cashier glanced at her readout and began to look like she was having an epileptic seizure as she signaled the manager to abort.
I debated whether to explain that the person who belonged to their stats no longer exists, but in the end I simply thanked the manager and took her pamphlet. Then I asked if Costco has any job openings.