Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Costco Experience

I had to cut the image of our Costco receipt (click this image for a bigger one) into three pieces to get Blogger to display it properly. This was after putting it together in Photoshop as one nifty-looking long strip that I'd hoped to run down the side of the post. Unfortunately, that yielded a minuscule image as Blogger restricts the vertical length of an image.

My husband made his tri-monthly trip to Costco today to load up on cheap and imported items. There are quite a few treats that you rarely find in local markets in Japan such as large quantities of seedless green grapes for a very low price.

We've been shopping at Costco since the first one opened in Makuhari in December of 2000. At first, we rented a small van and split the cost with my former boss for trips to Costco. This allowed us to buy without concern for how much we could physically carry. This was both fun and somewhat tiring, particularly for my former boss who arranged for rental, drove the van, filled it up with gas, then returned the van. He was an incredible sport for going through all the hassle.

I don't have an international drivers license nor does my husband so we've never driven in Japan but it's not the most enjoyable experience. There are a lot of tolls that you have to stop and pay at along the way and traffic can be rather bad at times, particularly if you drive through the more crowded areas like Shinjuku. Going in the summer is also very hot and uncomfortable, particularly in a van where the air conditioning isn't going to really permeate the back seating area very well.

The fun part of going to Costco this way was that this was as close to a road trip as we can get in Japan. I'd usually bake something to eat on the way there (as breakfast) and we'd talk amongst ourselves during the trip. There was usually a good bit of making fun of my boss's flatmate who was relatively quiet and tended to mumble when he did speak. Unfortunately, doing this added more time to the trip as well as about $35 apiece in expenses. Because public transportation is so good in Japan, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes by train and costs about $9 in train fare as compared to an hour and 45 minutes by van depending on how the traffic treated us.

The other problem was that my former boss didn't have the time or desire to go as often as we did so my husband started going alone. He learned that Costco in Japan will ship items to your home via a commercial delivery service for about $4 a box. Since we usually need only 2 boxes after my husband carries home the fresh food in a huge hiker's backpack, the cost of doing it this way is quite a bit cheaper than the van method.

The trip isn't for the easily fatigued or infirm. Because of my health issues, I generally only go with my husband once a year. We have to transfer trains twice and when we get to the station either walk about 15 minutes, or take a bus or a cab to the store. While this walk isn't too bad on the way there with an empty pack, it can be a real hassle with a pack stuffed to the brim with heavy items and shopping-weary feet. Buses arrive rather infrequently though so it's often faster to walk back than to wait for a bus and put up with the cramped shoulders.

The Japanese Costco shopping experience is roughly similar to the one you may have in the U.S. except for the food court area. When I shopped at Costco in the States, the food court was never packed to the brim and rarely populated almost entirely by women and children (at least on weekdays). In Japan, it's usually very crowded and quite noisy (depending on the time of day) and kids are usually running all over the place. I'm old enough not to remember what it was like to be a kid but I hope I didn't engage in as much random shrieking as I tend to hear around kids these days. If I did, I apologize to my mother and any other adults around me at the time for subjecting them to that.

You also see quite a few Japanese people managing to stuff in the large serving size food Costco sells without much difficulty despite the common protestation that the American portions are just too big. The students I've recommended go to Costco comment on how big the pizza and sandwiches are. When I tell them my husband and I generally buy one chicken bake and split it because it's too huge for one of us to consume, they act like it's a notion that would never have occurred to them. I guess that living in a culture with small portion sizes doesn't exactly inspire you to think about splitting your meals.

My husband bought a great quantity of items so he wouldn't have to return for a long time. The receipt pictured above looks far longer than it should because multiple items are rung up individually.

For the curious who can't read Japanese (and for my future reference should I ever be curious about what I used to buy at Costco Japan when I've finally gone home and forgotten how to read Japanese), the list is as follows (today's exchange rate being $1=118 yen):

Membership renewal fee ¥4,200, steak ¥2,452, sirloin steak ¥3,918, 2 bakery Swiss cake rolls (one chocolate, one strawberry) ¥998, 24 Gladware plastic storage containers ¥1,698 - ¥350 in store coupon, Kirkland paper towels ¥1,938, toasted coconut ¥648, 1 kg. New Zealand cream cheese ¥738, olive oil shampoo ¥1.098, 500 grams asparagus ¥418, Chilean green seedless grapes ¥988, Caesar salad dressing (1 liter) ¥498, Danish Havarti cheese ¥858, whole chicken ¥1,167, whole chicken ¥1,174, Ivory body wash ¥998, coffee filters ¥348, vanilla essence (473 ml.) ¥1,168, garlic bits ¥1,188, lavender body soap ¥898, pine nuts ¥2,187, mini pan chocola (small croissant-style rolls with chocolate chunks) ¥827, 3 packages of American bacon ¥798 each, Ivory dish washing liquid ¥958, Sunmaid raisins ¥757, 5 packages of Starbucks Espresso Roast ¥1,578 each, Albacore tuna in water ¥1,418 (8 cans), hot and spicy peanuts ¥878, Spanish olives ¥998 (2 large jars), 2 containers of cashews ¥1,748, 20 eggs free with store coupon.

This list is somewhat unusual because we almost never buy anything from the bakery. The Swiss cake roll was an extremely rare indulgence. In fact, I believe it's the first time we ever bought any sort of cake from the Costco bakery. The lavender body soap was purchased by accident because my husband didn't know what I wanted and after calling to verify that I didn't want it, he forgot to put it back.

You'll notice the word "delivery" is stamped on the receipt in English. The items are delivered the next day in monstrously huge boxes which are generally padded with smaller folded-up boxes. By the time you dispense with all the cardboard, it looks like you may have just moved into the apartment based on the number of boxes. Costco is very good about wrapping up liquid and glass containers though they tend to go overboard. Plastic shampoo bottles are wrapped in about 50 layers of plastic wrap which you have to remove with a box cutter (being very careful not to rupture the bottle). Glass jars are wrapped at least twice around in bubble wrap such that they appear to be in a bubbly cocoon.

Even with the expenses involved, you can easily save enough on key items to make it worthwhile. For us, savings on the coffee alone pays for the travel expenses and shipping with room to spare. If you're a short timer in Japan, it's probably not worth bothering to go to one of the few Costcos here but, if you've been here more than 2 years, it's well worth a trip.


Luis said...

The tolls are only if you go on the expressways, which is not really necessary all the time. Route 20 is usually fairly dependable, and then Tsurukawa Kaido is often uncrowded.

Of course, for me it's easy--I not only have a scooter, but I live pretty close to the store. It's about a 15-minute drive. Easy enough so that I don't ever ship stuff home. If I can't cart it all back, I just go again a week or two later. Sweet.

As for the food court, you might be amused to know that the Tama-Sakai Costco's food court is the biggest one of any Costco in the world. And still it's packed.

CMUwriter said...

Shari: what is the conversion rate for yen right now, compared to the dollar? From the looks of it you got a good deal on the bacon. Also you got a really good deal with the eggs. Its just hard to imagine carrying 20 fragile eggs through the congestrested streets of Tokyo with a carton of eggs in your pack. I think that it would make me appreciated the meal more.

Joanna said...

Things sure are expensive in Japan... even at Costco. Normally everything in the states are either 5 or 10 bucks. Almost 20 bucks for 3 packages of bacon is crazy. I hope you got a WHOLE lot! 16 bucks for paper towels... wow... I'm betting it's one of those 8 package ones too. Only good deal I see is the membership cost it's 50 dollars here. Do you ever buy things other than food at Costco?

Shari said...

Luis: For Makuhari, which was the branch we went to, the expressways were pretty much necessary to stop the trip from being any longer than it was. The branch you and your brother now frequent was not open when we were going by van.

Living close to a Costco is nice but given the option of a daily commute that is 12 minutes by subway every day vs. being 15 minutes from Costco by a mode of transportation we wouldn't use (a scooter), we'd take the shorter daily commute. Also, the only reason I have 11 private students is that I don't live out in the suburbs which are relatively distant from central Tokyo by public transportation. We all have choices to make based on our preferences.

cmuwriter: The exchange rate is 118 yen to the dollar. My husband did manage to carry the eggs without breaking them through his travels. He didn't even ask for them. They just gave them to him. I think it's the first time that we ever got anything free from them. We do appreciate the types of food we can uniquely get at Costco more because it's such a hassle.

joanna: The 3 packages of bacon were normal American bacon packages. I don't actually eat bacon but my husband likes it on occasion. We keep it in the freezer and saw it in half and he'll eat a half package throughout several days once in awhile. Japanese bacon is rather different from U.S. bacon so this is the only way he gets what he really likes.

The paper towels were in a 12 pack of "jumbo" rolls. They're actually cheaper at Costco and even the cheapest ones are relatively better quality than most Japanese ones.

Our main purchases at Costco are food and personal care products (shampoo, soap, conditioner, laundry detergent, dish soap). In the case of laundry detergent, we always buy liquid because the powder cakes up in the humidity during the warmer months. However, the Costco jugs of liquid laundry soap are so huge and our washing machine sufficiently small that one jug lasts almost a year.

Japanese dish soap is also very poor quality so we try to always get a U.S. name brand. You find that the Japanese stuff is thin and seems designed to run out of suds quickly.

On occasion, we have bought other types of items at Costco. Our bread machine and my hand mixer were purchased there, for instance. Small appliances are generally cheaper there if you get the right deal.

There are quite a lot of other attractive items at Costco but their prices are not really all that competitive with Japanese shops. Bigger items like televisions, cameras, refrigerators, etc. are not cheaper than what you can get elsewhere and we haven't had need of such items for quite some time.

Things are definitely more expensive here on the whole and more so on the food front than any other. Fresh fruit and vegetables are generally very expensive here as are some types of meat. In Japan, you will pay a greater portion of your income for food (if you don't live on ramen or crappy nutritionally suspect food) than you will in the U.S. If you're big into fresh fruit or vegetables, you're going to pay through the nose.

Thanks to everyone for the comments. As always, it's very appreciated. :-)

GD|BT said...

I kinda love Costco. My mom lives near Makuhari. Though I only been there once and I think it was the 31st of Dec and yes it's really crowded, specially in the food court section. I remember eating there and not being able to enjoy my food. It was just an UGH! experience. :D

Anyway, Costco is next best thing in finding stuff you miss abroad.

And I do agree with you on food prices.

Hope you're doing well.Sorry it's been quite a while since I last visited your page.

Shari said...

Hi there. :-) I never know what to call you these days because your posting name changes on occasion. I have been following your blog and I see that you're not in a good place. However, I wish my place was being repainted though I'd hate to put up with the mess as well.

I love Costco and hate it at the same time. I don't like all that temptation to spend but I do like the fact that they treat their employees pretty well and are still cheap. If I went nuts, I'd probably buy up half the store. ;-)

Take care!

CMUwriter said...

I wish stores in the United States gave out free eggs. It's hard enough to get a free sample.

GD|BT said...

You can call me mitzh as all of my blogging friends does.

Anyway, I'm quite happy today cause finally they have remove the net that covers the whole apartment, although its only in the backyard part. Still it made me happy for I can finally hang our clothes to dry. YAY!

Yup, I agree Costco is quite a temptation to all shoppers.

I just wonder why most shop like Costco have this membership card?
It's very rare to find one that you don't need a membership card even in the Philippines.

It's also a good thing that Costco made it in Japan. I am quite sad that Sephora and Carrefour are not operating here in Japan anymore. :(