How Costco Became an Unlikely Middle-Class Status Symbol

The mature Scottish beef was melt-in-the-mouth perfection, nestled on a bed of mushrooms and washed down with a fragrant glass of Antinori Rosso.

Lying in his seat, eyes almost glassy with pleasure, one of my sated guests declared the meal “the best” I had ever cooked, with the meat showing “real depth of flavor”.

I savored the compliment. Even though I was hosting a group of close, polite friends who love food, and I know when they are nice.

Although I say it myself, the food was magnificent. From the succulent prawns in the homemade Hollandaise sauce, to the cheese platter, chocolates and after dinner coffee, there was nothing on my table that would have looked out of place in a grand restaurant.

Rose Prince (pictured) discovered the best wholesaler Costco has to offer, from Scottish beef to petit fours

Because what distinguishes this dinner from my usual offers is the quality of the products.

I didn’t buy it at a farmers market, nor did I trawl the artisan grocers. And I certainly didn’t go wild at Waitrose on a budget to make an oligarch blush. No, I bought the set at Costco. Every item from meat, vegetables, butter and coffee to wines, seafood and petit fours.

For the uninitiated, Costco is one of those stern-looking discount warehouses that you might pass on the bypass, but don’t know how to get to.

A giant windowless box with its name stamped on the side, it differs from other large discount stores mainly by its ‘members only’, i.e. to shop there you have to apply and meet certain professional criteria such as in a private club.

Those eligible to apply for membership are business owners or those in certain professions such as teachers, postal workers and NHS workers.

Once you’ve been accepted, there’s an annual fee of £33.60 (£26.40 for retailers), which sounds great – you’re paying the company for the privilege of shopping there.

What it is, however, is a smart way for Costco to maintain its status as a much more profitable wholesaler (with its cap on the proportion of sales to the public), keep prices low, and ensure that it attracts loyal customers of a certain type and purchasing power.

Channel 5's Costco TV Show: Is It Really Worth It?  explored the gold rush of middle-class aficionados who, faced with a global cost-of-living crisis, ditched snobbery and headed to one of its 29 warehouses across the country

The Channel 5 Costco TV program: is it really worth it? explored the gold rush of middle-class aficionados who, faced with a global cost-of-living crisis, ditched snobbery and headed to one of its 29 warehouses across the country

The products Costco sells are carefully selected: Buyers of its homewares, clothing, even car tires choose from only a small selection of high-end brands.

I’m not the only one enjoying Costco’s unique shopping experience. Channel 5’s Costco TV Show: Is It Really Worth It? explored the gold rush of middle-class aficionados who, faced with a global cost-of-living crisis, put aside snobbery and head to one of its 29 warehouses across the country.

It is the third largest retailer in the world with 815 warehouses in 12 countries. In the UK, Costco was launched in 1993 and latest figures show profits increased by 32.4% in 2018/19, to £19.2m.

What you need to understand about Costco is that it’s all about bulk: it’s a wholesaler, after all. You buy big to save big, and you need plenty of storage and freezer space – as well as a good understanding of mental calculations – to appreciate the savings.

Approaching my nearest branch in an industrial estate in Croydon, I immediately had a sense of scale. I could see shoppers pushing carts stacked with more toilet paper than they could fit into their cars.

Antinori Rosso Red wine: COSTCO: £9.79 per bottle TESCO: £16 per bottle SAVE: 39%

Antinori Rosso Red wine: COSTCO: £9.79 per bottle TESCO: £16 per bottle SAVE: 39%

As I pushed my (still giant) cart through the center of the warehouse – no doubt this place is a store – I spotted the first of the legendary middle-class renegades snooping around in a freezer cupboard. The well-spoken pair were delighted with a pack of 70 gyozas for £8.49, which doesn’t sound cheap, until you realize a pack of 12 will set you back £3.95 in supermarkets. It’s 12p a dumpling compared to 32p – less than half the price. If you plan to feed a large number, it is definitely worth it.

It’s the same with the luxury Crosta & Mollica Margherita pizzas: £6.29 for two makes the Waitrose price, £5.50 for one, seem like a rip off.

Lavazza Ground Coffee: COSTCO: 500g, £4.99 TESCO: 250g, £4.50 SAVE: 45% (per kg)

Lavazza Ground Coffee: COSTCO: 500g, £4.99 TESCO: 250g, £4.50 SAVE: 45% (per kg)

As I explored the enormity of space for my dinner ingredients, it became clear that this was going to be an expedition. With less than 30 stores to choose from across the country, just getting there is a hike (eight miles for me) and once you get there, be prepared to see no natural light for hours. .

There are hardly any signs, so you have to be prepared for a scavenger hunt without the help of the staff, which is just as hard to locate as anything on your shopping list.

As I zigzagged around Costco, the app on my phone recorded that I had walked nearly two miles.

But it was worth it. I found trumps and found a British beef tenderloin costing £77.90 for almost 2kg. Huge amount of money I know, but considering it normally costs £60 per kilo elsewhere it suddenly seems cheap. And luckily I have a chest freezer with plenty of space.

County: COSTCO: 650g, £8.99 WAITROSE: 200g, £3.95 SAVE: 30% (per kg)

County: COSTCO: 650g, £8.99 WAITROSE: 200g, £3.95 SAVE: 30% (per kg)

I added 750g of asparagus for £5.29, a little disappointing. But adding seafood, butter, double cream, new potatoes, three premium cheeses, a huge can of strawberries, 500g of smoked salmon and a case of 12 bottles of San Pellegrino at less than £1 a 75cl bottle, the Costco experiment started to make sense.

Then I went in search of alcohol. Costco makes wine two ways, by the case or you can mix individual bottles. None of these are what most of us consider cheap wine, with the minimum price being around £10.

But here you can benefit from huge savings. Miraval Provence Rosé wine is £12.99 but £19 at Tesco. The difference is similar with other wines whether made by Latour in France or Antinori in Tuscany. None of this is for every day, but it does prove that Costco is a destination for special occasions — the same way hosts cross the English Channel to buy quality champagne in bulk for less for the holidays.

The final cost of my trolley was just under £400 but only half would be used for my dinner that evening, the rest would be stored and consumed over time making price comparisons accurate and like a puzzle.

San Pellegrino sparkling water: COSTCO: 12 pack, £8.49 WAITROSE: 6 x a litre, £6.50 SAVE: 35% (for 12)

San Pellegrino sparkling water: COSTCO: 12 pack, £8.49 WAITROSE: 6 x a litre, £6.50 SAVE: 35% (for 12)

But based on my calculations, I think I cut at least 30% of what I would have spent on the same product elsewhere. When I consider the quality of food and drink this is a real bargain.

However, it was only at home, by cooking and tasting my generosity, that it was possible to value it. Overall it was impressive – the beef was tender and matured. The jumbo prawns tasted clean and were intact.

The smoked salmon was expertly cured and I loved some of the brands available – a 500ml bottle of Tabasco; a posh box of chocolates made by a small business in Dorset; traditional all-butter madeleines that made me think of holidays and Comté cheese, a slice of perfection.

The fresh produce was not that outstanding. Largely imported, selected to have a long shelf life, neither the berries nor the asparagus had much flavor. Also, I made a second store elsewhere for fresh herbs and salad that Costco doesn’t sell.

As a money-saving mission, it would be wrong to hail Costco as the answer to the cost of living crisis because it affects most people. But for those who would like to cut a good chunk of their shopping bills, this place, with a credit card and a chest freezer, could become a money-saving shopping habit.

Would I go there again? Yes, but with a purpose. If I had a large family, or were a new mom facing summer vacation, I would take a fortnightly trip to fill the freezer.

Judging by how quickly my guests laughed at their gourmet dinner, maybe I should restock sooner than I thought!

James V. Hayes