I grew up in the US, but I moved to Paris when I was still a student, so my memory of member-only-discount-bulk-shopping stores such as Sam’s Club are a very distant memory for me. Not that I haven’t heard of Costco. You’d have to live in a cave (without Internet access) to not know how popular these stores are in the United States. But as someone who can’t stand shopping at all, I never made a point to visit one during my trips there over the past 25 years.
Until recently, competition from French hypermarchés such as Carrefour and Géant kept these stores out of France. But in June 2017 Costco finally managed to open a store in a very inconvenient location approximately 35 minutes south of Paris, just off the A10 highway near Orly airport. If you drive, you’ll most likely need 45 minutes to get there and about an hour to return if you’re dumb enough to go on the weekend or after work, because the traffic jams getting back into Paris are horrific.
If you don’t have a car or access to one, you’ll have to take the RER B to Massy, then one of the four local bus lines to La Brûlerie. And who on earth would bother taking the train and bus (and then the hike across the immense parking lot) to go to a store where everything is sold in bulk? Maybe if you’re just getting a discounted sonic toothbrush, a new winter coat, or a few bags of hot dog buns. But would that really be worth the trek?
When my friends (a Franco-American couple) asked me if I wanted to join them last Saturday afternoon for a drive down to check it out, this is what I thought would be the most helpful use of half of my Saturday: “Is it worth it?” Parisians hate crossing the peripherique ring road unless they’re getting a REALLY good deal.
When we arrived, my friends explained that it was organized in a giant square, with dry goods, clothing, electronics and home items in the front and middle sections, food in the back and side, and the inexplicably-famous hotdog counter after the checkout. I let them loose with their list and an extra-wide shopping cart, and set out on my own to compare some prices. As expected for a warehouse store, it’s a sterile, ugly setting with harsh lighting. There’s hardly a thought on presentation or helping people figure out what’s in each aisle. Saving money is the only pleasure I can imagine gaining from this shopping experience. So how much can I actually save?
Right after the artificial Christmas trees were the electronics, including big-screen TVs, stereos and laptops. I actually need a new laptop, so I’ve been hawkishly watching over prices on the latest Zenbooks in all of the usual locations (FNAC, RueduCommerce, Boulanger, Darty, Amazon). None of the ones at Costco had the specs I was looking for (at least 16Go of RAM, for example), and the ones they did have were more expensive than what I had already found. For example, a Zenbook 14 selling for €999 at Costco is easily found on two major French electronics websites for €799.
In the small electronics aisle, I priced up the blenders for my partner, who keeps eyeing up my Vitamix, but cringing at the price tag. There was indeed a Vitamix blender for €499 at Costco, which seems to be a pretty good deal (most other shops are selling the same model for €650). There was also a Russell Hobbs compact blender for €49 instead of the €70 found in most other stores.
I cruised aisles of garden tools, pet products (bulk packages of doggie bags would have been handy when I had two dogs), office supplies, and a few toys. In almost every case, there wasn’t a huge selection, but there were indeed some great deals, like the small Kiddie brand fire extinctor with wall attachment I picked up for just €14.99 (they’re about twice that in most shops) and the Brita carafe filter replacements (which were actually the same exact price as on Amazon.fr, but cheaper than at my local Monoprix). I also see a Samsonite backpack that’s made for carrying a laptop for €50, half the price of the one I just bought at BHV that morning. But they only have it in black and I liked the pretty blue one I bought.
I only made a cursory glance at the piles and racks of clothing in the center, because that just seemed too exhausting (a glance at technical hiking socks for €16 didn’t slow me down) before heading to the food section. My friends told me the best part about this part of Costco are the free samples, but that comparing prices is tough because everything is sold in quantities you just never see in Paris. That is certainly true, for two obvious reasons: Parisians have small apartments with even smaller refrigerators (where are you going to fit that one-gallon ketchup bottle?), and they tend to like their food fresh, not with a two-year shelf-life. The only French people buying in these quantities are people having a party (and that’s when you really need to buy 100 hamburger buns) or running a restaurant (and there are actually special wholesale stores for registered business owners called Metro). But not all French people cook every meal from scratch these days, and I’m sure if my friends with kids had enough room to store a year’s worth of cereal boxes, they would.
The baked goods section has the large packages of hot dog and hamburger buns that, granted, are easier to find now in regular Parisian supermarkets, but not in quantities of 20 or more. There are also enormous packages of bland-looking croissants and baguettes sold in three-packs, which I still find scary, even though I can see the actual bakery in the back, just like any other hypermarché in France. At this point I’m being a bit of a snob, I know, because they might be the best baguettes in France. But I have a half dozen bakeries within two minutes of my front door in Paris, and strolling out to get a baguette in a pleasant setting that smalls amazing and makes my mouth water is part of the experience, not simply finding sustenance to stuff my face.
Back in the baked good aisles, I see chocolate chip cookies and try a sample offered by a young employee. It’s not great, but then again I love to make real American chocolate chip cookies, so I don’t think any store-bought cookies in France can compete with them. Perfectly edible, but not really worth carrying around with my heavy fire extinguisher (I soon realize I look a little weird walking around with it like I’m the fire code inspector, and wrangle myself an enormous shopping cart to put it in…there are no “baskets” to carry, just the super-sized carts). The pumpkin pies catch my eye because I have had an absurd love affair with pumpkin pies since my childhood (long enough ago to be one of the few humans who think it’s the ONLY legitimate food that should use pumpkin pie spice as an ingredient). The ones here are huge, about 50% bigger than the 8” ones I usually make, and cost €6.99. Trying to gather the ingredients needed for pumpkin pie in Paris usually cost twice that, not to mention the actual baking part. Once I paid €29 for a ready-made pumpkin pie from Thanksgiving (the American food store that’s now closed) because I had more money than time that year, but I knew it was going to taste perfect. I consider buying one of these suspiciously cheap pies to test them out, but alas I will be out of town all week so fresh food isn’t going to make it home with me on this expedition.
My friends, on the other hand, are all stocked up. They tell me how the Costco brand (called Kirkland “Signature” for some reason) foods are usually very good, with their wines and olive oils winning all sorts of blind taste tests. I wonder if the taste tests are conducted by the employees giving out the free samples. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I won’t be doing any actual fresh food shopping here today. I do, however, pick up a case of Heinze Baked Beans because I know I have room and they come to less than €1/can (in Paris they’re usually around €1.50). I look for organic produce and foods, which are scattered here and there amongst the other non-organic foods. The Kirkland frozen organic blueberries are actually more per kilo at Costco than my local Casino supermarket (although quantities are different, the price tags in France includes the price per kilo so you don’t have to do the math). The organic sweet potatoes are slightly less.
While considering a case of oat milk, a stink bug made a cameo appearance (not that Costco is the only place you’ll see them, supposedly they’re infesting Paris now), so I move on.
I actually need toilet paper, but there’s only one choice, the Kirkland Signature 3-Ply 40-roll for €14.99. I’m a bit peeved there’s no choice of TP made from recycled paper, and that the enormous plastic package actually has ten 4-packs individually wrapped in plastic inside (and you can find 40-packs of eco-friendly TP made from recycled paper on Amazon.fr for €17, but their delivery is so spotty I avoid them where possible). I also needed parchment paper for cooking, and the double-pack at Costco costs a lot less than what I pay at my local supermarket, however when I got home I realized too late the super-sized rolls don’t fit in my Ikea kitchen roll dispenser. Annoyed.
One of the reasons Americans living in France seem to like Costco is to find American foods, even though peanut butter and cranberry juice are now found in pretty much every store in France. But Costco has (fist-sized) marshmallows, (individually-plastic-wrapped) cheddar cheese slices, huge sacks of pecans, and Hellman’s mayonnaise sold in a bulk box of 200 individual serving packets. Yes, I’m a bit annoyed at the packaging overload. It’s just hard not to equate this type of shopping with a massive disregard for the environment when I see jumbo boxes of plastic utensils on sale at Costco the same week the EU finally approves a ban on single-use cutlery by 2021 to try and stop the flow of them into our oceans (and the stomachs of endangered marine wildlife).
At the checkout, my friends find their produce squashed beneath heavier items (the employees load the cart) and complain that it happened the first time they visited, too. They also come away disappointed that a few of the items they came to get were out of stock. I still stand in line at the exit to get a membership card because it’s only €35, and I figure if I plan it well I can still save money on some of the non-food items like electronics, office supplies and appliances if I come three or four times a year. So yes, I figure it’s worth it for me, and perhaps for people who know exactly what they want and how much they usually pay for it.
The food, however, is a huge turnoff for me. Part of it is being spoiled by the markets in Paris for 25 years, and part of it is self-preservation from my own base instincts.
I’m hardly a foodie, and I can barely cook. It took me a long time to finally appreciate the wholistic attitude towards quality food in France, from the shopping to the presentation to the preparing to the eating; the actual “experience” of food that so many people come to France to experience themselves. It took me a long time to see meals as anything other than an annoying disturbance to my productive day, and to stop buying generic food and Harry’s sliced white bread. I still have to fight off the desire to eat cereal at my desk three times a day when I’m working from home (and clearly I won’t be making baked beans from scratch this winter). Years of (sometimes not so) gentle teasing by my culinarily-woke friends who patiently explained the importance of food appreciation in France’s culture has only just started to sink into my thick skull, so buying discount food in bulk from a warehouse outside the Orly airport just feels like going backwards for me. I understand some people can’t afford to shop locally, or that they prefer to spend their money elsewhere, but for now I’d rather pay more for a better overall experience. I’m clearly not Costco’s target customer, and it makes me a bit sad to think that perhaps some day more and more French people will start preferring “convenience” over their wonderful culinary heritage. The French hypermarchés aren’t far from there with their own mass-market branding and discounts that compete with smaller food markets, but they still make an effort to present the food in an appetizing manner and to be conscientious of where the food comes from.
For now, at least, a visit to Costco is inconvenient enough to make it an exceptional trip, and not something that becomes a regular habit for Parisians who will surely miss the local food markets more than they’ll miss the money they saved. But that’s an entirely different (and much longer) debate that I’m sure one of Paris’ gifted food writers can tackle more graciously than I ever could.
Hours are Mon-Fri 10am-9pm, Sat 9am-9pm. Exceptionally open November 1st this year. Membership fee is €35/year, official ID and proof of residence required (a recent utilities bill with name and address works).