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We Asked Two American Chefs How to Shop Costco. This is How They Do It.

4,166rmb later...
Jan 17, 2020 | 11:58 Fri
Photos: Brandon McGhee
How To: From the directly and minutely useful to information on living your best self in the world. How To is our regular column on how to accomplish things in the city.

Since opening in August last year, Costco has loomed like a specter over our grocery shopping. Were we paying too much for our Ziploc bags, oversized lobsters and rotisserie chickens? Wouldn’t we be saving a lot if we bought our Always maxi-pads and Charmin toilet paper and Moutai in bulk? Weren’t we just coddling ourselves in the aisles of City Shop, afraid to use our puny elbows while we got ripped off on breakfast cereal and Montreal steak seasoning?

Yes. The answers to all of those is yes.

So I asked someone with a lot of shopping experience and the ability to tell a merely good buy from a great buy to guide us, the collective “US” — SHANGHAI — through perhaps the most treacherous aisles this city has: Puxi Costco. (Pudong Costco opens in 2021.)

I asked….

I asked…

I asked!!!

Kelley Lee!!

Chef, businesswoman, and rotisserie chicken thighs CONNOISSEUR to take us through the warehouse on a Wednesday afternoon at lunchtime.

(Then I asked for a second opinion from another chef but that comes later.)

Together, we navigated, explored, spelunked, inspected, analyzed, commented on, debated, and obtained 4,166.70rmb worth of goods, from the trivial (360 Bounce dryer sheets) to those of great import (510 grams of Driscoll’s blueberries and an 89.90rmb tiramisu-cake-like-thing).

Let us begin this journey at the beginning.

This is a slight lie. We only made it to the entrance after adventuring into the Exit, and the Customer Service counter within, swimming upstream through this…

… to get a Costco membership card for SmartShanghai.

Worldwide, Costco has almost 800 stores. On average, those stores have 68,000 members. Shanghai has in excess of 250,000 members, according to CFO Richard Galanti. It’s been open for less than five months.

The card was 299rmb for a year’s gold star membership and is valid worldwide. Interestingly, according to investment analysts, “Costco can offer great discounts because it essentially breaks even on actual sales. Virtually all of its earnings are based on membership fees…

Because they certainly aren’t making it on the combo pizza.

At 12rmb a slice and 65rmb for a whole pie, it’s not the Hawaiian pushing their share price above 300usd.


“Eat. But Not So Much That You Don’t Buy That Thing You Wanted”

After filling up on pizza (Homeslice does Costco pizza better than Costco), a pork hot dog with all the fixings (relish and onions) and a virgin frozen pina colada thing, we headed back into the store proper.

First stop: Tech.

And handbags, where, according to Lee, there were three Birkin bags on offer on opening day — the Hermes ones you can’t buy unless you’re on some list, even if you have the money. They went fast.

Now all that’s left is Givenchy. Hmppphh!


“Go check out the Apple stuff.”

Oh hey. It turns out that Costco is maybe, probably, maybe the cheapest place in Shanghai to buy a new iPhone Pro Max. Or an iMac. Look — we made a little chart for you comparing prices as of January 2020.

Didn’t know Apple products came at discount prices anywhere, much less a shopping warehouse.

Our strategy, as laid out by General Lee, was to attack the periphery first, where the crowds were thinner, perhaps on account of Chinese people not being overly familiar with what to do with 347 Ziploc sandwich bags or enough American cleaning products to make C's bathroom look like Parkway's operating theater.

We then crossed the middle of the store, the section where another Shanghai chef Kelley knows very well buys all of his clothes, stopping for a little education at The Book Pallet.


“I bought this for my daughter and it’s seriously amazing. You hover the pen over things and it tells you what it is in English and Chinese. Even I’m learning shit from this.”

Then we bumped into a new display (“This wasn’t here last time I was here”) of something that needs no translation: Moutai.

But not just any Moutai. Limited edition Moutai in 2.5 liter colored bottles. Collect ‘em all!

Costco’s marketing department told us the diamonds were the most expensive thing in the store, but maybe they didn’t know about the 119,999.90rmb family-size jug of baijiu near the freezer section. Predictably, most people were just gawking and taking pictures, though we did see at least one sale being made.

The other flank, the far section of the 14,000 square meter shopping area, got into the good stuff: dry goods. We flew past the spices (“This is a really good price for Montreal steak seasoning”), Grade A maple syrup (“You should buy that dude”) and gallons of cheap olive oil (“How much is that?”), stopping only to wrestle a massive plastic jug of corn oil into the cart.

By then, we were done nibbling around the edges, and didn’t feel the need to stock up on nuts, one of the store’s most popular items, according to marketing, which was confirmed by the blue-topped plastic jars of mixed nuts squatting in everyone else’s shopping carts.

No, we were moving towards the far back corner of the store, where the bulky but useful paper products live.

This was 30 rolls of extra-soft toilet paper, engineered for the ultra soft American butt. 299.90rmb.


“I’ve been in China for like 20 years and I’ve always, always had to smuggle these back in my luggage. Dude! Not any more!”


“Do you KNOW how hard it is to find proper absorbent napkins in China without going to like HEC? I’m getting these.”

From paper products, it’s a quick spin to the walk-in milk cooler where everyone — every single person in the store, every single shopping cart — was loading up on two-packs of 1.9 liter jugs of milk. Who said Chinese people are lactose intolerant?


“You know I’m getting some.”

A kilo of sea salt potato chips for the husband.

But this, even this, is just the scratchings on the outer crust. We'd avoided the main event long enough. The juicy, molten heart of the Costco pie. It was time for… the Rotisserie Chicken Madness.


“Ok, wait here, I’m going in.”

An obvious loss leader for the company, the rotisserie chickens are, like the milk, nuts and flats of strawberries, in every single cart in the place. Maybe it’s because they are 16.70rmb each, and according to Lee, actually really pretty good. “Much better than you’d think.” Costco wouldn’t answer our questions about how many they sell, but chew on this: “The company’s Nebraska chicken plant … is on track to ramp up to a full production and processing level of 2.2 million chickens a week…”.

Not all of those chickens are being skewered and spun, but this is not the company’s only chicken plant either.

They’re so popular that they're limited to one per person. Actually one per membership card, according to the sign at the counter, though the beleaguered guy whose job it is to actually pass out chickens didn’t seem too interested in fighting the crowd any further. Poor guy.


“Gotta do it.”

Not satisfied with just one chicken, Lee also suggested getting a pack of rotisserie chicken thighs, at the outrageous price of 69.90rmb. Total for a whole chicken and a bag of thighs: 86.60rmb.


“Ok, look at this meat. It’s really good stuff. There are really good buys here. I really like the skirt steaks, Wagyu short ribs, and pork jowls.”

She’s not the only one. The meat section is where carts start smashing into each other like bumper cars and the elbows get sharp as people load up on Australian beef.


“Seafood here is also a really good buy. Look, people are going crazy for the fresh abalone. And this crab. But those lobsters, dude. How old are they? They’ve gotta be like 30 years old. You know that’s not going to be good. It’s going to be tough and old. Don’t buy the huge lobsters.”

It was about this time, two hours and change into our Costco day that we started hitting a wall. The crowds were becoming too much to handle, the oversize packages of food were starting to seem grotesque and cartoon-ish and the frenzied shopping was really grating.

We needed something to calm our nerves.

A 1,299.90rmb bottle of Year of the Rat Johnnie Walker Blue Label would do. In the basket.

But really, it was time to go. We didn’t even reach the muffin and croissant section, where people were lined up and getting nasty to each other. The thin veneer of civilization crumbled in the face of discount baked goods.

We retreated to a quiet corner of the store to lick our wounds and marvel at our cart while Lee made a last-minute dash into the produce cooler for 510g grams of Driscoll’s blueberries, a flat of strawberries and a “tiramisu” bigger than a dinner plate that now lives, half-eaten, in the SmartShanghai office refrigerator. It'll take us another week to defeat it.

There was a lesson in all of this, maybe the most important lesson of them all.


“Know your limits. Two hours is about the maximum. Don’t push it beyond that. Get out of there.”

A Second Opinion: Chef Sean Jorgensen’s 12 Tips For Costco

“I can’t believe you and Kelley went during the day. I told you.”


1. Go at night. Early in the week. Never on the weekends.

2. The muffins are not the same as you remember. Neither are the croissants, but really, who buys croissants

3. The frozen food is definitely browse-worthy

4. Good prices on electronics and good warranties

5. Don’t be afraid to move people, there’s a lot of looky loo’s

6. The produce is quite good

7. Good value on meats

8. Good selection of US style cheeses

9. Truffled Brie

10. Group Costco trips are the best

11. If solo wear your earbuds. I really enjoy the camaraderie of my earbuds

12. The combo pizza is delightful


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