Navigating Costco’s mammoth West Auckland warehouse can be a daunting experience for the unprepared. Stewart Sowman-Lund visited with personal shopper ‘Aunty Jo’ to learn some tricks of the trade.
Anyone who has made the trek out to West Auckland’s Costco store knows that the experience can get a little overwhelming. The 14,000 square metre mega-warehouse is something of a maze, with pallets moving around like the stairs at Hogwarts. Even eight months on from opening, it’s still busier than any supermarket in the country. So what kind of person would willingly brave this chaos up to three times a day?
That’s exactly what one dedicated Costco fan does. Jo Castasus launched her own “personal shopping” business Aunty Jo’s late last year, in an effort to “bridge the gap” until Costco’s online shopping is made available (there’s still no ETA on this, but it’s on the way). She’s since completed about 1,200 orders, shipping Costco products nationwide with no markups or hidden fees – just $20 for her time plus the cost of shipping can mean anyone from the top to the bottom of the country can nab a pack of Ruffles chips or a bulk pack of Tide pods.
I meet Castasus inside Costco on a Thursday afternoon. It’s not exactly peak shopping time, but store is bustling. Castasus already has her trolley piled up with multipacks of in-demand products, mainly from the laundry department. It’s her first shop of the day, something she manages to fit around her schedule as a full-time project manager and a mum of young kids.
“I start work very early,” she tells me. “Then I drop by Costco and do my first shop, pick up my kids [from school], come back and then do my second shop.” If she has time – or her car runs out of room – she’ll pop by for a third visit as well. She does this every day of the week, including weekends. Oozing with enthusiasm, Castasus tells me her motivation to launch her own personal shopping brand came from a desire to help people who couldn’t make it to Costco themselves. Also: “I really love shopping.”
Costco first opened in September last year. Presumably Castasus was already a mega fan? “I didn’t know Costco before,” she admits. “I just live nearby. I was on vacation when Costco opened and it was jam-packed, I couldn’t even get in.” While she waited to get in the doors for the first time, she joined a Costco New Zealand fan page on Facebook. At the time, it had about 40,000 members. That’s since ballooned to about 180,000. (Interestingly, those behind the biggest fan group aren’t even based in New Zealand – the 12-strong admin team all lived in Australia).
Castasus, who stresses she has no affiliation with Costco, says the Facebook group is home to the ultimate Costco fans, many of whom are desperate for certain products only available at the Westgate store. So what are most people on the hunt for? The answer may surprise you. “The most that has been asked for are the Kirkland tissue rolls,” she says. Yes, toilet paper. Costco’s home brand of toilet roll is only available in packs of 48. “I’ve seen some people commenting about it like ‘Will I live long enough to finish it’,” she laughs.
Also popular: American chip brands Cheetos, Ruffles and Lay’s. Costco fans call these items “unicorns”, says Castasus, because of how hard they are to spot in the wild. “Once they’re brought out, they’re gone. Even if it’s not on your list, you’ll grab it.”
And laundry products like Tide detergent pods and “Downy beads”, a sort of scent-infusing washing machine tablet, are also in high demand. “Last week alone, all these laundry products came back – those are massive savings,” says Castasus, waving at a stacked wall of soon-to-be-purchased cleaning products.
It’s fascinating to observe the demand for products that are, in some form or another, very accessible at any regular supermarket. This is what could be called the Costco Effect, with sudden and unexpected price savings driving a frenzied demand for everyday products. Outside of lockdown, when else would you see people bulk buying toilet paper or potato chips?
Aunty Jo has some other tips and tricks she’s happy to pass on. As we enter the store proper, she points at a seemingly discarded trolley. “You see that cart? That’s where all the clearance items are. For clearance items, huge discounts, look here.” Similarly, in the expansive clothing section, she tells me to think of it like a treasure hunt. “For apparel and clothing, the discounted or clearance items are usually inside a cart. Somewhere in there” – she waves at a warren of stacked T-shirts – “you hunt it. Just go around there and if you see any cart – that’s it.”
As we wander around the aisles, a family stops us to ask for help locating a particular product. They couldn’t have come to a better person. Castasus sends them off in the right direction.
The store’s starting to get busier as we weave towards the checkout. Castasus checks her phone to make sure she’s on track for the school pick-up. “My favourite time to shop is Friday night,” she explains. “I think there is less crowd. When it comes to restocking, it’s Saturday [that’s better]. But everybody is here so you have to learn to move slowly because your carts are bumper to bumper. If you are here for relaxed shopping and don’t necessarily need all the stock to be available, come Friday.”
Her suggested approach to tackling the unwieldy store layout is not to follow it in the order presented. “I usually will go to snacks first because that’s bulky. If I still have space [in the car], then I’m going to go for laundry, those are the heaviest. Then breakfast, confectionery and the last will always be the bakery.” Bakery items can often be a dealbreaker for her customers, she explains. “‘Oh there’s no muffins? I won’t go ahead’,” some customers have told her.
On her phone, a colour-coded Excel spreadsheet clearly lays out all incoming and outgoing orders. “Anything in purple I have already completed, anything in green are proceeding, anything in yellow there are two or three things unavailable so I’m happy to hold it until they are – and the blank ones I haven’t confirmed yet.”
Costco has announced that online shopping is on the way for New Zealand, but Castasus, who says she has a number of returning customers, isn’t worried she’ll be out of her part time job. “I think there are people who will stay based on the difference. For example, Costco items are bulky – how much can a shipping company take? I unbox [the big items] which I don’t think Costco would do,” she says. The other day she had 35 orders waiting in her home to be sent around the country, she says, showing me a photo of a tower of boxes.
“There are people that order 10 things, there are people that will order just one,” Castasus explains. A recent customer, for example, wanted just a single pack of Tide pods.
We’ve made it to the checkout, for what will go down in history as my speediest and most efficient visit to Costco. Of course, I won’t have to come back in a few hours time for shop number two. Six months ago Castasus was only a Costco beginner. Now, she says with a laugh, she’s undoubtedly a superfan. “Certified,” she says.