What A Former Costco Employee Wants You To Know

Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo.
It might sound ridiculous, but when I was offered my dream job at Refinery29, a part of me was sad that I'd have to leave my gig at Costco Wholesale. Working for the big-box store was definitively not in my long-term career plans, or why I'd moved to New York City, but in the months I spent working there, I learned a lot. I even started to love it. When I applied for a part-time job on the Costco website, I didn't think much of it. I'd been out of work for more than a month and my unemployment checks and freelance articles weren't enough to pay my Manhattan apartment's rent, let alone my other living expenses. The store was just a few blocks from my studio, so I thought working there part-time would be an easy way to earn extra money while I continued the search for full-time work in my field. Plus, I'd read online that Costco offers benefits, including health care and a 401(k), for both its full- and part-time employees. My freelance positions didn't come with any healthcare coverage.
Not long after I filled out the online application, I attended a group interview process for a job as a "front-end associate." By the end of the interview, which took a full afternoon, I'd accepted the position. I was officially a Costco employee — even though I didn't really understand what that meant. I'd never set foot in the East Harlem store before the interview, and I had no idea what a warehouse club was really like. During my first shift, I was overwhelmed on many levels. As the only Costco location in Manhattan, the store saw a ton of traffic — people took cabs from all over the island to shop there. My primary responsibility was to unload and re-load members' carts at the cash registers — and you had to be fast. But if you were too fast or if a customer just didn't like the way you loaded things into their cart, you'd hear about it. And I did, plenty of times. Here are some of the things I learned while working — and making mistakes — at the Manhattan Costco.

1. People assume retail employees are just "looking for something better."
On my very first day on the job, a customer asked me what my long-term plans were, other than working at Costco. I was shocked — and I was almost positive he'd only asked me that question because I was white. I wondered if other employees were asked questions like these, and how they responded to them. Many of them were happy working there — I was, too — and no one deserves to have their profession consistently questioned or to have people act like their job isn't good enough. Yes, some people take jobs at big-box stores as seasonal employees or to earn money on top of their "real" job. (In essence, that's what I did — Costco was my "side" job, even though I spent more hours there than I did freelance writing.) But plenty of other people stay with places like Costco for years, or even decades, and their jobs aren't any less real or important. A manager I know started at Costco as a summer job and ended up working there for years and moving up the ranks. The type of job that makes you happy is different for everyone. None are less "good" than others. Sometimes, I felt like I was part of the problem. I became friends with many of my coworkers, but many of them were significantly younger than I was, since they had started working there as teens and didn't go to college. I was determined to make them think I wasn't "looking for something better." When I left the job just months after starting, I felt guilty, like I was proving that notion true. I tried not to mention my background to anyone at the store outside of the interview, because it really wasn't relevant. Once in a while, however, I'd try to make small talk with a customer by complimenting them on their Goyard bag or noting that I had the same Athleta leggings they were wearing. I'd worry that conversations like these would alienate me from my coworkers. In the end, though, any distance I felt from my coworkers stemmed more from my shyness (and age), not from our long-term career ambitions.
2. Physical labor has its benefits. I enjoyed the physical labor of working at Costco. I lost about 10 pounds while working there, despite eating the food court's $1.50 hot dog at least once a week. Lifting things for a living is hard work — and so is standing for an entire day if you're used to a sedentary lifestyle. I found that working in a more active job was stress relieving and a good counterbalance to the time I spent hunched over a laptop when I wasn't there. The physical aspect of the job also set me apart from my coworkers, though. During the group interview, some of the new hires discussed their previous experience. Many of them were coming from jobs at similar stores. Trading an office (and working from home) for a retail job was a big change for me. Whenever I'd ask coworkers in the break room if their legs were killing them, they usually said no, because they were more accustomed to non-sedentary jobs. I also broke into child's pose in the break room on occasion to relieve back pain, which was not the best way to make friends.
3. Employees aren't doormats — and what you're complaining about probably isn't their fault. There's a school of thought that you'll be nicer to retail employees and tip better at restaurants if you've worked as a salesperson or a waiter. And after witnessing plenty of awful customer interactions with cashiers, I'm inclined to agree. At Costco in particular, employees have to be strict about confirming members' IDs, since their prices are based on a paid membership model. This often led to customers throwing fits, ranting at employees, and abandoning giant carts filled with hundreds of dollars of merchandise. One customer actually slapped me during an argument about the membership she was using. Also super frustrating: when customers would hit on employees. Costco is known for its stellar customer service, so there wasn't much we could do to defend ourselves. There was one man who I saw tell a cashier she was "a looker" — she was clearly uncomfortable, but powerless in the situation. In a similar vein, many customers asked me, as well as other employees, all kinds of rude questions, including wanting to know how much we made. I overheard one person ask an employee if she'd finished high school. Questions like these fed the idea that working in retail or in a big-box store is somehow not a "real" job — and they're a great way to kill morale. Someone's education level doesn't affect their job performance. It's certainly none of your business, and neither are the employees' pay grades. In short: The customer isn't always right. Yes, you'll be more conscientious to retail workers if you know their plight — but if you don't, you should still treat them with common decency.

4. Even in New York, people LOVE big-box offerings. Even the Costco bear.
When I started at Costco, I was surprised at the foot traffic — and the purchases — at the Manhattan location. New York City apartments are notoriously tiny, but somehow I still saw more than one person buy the legendary Costco bear. How did they fit it into a taxi? Where did they put it in their apartment? The Costco bear is also my favorite coworker. He always has a smile on his face and brings joy to hundreds of selfie-taking customers. Rock on, Costco bear. It wasn't just the bear New Yorkers were buying at Costco. They showed up in droves to buy bottled water, giant boxes of Doritos, and other comically large boxed goods. On the day before Thanksgiving, the store's bakery was completely cleared out — every last pumpkin pie (and every other type of pie) and box of cookies was gone. My Costco experience isn't representative of all big-box store workers, but it opened my eyes to what it's like to work full-time at a warehouse store. Most people could stand to rethink the way that they treat these employees, because for many Americans, this is their real job, and there's nothing wrong with that. And as for me? If something were to happen and I suddenly lost my dream job today, you can bet I'd be back there in a New York minute. Additional Reading:

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