The opening of warehouse shopping giant Costco's first Australian store in Melbourne this week has attracted extensive media coverage and hordes of shoppers. Bargain hunters appear to have been seduced by massive mayonnaise and industrial palettes of paper, but there are some good discounts when it comes to tech purchases too -- especially if you're thinking iPod.
"That has to be good value," the man comments as he contemplates a 950 gram bucket of Vegemite ($11.69). "But how often do we use it?" his wife responds as she stares into an already-overflowing trolley. And really, that's the Costco dilemma in a nutshell.
Costco's giant warehouse shops (and similar rival chains) are a staple of the North American retail experience. The 14,000 square metre site in Melbourne's Docklands is the chain's first move into Australia, though other sites are expected to follow (Sydney's Auburn being the next likely location).
The core element of Costco is "stuff is cheap because it's in big quantities". That works well for business customers, and it also appeals to bargain-minded buyers who are happy to purchase non-perishable goods and have the space at home to store them. Outside of that, the value equation is a lot more individual. If you really do eat a lot of hummus, then a 1kg container might make sense, but for many people it's likely to go off before you finish it.
In any event, my main area of curiosity at Costco is around the gadgets and tech supplies it has on sale (which are the first things you encounter when you enter the store). In this area, there's also some good savings to be found, but within well-defined parameters. There's only a handful of brands and items on display (far less than you'd find in a typical Officeworks), and the level of savings very much depends on the category.
There's a healthy queue of shoppers for the photo printing service, which at 12 cents a print is the cheapest I've seen in a retail location. However, cheaper deals do sometimes show up with online photo stores.
Less distinguished is the offer of 100 Sony CD-R discs for $25.99. It's not that it's a terrible price, but you can get a similarly priced spindle at almost any office supplies store, discount chain or white box PC retailer.
Apple is rarely generous with its discounts, but the iPod prices when I visited were actually lower than from Apple's own online store. An 8GB Nano was $174.99 (versus $199 at Apple), while the 8GB Touch was $294.99 (against Apple's $329). The full 32GB Touch is $499.99 (Apple charges $549).
The PC range is a bit limited and costlier -- there are just two netbooks on offer (the Acer Aspire One for $649.99 and the HP Mini 10 for $599.99). Both those models can be found for less at other retailers with pretty minimal searching, and that's before considering options such as negotiating for a discount, a definite no-no in the Costco environment.
The same applies with other models: the Toshiba Satellite A500 is $2299.99, a price which seems easily bettered with a quick search at staticICE.
Printer supplies are priced much the same as they are everywhere, and I could only see HP, Epson and Canon on offer -- hard luck for Lexmark, Brother or other less dominant brand buyers.
The same applies to storage media. A 1TB WD MyBook for $182.99 is a good buy, as is a 250GB Seagate FreeAgent for $99, but again you can find similar (and sometimes cheaper) deals from many other locations. $58.99 for a 16GB SanDisk USB stick is actually tending towards the high side these days.
Conspicuously absent? Mobile phones and any form of software. The former isn't too surprising, but the latter is a slightly odd omission (though I'd have to allow for the possibility it was hidden somewhere near dog food and I missed it).
The bottom line? If you were already going to be in Costco anyway, then many of these purchases might make sense, and the savings are quite impressive in some cases (the iPods particularly). But for highly specialised shopping (such as a PC), you'd still be better off going to somewhere either more convenient or where you can get actual service if things happen to go wrong.
Here's some other general tips: