Costco tips: How first-timers and long-timers can get the best deals

Walking into a Costco, especially if it’s your first time, can feel a bit like you’ve suddenly wound up in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

Everything around you just seems to have gotten so much … bigger?

It can be an overwhelming experience. But one that can be well worth it. The membership-based grocery (and more) chain offers great values to savvy shoppers, particularly if you’re ready to buy in bulk.

For advice on how to get the most out of every Costco trip, we called up Robert Kyle, a 26-year Costco veteran who’s now the proud manager of the store in Waltham, Mass. (and, not for nothing, the proud father of Epicurious photo editor Chelsea Kyle). Kyle gave us some tips on how best to optimize the Costco shopping experience.

Let’s get the most basic principle of Costco shopping out of the way first:

1. Don’t expect five different kinds of ketchup.

“Traditional retailers will carry somewhere around 100,000 SKUs,” Kyle says — SKU being grocery-speak for, essentially, individual items for sale. (It stands for "stock keeping unit.") “Costco works very hard to keep our SKU count around 4,000.” So don’t expect a ton of variety, but do expect a bargain price on a good-quality item. “We only sell Heinz ketchup and we sell it in one size,” Kyle says. That way, Costco can negotiate with the manufacturer for the best deal.

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2. See something you want? Now’s the time.

“Our philosophy on the seasonal items is to be the first in, first out,” Kyle says. The idea is avoid having excess merchandise leftover at the end of the season, which helps keep costs down. “We’ll be totally out of Christmas [products] by mid-December,” Kyle says — if you go looking for a egg nog on December 23, thenyou might be more apt to run into a new display of patio furniture. “Our members are somewhat trained to know that if you see something, you should buy it.”

3. Weekends are for demos.

If you want to snack while you shop, you want to go when the foot traffic is heaviest, and manufacturers are more likely to be on hand sampling out their products — that’s Thursday through Sunday.

4. Feeling a bit disoriented? That’s the idea.

It’s called the “treasure hunt” concept, Kyle says — Costco doesn’t mark its aisles. That’s so store employees can change the format often to highlight new or seasonal products, but it also encourages a bit of hunting around. “It prompts people to sometimes look a little harder for things that they want, but they’ll find something they didn’t come in for. When you walk in the front door, it’s a treasure hunt all the way to the end.”

5. The salmon is #wasteless.

Compared to competitors like Trader Joe's, Kyle points out, Costco's Atlantic salmon comes with basically 100 percent yield — no skin, no bones, no excess fat — and at a better price, too.

6. Nonmembers can sometimes buy alcohol.

Check your local listings for this one, but some states require alcohol to be sold in the same manner everywhere — meaning that member-based shopping clubs like Costco have to open up their booze racks to everybody. Nonmembers, of course, still get the same low prices.

7. Don't sleep on Kirkland Signature.

This isn't much of a secret, of course — most savvy shoppers know that Costco partners with really high-quality manufacturers to develop the products sold under its Kirkland Signature brand. Kirkland Signature vodka has developed a weird cult following — rumors abound that it is actually a fancy top-shelf brand — but right now Kyle says he's particularly partial to the blue cheese. "My cholesterol level's through the roof!"

8. The returns are #limitless.

Some exceptions apply for electronics and, uh, diamonds, but otherwise there’s really no time limit on returns. You don’t need a receipt, as Costco can just look up the sale in its computers. Change your mind about what to make for dinner this weekend? No problem.

9. Here’s the exact amount at which an executive membership pays off …

There are two tiers of membership at Costco: entry-level, at $55 a year, and executive, at $110 a year. An executive-level membership comes with a bunch of perks (more on that below), but it also gets you 2 percent back annually on whatever you’ve spent that year at Costco. Thus, Kyle points out, you can pinpoint the exact level of spending at which an executive membership pays for itself: $2,750 a year. (According to recent numbers from the USDA, food costs for a family of four following a “low-cost plan” are around $700 to $800 per month. It doesn't take much to get to $2,750.) “If you spend more than $2,750 a year and you’re not an executive member, you’re actually losing money,” Kyle says.

10. And here’s another way it pays off.

Vacation! Costco does travel too. “You go on a cruise as a regular member, you’re going to get a great price on that cruise,” Kyle says. “As an executive member, you’re going to get a great price on that cruise and you’re going to get a cabin with a balcony.”

11. Still, the best deal is probably lunch.

In Kyle’s entire career with the company, one price has never changed. It’s in the food court. “We have always offered a quarter-pound, all-beef, kosher hot dog and a 20-ounce refillable Pepsi for $1.50,” he says. “It’s never increased in 26 years.”