Bellingham vs. British Columbia: Shopping Strife at Costco

August 16th, 2012 · 14 Comments

Over the weekend, I was alerted to this nasty Facebook group that sprung up in mid-July: Bellingham Costco needs a special time just for Americans.  So naturally, I had to see what all the craziness was about because I’m both shocked and disgusted by this kind of thing.  This is a very strange form of discrimination and I just don’t think there’s any place for that.  I can’t believe this page has over 4,500 ‘likes’ on Facebook, that makes me sad.

So, it turns out that this is all about Canadians driving to Bellingham, Washington to shop for things like milk, gas, and other items that are considerably cheaper in the US.  For instance, a jug of milk at the downtown Vancouver Costco is listed for $4.60, while the equivalent at the Bellingham Costco is $2.50,  a 1,000-gram block of cheese is $13 in Vancouver but $4 cheaper in Bellingham., a 230-count case of Huggies diapers is $48.99 and about $10 cheaper south of the border.  Who wouldn’t want to avoid spending more money than they had to?  Isn’t that why we all shop at Costco in the fist place?  And as long as the exchange rate is in Canada’s favour, I imagine there will be lots of cross border shopping for many things.

It seems that the milk buying is a really huge part of this, with claims that Canadians are buying all of the milk.  The milk is cheaper in the US because of government subsidies of the dairy industry.  But really, how do they know that it is Canadians? It’s not like we’re all wearing team jerseys with our national flags on them when we go shopping.  I’ve always seen people at every Costco I’ve ever shopped in, loading up their carts with gallons of milk.  I saw it happen in Austin, I see it here in the UK, and it happens in the Kansas City Costco locations too.  I’ve never assumed that they were foreign nationals buying up all of our milk so that we would be calcium deficient and unable to have a bowl of cereal in the morning.  There are many commercial shoppers at Costco, let’s not forget, since that is who they were first geared towards.  So, maybe some of those people buying all that milk are from restaurants or nursing homes or nurseries or pre-schools in the US.  Or maybe they’re just a big family with lots of big milk drinkers.  And undoubtedly some of them are Canadians.  My point is, having someone buy a ton of a particular product at Costco is in no way strange or unusual; that’s the whole purpose of bulk shopping.  I saw some people at our local Costco this weekend with their TWO carts stacked high with a particular juice and thought “I wonder what they’ll be doing with all of that juice” but didn’t see any call to get mean and rude about the situation.

My other favourite complaints from some of the Bellingham people are about long cashier and gas lines, bad parking jobs, and rude behaviour in the stores.  Sounds just like every Costco store I’ve ever shopped in on the weekend.  I’ve not been to Bellingham but from what I can tell it is a smaller town, so maybe the people there aren’t used to crowds, is that it?  Costco on the weekend is a madhouse – no matter where you are located or what nationalities are shopping there.  The lines will always be long.  As far as rudeness goes, well, you can find that anywhere from any group or culture, can’t you?  Same goes for bad parking.  To me all of that is part and parcel of shopping anywhere and you need to just accept that some people are creeps and lousy drivers.

There are a lot of financial benefits that come to the area because of the Canadian shoppers.  Bellingham’s mayor says the city’s rate of growth of taxable retail sales was almost double the state average from 2010 to 2011, much of it due to shoppers from Canada.  Kep Oplinger, president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce, says that at first they were a bit surprised by the Facebook page,  “And then as we read some of the postings rather appalled that people would say some of the things that they have on the page.  Whatcom County’s economy really is reliant upon Canadians coming and shopping and recreating here,” Oplinger said. “We shouldn’t be limiting access to retail stores based on nationality.”

To me, it seems like the store, which was built in 1991, is probably small and needs to expand.  I have read that there is no way to expand the current store or parking lot in the present location.  However, the mayor in Bellingham, Kelli Linville, has talked with Costco about relocating the store to another area in the city so that they can expand.  The mayor wrote Costco a letter in July with a list of steps the city suggests to help Costco build a new store along West Bakerview Road across from Fred Meyer.  The mayor’s letter also covered plans for road changes in the area that would make it more feasible for Costco.  There is a proposal to have the city take the lead in building Dover Street, which would go north from Bakerview Road near Fred Meyer and act as a driveway into Costco and a connector road through the area. Costco and the city could share the costs, according to the mayor.  The letter also said the city is currently planning to extend Horton Road, which would likely reduce congestion at Interstate 5 and Bakerview Road, and it would commit to building the Division Street connector in the next five to 10 years, a project that would provide direct access from Dover Street to Pacific Highway.  Naturally, Costco will not make public comments on new locations or expansions until they are well into the process.  So, we will all just have to wait to see how the possibility of a new, bigger store unfolds.

Until a new store is built, Costco has begun paying the Bellingham police for an off-duty officer to handle the parking lot crowd two days a week.   I’ve also read that they have expanded store hours (but I can’t see anything about that on the Costco.com site) and have more staff on duty to try to mitigate some of the problems with long lines.  There is also a store in Burlington, Washington (about 20 miles away) that people might want to try shopping at to avoid the situation at the Bellingham warehouse.   But one thing Costco will absolutely not be doing is instituting American only shopping hours or changing it’s policy that anyone with a Costco membership can shop at any Costco location in the world.

Luckily, another Facebook page has sprung up that puts a better face on Bellingham/Whatcom county.  This page, Bellingham Businesses and Residents Welcome Canadian Shoppers, has much nicer comments and sets a far better tone than the other page.

For more about this topic, see the following:

Just one final note, if you make a comment on this post, please keep it civil and free of foul language or hateful words.

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14 Responses so far ↓

  1. 1 Dollar saver // 2014.01.01 at 12:25 am

    I think the cheapest and easiest way to solve the problem at the bellingham,US Costco, is 2 part.
    1. Raise the price of dairy at Costco in Bellingham. Obviously the market can handle it. If the Americans want it to be less busy, they won’t mind a price hike.
    2. Decrease the price of dairy in the Abbotsford, Canada Costco. All those dairy buying Canadians will not want to cross the border and Bellingham can go back to being a ghost town like it was in the 90s.
    It’s simple.

  2. 2 David C. Moore // 2013.05.16 at 4:57 pm

    Having purchased gas at the Bellingham warehouse in question recently as well as the Langford (Victoria) BC warehouse on Vancouver Island merely a few days prior, the price at the pump difference obviously forces many BC residents (Costco members) to deal with the border issues and drive south. The cost in Victoria was $1.28 (CAD)/liter which classes out to $4.84 (USD)/US Gallon. At $3.54 (USD) in Bellingham this classes out to .93/liter (USD) and given the close proximity in exchange of the USD vs. CAD it isn’t any wonder 2 of 3 plates in the gas line were from BC. But this isn’t a Costco issue since they proudly serve the U.S. & Canada, but rather this is something Canada’s Border Services officers should address when they re-enter BC at the Peace Arch crossing, particularly if they smell gas tanks in the trunks, rear compartments of SUVs or Pick-up beds, ask to look at a fuel gage and demand the printed receipt and then access the Candian tax difference which they are legallyallowed to do and are technically mandated to do. There are unique differences in the warehouse offerings on both sides of the border that border officers on both sides should always respect, except Kinder Eggs which the U.S. officers will confiscate and politely tell “ignorant offenders” to direct their anger at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission over (commedian Bill Engvall loves to make fun of them especially), but all told cross-border shopping experiences are something Americans and Candians alike need to experience. My wife is a citizen of Canada and much of her family resides north of the border, and there is simply stuff we can’t get at our Salt Lake City warehouse (#113) and vica-versa for her family.

  3. 3 Selina // 2013.05.15 at 12:33 am

    It’s not only that Costco is too small, but Bellingham is too small. We love te boost in our economy. It’s not that we dislike Canadians by any means, but our roads are not being increased to accommodate for the higher volumes in traffic— therefore causing severe frustration if a quick drive to the store is necessary. Also, it is a perfectly obvious distinction for locals when spotting out visitors. When you run into a local, you also (usually) run into a smile or a laugh if carts happen to collide on corners. My idea is that you never know who the person is, but the fact that they may or may not be your kids teacher, your boss’s wife, or whoever, you have the “just in cases” need to be friendly when you might be connected in one way or another. Most Canadians don’t have that fear of cutting off or giving a dirty look to a boss or whatnot, so they are less likely to give friendly gestures or be polite to a random person. I can always always alway tell a Canadian from a local. If you are having problems with Americans being rude, try just smiling at them instead of staring blankly. I’m a firm believer in the term “Kill ‘em with kindness!” I’m almost positive that will make your shopping experience (as well as ours) a much more pleasant one. Plus, identifying you will be much more difficult =)

  4. 4 Rick Wagner // 2012.08.24 at 5:17 pm

    Sorry, Costco lady. You ought to know that every milk container that passes through Costco does so against a swiped Costco card. Costco slices and dices that information and can tell you exactly where someone who buys a product at Costco lives.

    At MY Costco, in Indiana, there are certain groups of people who flood the stores on the days that Costco gives out free samples. Since Costco insists on setting up these tasting stations at aisle intersections, it makes shopping extremely difficult when people stand around eating free samples at each intersection.

    These people make Costco their free meal every week! I’ve learned not to shop on the weekends or in the evening hours at Costco for that very reason.

  5. 5 Donna // 2012.08.20 at 11:53 am

    I have lived in Bellingham for 28 years and have been a Costco member for a very long time. Shopping at the Bellingham Costco is a horrific experience and one you will never understand unless you have been there yourself. Bottom line, they need a larger store and a parking lot that is double the size of the current parking lot. And yes, we know that the Canadian shoppers are the ones buying all the milk. If you live here, you know. We have always had a large number of Canadian shoppers (greatly appreciated), but since the Canadian dollar has been par with the American dollar, the number has quadrupled. It can make for a VERY frustrating shopping experience at times. Different countries have different ideas of being respectful…that also includes driving.

  6. 6 Dave // 2012.08.20 at 1:06 am

    I live 20 miles South of Bellingham. The Costco there is in a rented building in an extremely busy urban strip-mall shopping area. Parking there has been terrible for years, long before they put in the gas station. The parking lot is shared with a number of other businesses, including a Best Buy and a Bed, Bath & Beyond, among others. It’s extremely crowded there. When you factor in the Canadians who stop only for gas on their way back to the border (which is only a few miles further north on the same street) the parking gets even more crowded. Just trying to get in the warehouse is so terrible, they hired an off-duty police officer to patrol the parking lot to settle disputes between customers. It’s not pretty – ever. When you make it into the warehouse, it is ALWAYS crowded – much more than in other warehouses, even on weekends.

    My partner works for Costco in Burlington, Washington (#662.) He says they get reports the door counts in Bellingham are enormous throughout the day, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Recently things have increased so much, the Bellingham warehouse has hit #1 in Costco Corporate sales worldwide on more than one occasion. It is much too small a warehouse to have such sales numbers. And it’s no wonder the American members feel they deserve their own hours to shop there – after all, the Canadians have several warehouses of their own just across the border. They have to go out of their way to get to the Bellingham warehouse.

    But take note that it’s just as crazy at Kmart or Walmart or at the Bellis Fair Mall. It’s been that way for years. In Bellingham, it’s a given that Canadians come there to shop. At the Bellingham Costco, it just seems more concentrated.

    “My” warehouse in Burlington has recently started to absorb the overflow of both Canadians AND Americans who don’t want to hassle with shopping in Bellingham, and who are driving the extra distance South to the next warehouse to shop. I frequently wait in line at “my” gas station beyond numerous cars, mosr of which have Canadian license plates. I’m not upset by that, but I see it as a strong indicator that there is a major issue with the Bellingham warehouse accommodating those who’d like to shop there.

    Costco owns land in Ferndale, the next town north of Bellingham (about 9 miles away), where they’ve been talking about opening another warehouse. If they relocated the Bellingham warehouse to a Ferndale location, this would get them out of the Bellingham city limits, and presumably away from the restrictions on expansion the city imposes on them. If they opened Ferndale as a second location in the same geographic area, it’d go a long way to alleviating the problems with crowds. I strongly vote for this option, so thigns could be spread around.

    I’ve been a warehouse member since 1982 (started back in the Price Club days), and I have shopped in Costco warehouses all over the US and Canada. I have never experienced the level of crowding I see in Bellingham. I just won’t shop there anymore. Shopping at Costco is supposed to be a fun and exhilarating experience, where it’s supposed to be a pain in the pocketbook, not a pain in the rear. :)

    Dave

  7. 7 Neil // 2012.08.17 at 2:40 pm

    I actually made the mistake of trying to stop in at the Bellingham Costco for gas one Saturday on the way up to Vancovuer. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad. Idea. I have never in my life ever seen lines so long for gas anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like inside the store.

    Part of the problem is the location of the store. Even getting out of it and back to I-5 is painful on weekends, and the lot is small too.

    Neil

  8. 8 Travis // 2012.08.17 at 2:37 pm

    According to Costco’s Investor Relations website (http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=83830&p=irol-homeprofile) , the average warehouse size is 140,000 sqft, the smallest being 73,000 and the largest 205,000. It appears that Bellingham has a city ordinance which caps Big Box stores (though some argue costco should be exempt) at 90,000 sqft. It’s safe to say that the existing store is probably smaller than that, perhaps significant so, meaning its well under the average Costco size that many are used to. All told: more shoppers + free samples + limited parking + smaller warehouse == Costco Hell.

  9. 9 Deb // 2012.08.17 at 7:19 am

    The Bellingham store is not the only one with serious crowds and impossible parking. My sister and her husband ultimately let their Costco membership lapse because the store closest to them in Arlington, VA was impossible to get into. The store is in heavily congested Northern Virginia on the DC border. Unless you are in the parking lot before it opens you can’t find parking without being willing to wait an indeterminate amount of time and stalk people leaving. Even then it is complete gridlock. I was stunned the one time they took me there. Crowded is crowded regardless of where the people are coming from. I am fortunate that my Costco in NJ is large and not terribly crowded. Although I do still see people going through checkout with a lot of milk.

  10. 10 Mike // 2012.08.16 at 3:43 pm

    Hi there –

    Long time reader/follower of your blog, never before commented.

    I actually live half way between Seattle and Bellingham(B-Ham), and I’ve been a loyal Costco shopper for 15+ years now. I’ve been to every Costco from Seattle to Vancouver dozens of times, and I can honestly tell you the Bellingham Costco is a nightmare compared to any other in the area. For some reason, it doesn’t even feel the same. It doesn’t feel ‘right’.

    • 11 Mike // 2012.08.16 at 3:52 pm

      One other thing to note, Bellingham is a college town. I think that, mixed with the mass flux of our Canadian neighbors coming over to shop as well, creates a not so pleasant shopping experience.

      I usually don’t mind the crowds at Costco ever, not even on the weekends. You get used to it. However, I’d much rather shop at the downtown Seattle Costco on a day before a Memorial or 4th of July weekend, than shop at the Bellingham Costco any day of the week.

      • 12 Kimberly // 2012.08.17 at 5:06 am

        LOL Mike, That’s pretty bad indeed if it is even worse than the day before Memorial day or 4th of July.

        I think the store is older than a lot of the other warehouses in the area and all of the older stores that I have been in have that cramped feeling. It also sounds like perhaps there were some pretty tight restrictions on the sizes of the big stores in Bellingham previously. Perhaps that means it is even smaller than a regular old store? I haven’t been able to find any information about the size of it, just its age.

  11. 13 Dione // 2012.08.16 at 10:53 am

    Wow that is crazy! I have to admit if I were close to the American border I would do some cross border shopping myself. As a Canadian it bugs me that we pay so much more for things when our dollars are close most of the time now. But as I am in edmonton in the middle of the province it’s not an option to drive across the border at will. I will have to be content with the massive Costco close to me:)

  12. 14 Dave // 2012.08.16 at 8:18 am

    I think some people in Washington have been watching the South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut movie and thinking it was a real-time news story? “Blame Canada!”

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