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Monday, June 12, 2017

In Defense of Costco

One of two Costcos in Osaka
Ellen put up a very thought-provoking post the other day about Costco, that huge warehouse/store where one can buy all manner of things cheap and in bulk.  Costco is about to open its first store in France and that has evoked strong reactions from some Americans living in the Hexagon.

Costco is an export from my homeland - the Pacific Northwest of the United States - along with Microsoft, Amazon, RealAudio, and Starbucks.  Yes, the land of sea, salmon, and cedar also produces a healthy crop of capitalists.

That is one reason I can not pretend to be neutral on the subject of their products on distant shores.  There are good jobs in Seattle because of the success of these enterprises.  In 2017 the unemployment rate in the city hovers around 3%.

But there are other reasons I simply can't get too worked up about the arrival of Costco in France.  Frankly, I would have loved to have had one around when the Frenchlings were young.  We were a dual-income family with kids living in Suresnes at the time and we usually shopped for the week on Saturday morning at a French chain called Champion. But more often then we both liked,  we would run out of something during the week and one of us would have to make a run after picking up the Frenchlings from after-school care.   It was a cauchemar. A tired adult with two tired, cranky kids who just wanted to go home pushing the cart through crowded aisles, waiting at the checkout, and then having to bag the groceries herself.  Now there was a market in the center of town in addition to the chain stores but neither of us could frequent the market during the week and, in any case, whether we shopped at one or both, we had to carry our purchases back to the apartment.   We tried to buy staples in bulk (milk, for example) but we were limited to what was available and what we could carry.  (This was years before I took up weight-lifting.)

There was nothing particularly romantic about this aspect of French life.  It was "métro boulot dodo" like all the other families, French or foreign (or both), in our community.  My neighbor who had Wednesdays off took her children to McDonald's that day.  They liked it and she could relax and not have to cook on her day off.  I completely understood where she was coming from. And, in fact, when the Frenchlings began to spend their Wednesdays (no school that day) with my mother-in-law in Paris, she would often take them to McDonald's as well.

To those who find the presence of these things disturbing because, as Ellen says, "they see the arrival of Costco as importation of the worst of American consumerism, American products and so on. ."  I sympathize.  If these things bothered them in the US, than, yes, I'm sure they don't care for them in their adopted country. As for those of you reading this who do not live in France, perhaps you are feeling a bit disappointed at what I've written so far because that doesn't fit your image of a bucolic, unspoiled country and its "we work to live, we don't live to work" people.  However pleasant my French management was, no one was going to give me a morning off to hit the farmers' market.

Is it really so difficult to acknowledge that today an "authentic" French life includes things like chain stores and a struggle with issues like childcare and dual-income families?  The more traditional French life where the children came home for lunch every day, someone was available to shop in the market in the morning, and few families needed daycare was predicated on the fact that many women didn't work.  That has changed and I think this is a good thing.  No, my neighbor didn't have to take her children to McDonald's  but consider that four days a week she pulled a double shift and that we all had to get up early on Saturday to take the children to school. I'd say that anything that made her life (and mine) was greatly appreciated.  Would it have been better if she had taken them to Quick (A French hamburger-fries-shake chain)?

And what really is the difference between a Champion and a store like Costco?  The answer is simple:  the possibility of buying staples in bulk at low prices.  If Costco (or another chain) had existed we would still have bought the bricks of milk but in large quantities so that no one had to shop during the week.  And the threat of the cheaper stores like Costco (and other from the UK, Spain or Germany) has meant that the French supermarket chains offer more services like home delivery at reasonable prices and shopping via Internet - all of which would have been a godsend for me and my spouse when the Frenchlings were little.

As for "American consumerism"  I'm not sure such a thing really exists as a national export.  Can one country, however powerful it purports to be, force another nation to change its habits and mores against its will?  There is something in that accusation that implies that the French themselves are too foolish (or too cowed) to resist.  And that is simply not true.  The French show great powers of resistance and are not be riled because they will protest in ways that make Americans with all their guns look like petits joueurs (small players).  Perhaps even more threatening to Americans are the Japanese who take in a product, flip it around, make it better, and then sell a better version to American markets.

And lastly let's consider that the French are gifted capitalists inside and outside of France.  As Ellen notes in her post: "The fact that there are so many "hypermarkets" in France is a purely French phenomenon, not imported from anywhere else, and they have drained the life out of many town centers."

 I would add that there was a Paul's (a French bakery chain) here in Osaka right next to my spouse's office.  When I went to Shanghai I toured a Carrefour (French supermarket chain) and listened to a presentation on how they intended to conquer the market in China.  All over the world one will find French businessmen and women selling software, carbonated beverages, chain bakeries and supermarkets and even garbage pickup, all ably supported by the French Chambers of Commerce and Business France.  I should know because I worked for French companies that did those things and exported them quite successfully.

For consistency's sake, those who dislike the idea of a Costco in France should surely be equally aghast at a Carrefour in China.  I echo Ellen's question, "Anyone complaining about the imperialism?"  If you happy to be one of the complainers about "imperialism," then please explain the difference between the French and American versions and why you are not writing to Business France to tell them to cut it out.

Societies change for reasons that has something to do with the importation of foreign ideas, good, and services, but that's not the whole story.  Foreign companies don't succeed in a market unless they have something local people want.  Fundamentally, I think deeper societal changes make societies more receptive to imported things that solve genuine problems.  Costco will please them or it won't and it is up to the French to decide that.

But I will not cry for Carrefour or Champion any more than I will shed tears for a more traditional era when women were told to stay home whether they liked it or not.  And anything that makes life easier for working families has my vote.


Anonymous said...

Adobe is from San Jose. It has an office in Seattle, but it's always been a Silicon Valley company.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Aha! Thanks for the correction. I will fix. :-)

Sauve said...

Perhaps the problem is simply competition. Whatever it is will not affect me in any way that I can see at this time. You're absolutely right about France being just as competitive as anyone else in the world. I think the difference is France likes to think of its family or private life as being small and bucolic, because its business are anything but. They are efficiently run or they close. Just as in the USA. Prodways just went public. An idea born in my husband's office in St. Etienne sometime in 2004 I believe. It took him time to find an investor which enabled him to forge ahead. 4 years ago it was one man working in a warehouse in Bayeaux and today it is a company with a couple hundred employees in Les Mureaux. People are the same the world over really.

I like that I can choose to go shopping or not. That I can use Auchan or Intermache or Carrefour Drives, as I will do when I log off here. Such things would have been heaven sent when I was a single parent of 3 school aged children, working 2 full-time jobs, in Dallas but living in either Plano or Garland, Texas. Now the options of store shopping, home delivery, or drive-thru are going to extend my ability to be self-sufficient much longer as I age. Coupled with internet bohemoths such as Amazon handicapped and elderly will be able to remain independent that much longer. That will lower the cost of care, not to mention the lessening of stress to their adult children who are trying to balance out responsibilities to their children, spouse's family, jobs, and the routines of everything else. I know that amazon has been great for me because it has enabled me to buy one of my children's family groceries when in between jobs, to gift card Christmas to my adult children and grandchildren back in the USA.

Eh. It's all good. The world changes all the time. It is something we all thrilled to when we were young. I understand for some of us, once we had families and began 'adulting' (love that word) that was a desire to return to what we consider simpler times but did those ideal times ever really exist for the persons 'adulting' in them? I doubt it.

Tim said...


I suspect many American expats in France don't realize how big Carrefour is(MUCH bigger than Costco) due to the fact they don't have a presence in the US. On the other hand there are some very big French service companies with big US' presence. Sodexho for example is by largest operator of corporate and college cafeterias. Even the House of Representatives Cafeteria on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC is run by Sodexho.

Another example is Motel 6 in the US is owned by the French hotel operator Accor that also owns Sofitel and now Fairmont(operator of the Plaza Hotel in NYC and the famed "railroad" hotels in Canada).

I will add though not all American retail "invasions" are successful. About six or seven years back the US retail chain Target made a big expansion into Canada but after two years closed all their Canadian stores and headed back south of the border with their tail between their legs at the hand of "Canadian" retailer Canadian Tire(which sells a LOT more than just tires).

bubblebustin said...

Maybe if they named it Costceau?😂

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Sauve, Yes, that's a side of France that few want to discuss. France is Asterix - the small but doughty underdog fighting the Romans. I'm with you. I like that I have options for something as mundane as basic shopping. Your point about this making it easier for older people is one I hadn't considered but you are absolutely correct. My mother-in-law in Paris is less mobile every time we see her. If she could order by phone or we could order by phone or Internet that would really help. One feature of Amazon here in Japan that I just love is that you have the option of scheduling delivery. I can ask , for example, that they deliver between 12:30 and 13:00. Outstanding and 100% reliable. Well wotht the small fee they charge for the service.

Tim, I had forgotten about Sodexho. Yes, they are a monster. Didn't they also get contracts for the US military?

Bubllebustin, Bahahahahah! That's EXCELLENT and it made me laugh. Thank you.

bubblebustin said...

Thanks, glad I could make you laugh. Usually I just get eye rolls.

Tim said...


Yes, Sodexho has LOTS of US military contracts too.

Also another French "brand" many people don't realize is French is "Bic" the ubiquitous makers of cigarette lighters, pens, disposable razors and other miscellaneous nick knacks.