Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low pay and questionable management choices, Costco’s minimum wage was increased to $16 an hour at the beginning of 2021. And after one year of employment, the company's turnover rate was only 6 percent—that's compared to the estimated average of slightly more than 60 percent across the retail industry in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.
It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we asked several Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.
1. Working at Costco might be better than going to the gym.
Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about 5 to 8 miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado, told us in 2018. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”
2. Costco employees can do their shopping after hours.
While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state, told us in 2018. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.
3. The generous return policy can get messy for Costco employees.
Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over 5 years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael said. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”
Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she said.
4. Costco employees can tell when you’re a serial returner.
Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” Thomas, an employee in California, told us in 2018. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”
5. Costco has a convenience store-within-a-store.
While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” Steve, an employee in California, told us in 2018. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”
6. There’s a good reason why Costco doesn't have an express checkout lane.
Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that headcount gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she said. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed. In theory, this means that the ideal number of cash registers will be open depending on the overall number of shoppers in the store, cutting down on the need for an express line.
7. There’s a method to Costco's receipt check.
Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas said. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.
8. Costco employees take safe food handling to a new level.
At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken, and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael said. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas, as it could chip and get into the food.
9. Working at Costco's food court can prepare employees for anything.
Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve said. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”
10. Costco employees get free turkeys.
Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen told us, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she said. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”
11. Costco employees can revoke your membership.
But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if they're caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)
12. Costco managers get their hands dirty.
During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael said.
13. Every daily Costco store opening is controlled chaos.
Like most retail stores, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve said. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”
14. Every daily Costco store closing is a slow march.
To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael said. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022. A correction was also made to retail turnover rates, which are estimated to be above 60 percent, according to the National Retail Federation.