Membership-based shopping experiences come with their own set of rules that members choose to abide by when they purchase their membership. Two of the most famous membership-based stores in America are Sams Club and Costco, and they each are unique in the way that they operate for their members.

The Membership Model

While they differ in some fundamental ways, at the base of it, Costco and other membership-based stores operate the same way. They offer a unique shopping experience in exchange for membership fees.

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Costco offers a bulk shopping experience for its members. They’re able to offer significantly lower prices across all areas of shopping due to contracts that they’re able to close with bulk suppliers, and Costco passes on the savings to their members.

A Forty-Year History

Costco as a company has been around for years. The first Costco Warehouse was opened in September of 1983, and has since grown to be the third-largest multinational corporation in the world.

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Costco is ranked #11 on the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue, and as of 2016 is the world’s largest retailer of choice and prime beef, organic foods, rotisserie chicken, and wine.

A Reasonable Fee

These accolades make the membership fee that Costco charges its shoppers a reasonable exchange for what the company offers. Not only does Costco offer significant savings and excellent customer service, but they have services beyond merely what can be bought in the warehouse.

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Costco also provides services for cars through their gas stations and tire centers, and the food court that Costco has in each of its warehouses is well-known for being simple and inexpensive.

Some Exceptions to the Membership Rule

While Costco does operate on a members-only model, there are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, in some markets Costco operates liquor stores, which are required to be open to all shoppers in certain states.

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Additionally, the Costco food court has often been cited as the exception to the membership rule. For years, if you wanted to get lunch and browse at Costco, the only time when your membership would be cited would be when you were getting ready to check out at the registers with your items.

Changes to the Operating Pattern

Recent months have seen this pattern change, though, particularly in regards to the food court. Various locations of Costco across the United States have started checking memberships using an automatic kiosk before people enter the stores.

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This is a marked shift from the way that Costco operated before. Previously, the chain only checked to make sure that someone held an active membership at checkout, meaning that individuals could come and browse without holding an active membership.

Differing Business Opinions

Given that Costco offers free samples to its members and outrageously low prices to its goods, some might see the tendency not to check membership at the door as a poor business choice. If anyone can come in and see what there is to offer, is the option really exclusive?

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On the other hand, some might see the ability to check the wares before buying a membership to, in fact, be a draw to Costco. Someone might browse along the aisles and see such a good deal that they’re compelled to sign up for a membership on the spot.

A Significant Policy Shift

Changing the policy regarding membership status, particularly in regards to the food court, is a significant shift for the warehouse. Costco’s food court is notably popular due to its low prices; it famously sells a hot dog and a 20 oz. Pepsi for $1.50, and the founders of the company have promised that the price will never go up.

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The menu of the food court is simple and to the point. It has pizza, some drinks, a hot dog, and a few other small items that appeal to individuals of all ages. Costco doesn’t need to offer a hugely varied menu in order to provide well for its members, and it shows.

Past Policy Versus Future Execution

In the past, though it’s technically been true that a membership was necessary to purchase food from the food court, it was a policy that wasn’t strictly enforced across the board. It appears that this is changing, going forward for the company.

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A post on Reddit showed a sign at a Florida Costco that made clear that the company was extending its ongoing membership crack down. They were doing this by extending the crack down to the food court, closing it to non-members officially.

A New Policy Sign

The sign read, “Effective April 8 2024, an active Costco membership card will be required to purchase items from our food court. You can join today. Please see our membership counter for details.” Simple, and to the point.

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While it’s true that written policy has always required a membership for individuals to shop at all all different aspects of Costco, operating policy has often been different. For instance, the chain has a written policy on checking membership cards that is different than how most stores operate.

Clarifying Policy

The policy reads, “You will be required to show your membership card when entering any Costco warehouse and when checking out at a payment register. Bar codes, photos, or other copies are not acceptable.”

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The reality behind this policy is that the chain has only recently begun checking membership cards at the door of its warehouses, and only in select locations. Clear and consistent execution of policy appears to be a challenge for the chain, something that new rules will likely only make clearer.

Crickets from Costco

The chain hasn’t released a statement on their apparent new execution of existing policy. Despite this, the Florida location referenced in the Reddit post is not the only store that has hung a new sign detailing their new food court policy.

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Multiple other people have posted photos of similar signs in their Costco locations, though it must be noted that these signs appear to stretch back multiple years. There are some that date to before the COVID-19 pandemic, raising eyebrows as to the true clarity of execution when it comes to this particular policy.

A Policy that Makes Sense

While there are some who have been openly disgruntled at the shift in this attitude towards their existing policy, for others, the thought just makes sense. After all, Costco is a membership warehouse. Why wouldn’t you need a membership in order to shop at all different parts of the store?

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CostcoDeals, a popular Instagram page that isn’t formally affiliated with the warehouse, concurred with the policy change, and noted that the chain has been attempting to execute this policy effectively for years. “To us, it makes complete sense!” states one post.

Potentially Giving Costco a Try

Whether you shop at Costco or not, it appears that the store will be making changes to its public policy execution moving forward. For some, this change in policy may be enough to get them to sign up for a membership and see what the chain is all about.

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If you’re not someone attracted to buying in bulk, though, Costco’s changing policies and popularity may result in nothing more than a raised eyebrow. While the chain’s popularity cannot be denied, it also cannot be denied that bulk shopping is not for everybody. Not even killer food court deals can change that.