How COVID-19 Has Changed Shopping Trips to a Denver-Area Costco

The Costco at 7900 West Quincy Avenue in Littleton.
The Costco at 7900 West Quincy Avenue in Littleton. Google Maps
Colorado has changed as a result of the COVID-19 virus — and so has Costco. Indeed, a shopping trip this weekend to the giant retailer's Littleton branch, at 7900 West Quincy Avenue, served as a microcosm for the societal shifts that are taking place in metro Denver and the country as a whole.

Examples include huge throngs of customers eager to grab every staple in sight and a run on the only paper product in stock.

My wife and I were awakened early Saturday morning by a call from my son and his partner, who were at a local Sam's Club. They have a Sam's Club card that allows them early access to the store: 7 a.m., as opposed to 10 a.m. But by 7 a.m., there were already dozens of people waiting ahead of them, and by the time they got inside, lots of items were already sold out — not just paper goods, but also every single package of meat. Other stuff was available, however, and they asked if we wanted them to pick anything up for us. We thanked them but said no, since we were planning on a trip to Costco a bit later in the morning.

Saturdays at our local Costco are typically busy, so we weren't shocked when we found nearly every space in the huge parking lot already occupied at 10 a.m. or so. But a major difference was obvious as soon as we stepped through the entryway: The employee who checked my wife's Costco card to confirm our membership also handed us a wet wipe to sanitize the handhold on our shopping cart.

Inside, all the main routes through the outlet were jammed, rendering the prospect of maintaining a six-foot gap between us and the rest of humanity (as social-distancing best practices dictate) absolutely impossible from the jump. Moreover, it was clear that many of the patrons hadn't been in a store like this one in ages, if ever. A hefty percentage had zero idea about shopping norms, including the one that makes it a faux pas to stop at the start of aisles, thereby blocking access for the rest of us. Every few feet, there were large, unnecessary clogs that had the potential of generating frustration and angry words. But during our time in the store, there were no such explosions — perhaps because they would have forced interactions with strangers whose health status was unknown.

The meat wasn't entirely gone, but almost; only a few scattered offerings remained, making us wonder what the hell was wrong with them. As for toilet paper and paper towels, the Littleton Costco typically stocks thousands of rolls — enough to fill up the entire back wall of a building large enough to be seen from space. But there wasn't a single one on the shelves. Instead, staffers had filled the vacuum with pallet after pallet of bottled water for those fearful that the taps will be shut off soon.

Not that the store was entirely paper-free. There remained a supply of fancy napkins of the sort that folks tend to buy for house parties, and they were going fast, even though it's unlikely that anyone was planning a bash to watch a rebroadcast of Super Bowl IX on the NFL Network. Indeed, the stock on the sales floor had largely been exhausted, prompting a worker to use a lift to reach extra boxes on shelves ten to fifteen feet off the floor and then toss napkin packs down to eager customers.

"It's raining napkins!" one person exclaimed.

Of course, if all these folks plan on using napkins as toilet-paper substitutes, they could soon have unexpected visitors to their home: plumbers needed to unclog pipes plugged with paper too thick to flush. But at least they'll have experienced some luxurious personal cleaning before having to pony up for this service.

We didn't grab any napkins, and our overall purchases were rather modest — but the lines for checking out were anything but, stretching halfway to the back of the store, and sometimes even further. The number of people wanting to use the self-check stations was particularly overwhelming, probably because customers thought they'd be safer handling things solo as opposed to speaking with an employee. Of course, the touch screens they were using had already been fingered by hundreds of people....

We opted for one of the regular lines and wound up directly behind a guy who was energetically coughing into the crook of his elbow — except for the one time when he apparently forgot and sent a cloud of particulates spewing toward the dozen or so people to his right. They didn't seem happy.

Some checkers wore masks and every employee I saw had donned gloves, including the harried, exhausted-looking clerk who quickly scanned our selections. Typically, customers are asked if they'd like their purchases boxed, but to expedite the process, she instead pointed to stacks of cardboard containers in an area where corn dogs, pizza and other food is normally prepared. But not on this day — and samples that are usually in such plentiful supply that people can actually leave Costco feeling full weren't available, either.

Back outside, we felt as if we'd dodged a coronavirus bullet, despite the fact that we won't know for days, or maybe even longer, if that's actually the case. Others, meanwhile, looked overjoyed — because they'd managed to score some fancy napkins.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts