In this vast place, there is an unexpected quiet -- immediately upon entering, people lower their voices.
They may enter only if they belong. They carry cards -- red, white and blue passes marked with their faces -- proving their membership.
They cast their eyes upon car wax and stuffed seafood, wet suits and boxer shorts, Beethoven CDs and one-hour photo service, vast racks of muffins and 12-foot columns of tires. Under soaring ceilings and bare-bones mercury lamps, on undecorated 18-foot-high steel shelves above raw concrete floors, the cornucopia of America stretches before the visitor as the frontier once challenged and thrilled adventurers of the American West: diapers, beer, motor oil, binoculars, a plastic playhouse for the back yard, a 16-foot canoe, a package of 40 batteries, the Shogun Shiatsu Massager -- as seen on TV -- only $29.99.
At Price Club, you can pick up a helium tank or a cellular phone, a nine-pound bag of mangoes or a five-pound jug of ketchup. You can buy a soda from a vending machine, then buy the vending machine -- at $2,349.99, it's a steal.
Shoppers hurry in, often with a mission in mind. Once they step inside, their quarry stands before them, arrayed in fabulous towers, in hulking structures that seem to stretch endlessly down broad avenues. Within minutes, shoppers lose track of time and place. They find themselves sucked in, utterly absorbed, until soon their minds are focused on one thing only: the goods around them.
The shoppers walk in and gaze upward, with reverence and calm. They have left the outside world behind. In here, there is no weather, no window. Space seems limitless; the possibilities are infinite.
Man is distinguished from beast by his possessions, and in the final days of the 20th century, this is the human's most evolved way to find and collect those things.
Like a cathedral, Price Club inspires awe.
"Normally, I hate shopping, but the thing about this place is its opulence," says Joseph Noshpritz, who, with his wife, Charlotte, comes over to the Pentagon City Price Club from the District twice a month. "This place pours out the goods of the world. The sense of stocking up and having on reserve is something new to us. It's changed how we live."
"It saves aggravation," says Charlotte Noshpritz, finishing off one of the "high-energy" snack bars that a Price Club "demonstrator" cuts up and serves to passing shoppers.
The white-haired couple have set aside the morning for acquiring. Husband holds in his hand what he calls "the list of intended targets." He admits, however, that "en passant," other things find their way into the Noshpritz basket. Many other things.
Charlotte Noshpritz is French and this is not how she grew up. Back home, one makes the rounds of the neighborhood shops. There's a ritual to it, a time-honored social structure in which one sees the butcher and exchanges pleasantries, visits the baker and inquires about the family, waits patiently at the dairy to be greeted by the owner's mother.
"It's a whole world, people talk, they know each other," Charlotte Noshpritz says. "Here, nobody talks. You get what you want and then you don't have to go again for a long time. And you don't see anyone. And nobody talks to you. We like it very much."
They move $2 million worth of goods a week at the Pentagon City Price Club, where a staff of about 300 cut their own meats, bake their own cakes (decorating about 1,500 a week), and drive a fleet of forklifts up and down the "runs," constantly pulling pallets of products down from storage shelves to the customer's level.
Therese Doran knows she is susceptible to Price Club frenzy. She once bought the big case of frosted mugs, and even now, months later, she feels sheepish about it. God knows she doesn't need them, but she kind of likes those mugs. This day, she and two friends from work, Mark Beckham and Jackyie Coleman, have popped in to pick up snacks and supplies for a staff training program at the office. But inevitably they're filling the basket with other stuff. They even bought a big bag of The Natural, those raisin-walnut high-energy snack bars that everyone around them is sampling.
"She said it came to only 35 cents a bar," Coleman recalls. She chuckles. "Don't come here hungry."
Their cart fills quickly -- a dozen Danish, a case of soda, huge 96-ounce containers of OJ, roasted pepper salad, snacks. "It's comforting to buy a lot of things," Doran says. "The more you buy, the more you use."
This does not seem terribly logical. Beckham jumps in to explain: "Look, you just see it and then you use it. I don't need 24 batteries, but, oh, well, it's here and it's cheap and I'll use it -- eventually."
Maybe he will, maybe he won't. The important thing is, he thinks he might.
For 20 years, retailers have toyed with the concept of warehouse shopping. Some experiments have succeeded; others have passed quickly, no more than fads. But Price Club, so far, has managed to elevate the format to new heights, creating a theme park of acquisition, almost a cult.
At noon on a Saturday, close to 2,000 shoppers graze in the Pentagon City club's 155,000 square feet, a single room devoted to rapid turnover of products in virtually every category known to retailing. (Another 100 folks eat lunch in the food court, a singularly unattractive collection of white laminated tables and immobilized metal mesh seats where consultants, salesmen, mothers and shop clerks gather each day to chow down on Price Club's $7.75 pizzas and guzzle 49-cent, 20-ounce sodas.)
Each shopper can be expected to drop $100 per visit, but many will ring up much more, even if they walked in expecting only to pick up some muffins, one of the Club's massive 24-roll toilet paper packages and a 1,000-tablet jar of Ibuprofen. In some places, people refer to Price Club as the "$300 Club," because that's how much they end up spending every time they set foot in the place. Customers have been known to build extra shelves in their basements expressly to store their club purchases.
Price Club was the first discount warehouse operation to move into the Washington area in a big way, so it snatched some of the best locations, establishing an edge over its competitors that industry analysts call fearsome. The Pentagon City outlet, barely a year old and already the region's most successful warehouse store, moves more than $100 million worth of goods a year, a stunning number in any retailing category. About 1 million Washington area residents carry Price Club membership cards, the company says, and the average member shows up at a warehouse once every 10 days.
Price Club dominates the warehouse club industry nationally because it has mastered the art of moving enormous amounts of product at very low cost, says Dan Doerflein, a former executive at two discount warehouse operations and now president of MTC International, a Colorado consulting firm that advises retailers. The average Price Club store sells more than $75 million a year in goods, while the average Sam's Club -- Price Club's main rival -- moves maybe $45 million a year, Doerflein reports. To get an idea of how much Price Club and the other stores owned by its parent, Price/Costco, sell, consider this: In 1993, the nation's 1,100 Safeway supermarkets sold $15.2 billion of goods. Price/Costco's 200 stores had sales of $15.1 billion.
In Washington, Price Club dominates its category because its strategy meshes uniquely with this area's affluent, highly educated populace -- including "the two wealthiest counties in the country," as Price Club vice president Neal Harris quickly reminds a visitor. While Sam's, a division of Wal-Mart, aims squarely at middle America with mass appeal goods, Price Club reaches for an ever-higher demographic. Both stores offer staples; both stock enough toilet paper and soda to let customers build reserves from now to the apocalypse. But Price Club has moved aggressively into sun-dried tomatoes, wine, prepared entrees and fancy cooking oils.
"The more disposable income you have, the more prone you are to pick Price Club," Doerflein says. Average household income in the United States is about $30,000, but the average Price Club member's family income is $58,000, says Roger Campbell, senior vice president in charge of Price Club's southeast region.
Although for the most part one Price Club is the same as the next, the Washington region's stores have boosted their success by catering to the peculiarities of this area. The Pentagon City store sells far more books than most other Price Clubs. One of the top sellers at Pentagon City is a 12-pound sack of basmati rice -- a huge item among the Asian and Latin immigrants who live in Arlington and environs. And all the local Price Clubs have moved heavily into gourmet products, luring a crowd that does not normally think of itself as bargain-hungry. Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) shops at Price Club, just as Marilyn Quayle did, just as George Bush enjoys spinning through his local Sam's Club in Houston.
The affluent crowd attracted to the warehouses comes not so much to save a few pennies on tuna or cigarettes, but for items that Sutton Place Gourmet and Dean & DeLuca sell for the better part of a mortgage payment. A mammoth 62-ounce container of artichoke hearts at Price Club costs $8.99; at Sutton Place, that would cost $18.50.
"I'm more interested in pesto sauce than in canned spaghetti," says Renee Kische, co-owner of Go! compact disc shop in Arlington and a frequent Price Club shopper. She's here with fellow Go! owner Jimmy Cohrssen buying food for a street party for 3,000 of their closest friends. "A bag of apples is $5, while at the supermarket, they're four apples for $1."
Warehouse clubs were originally conceived as a way for small businesses to get supplies at the same cut rates available to big businesses, and owners of small shops are still an important part of the customer base, accounting for up to one-third of sales. Although the warehouse stores no longer offer small-business discounts, they do still set aside special morning shopping hours for business owners. Cohrssen comes to the club to buy the baked goods he resells at Go!'s coffeehouse. A chocolate cake that might set him back $12 lifts neatly out of the Club container and gets cut into a dozen or more slices, each of which sells at Go! for $4.25. "They fly out the door," Cohrssen says.
Ahmed, who declines to give his last name, is a couple of aisles away, stacking cases of Poland Spring water onto his pallet. At Price Club, the water sells for $6.99 for 24 bottles. Ahmed takes 10 cases. Ahmed owns hot dog stands in downtown Washington. There, he will sell these bottles of Poland Spring at $1 a throw. Welcome to capitalism.
Small businesses will always be important to the club concept, but over the years, membership requirements -- most people pay a $35 annual fee -- have relaxed to the point that Price Club workers can now be heard asking potential customers, "Well, do you have anything in your wallet that shows you belong to anything? I'm sure we can find something to get you in."
And once shoppers are in, they find an array of goods that looks like a Greatest Hits collection from almost every other category of store. Industry experts call Price Club and the other main discount warehouse chains -- Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club -- "categorillas," retail outlets that enter a market and break down all the traditional category divisions. A Price Club stocks only about 3,500 different items, while a Kmart might have 35,000 and a supermarket is packed with 60,000. But while Price Club will never have the choice of cereals that Safeway offers, warehouses nonetheless cause problems for supermarkets, gourmet stores, auto parts shops and pharmacies.
While other warehouse chains' sales have flattened out in recent years, Price Club continues to nibble away at supermarkets and other retailers. Giant and Safeway still collect better than $72 of every $100 spent on groceries in the Washington area, but the warehouses are moving aggressively into fresh food sales, luring customers into the clubs far more frequently than when the selection was limited to nonperishables.
The supermarkets are fighting back, with considerable success. Giant, Shoppers Food Warehouse and other chains are going to manufacturers and telling them, "We want to know what you're selling to the clubs," says Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food World, a Columbia, Md.-based industry publication. "They're saying, We may not be able to make the same deals, but we want a shot at selling those same products.' "
That's why you see Giant offering Super Deals, aisles set aside for Price Club-style savings on similarly huge packages. "There was a definite need to address this phenomenon when they came on board," says Barry Scher, vice president for public affairs at Giant Food Inc. "With our Super Deals, you don't have to pay any dues or buy case lots. We've gotten manufacturers to put together packages of 3, 6 or 9, instead of 12s or 24s. People find their stores too big and they find the Price Club sizes too big. What customers prefer is the food-pharmacy combination store we put together in the '60s -- plus Super Deals."
But while the warehouses will never squeeze out supermarkets, no number of special offers can eliminate the clubs' advantage: By buying huge amounts of product and selling it directly out of the warehouse, the clubs eliminate a layer of cost that saddles all supermarkets. And by running lean, with no advertising costs and bare-bones staffing, warehouse stores can get by with markups as low as 8 percent, compared with the average grocery store's 25 percent or a department store's 50 percent. Some products will always be cheaper at the supermarket -- Price Club's soda and diaper prices are rarely the best, largely because supermarkets use those items as loss leaders to lure customers in the door -- but overall, the warehouses enjoy a substantial cost advantage.
That, of course, was the whole idea in 1976 when Sol Price, a San Diego lawyer already in his sixties, created the first warehouse club for small businesses. The idea was Price's; the inspiration came from Gandhi.
"My attitude," Price explained in a rare interview with Supermarket Business magazine, "is give before you get. Gandhi was asked about belief. He said, If you believe, you are ready to renounce everything -- even life -- for your belief.' Then he was asked, Does the belief precede the renunciation?' He answered, Oh, no, the renunciation precedes the belief.' My attitude has always been give before you get, and by giving you end up getting."
Price forbade his managers to raise prices to increase profit. He would tell them his father's story about a Russian drayman who could barely afford the hay to feed his horse. One day, he got the brilliant idea to mix some straw in with the hay. Each week, he added a bit more straw, until, after eight weeks, the horse died. "Just my damn luck," the drayman said. "By the time I had that SOB trained to eat straw, he went and died on me."
"A lot of retailers do the same thing," Price said. "Wall Street wants your profit numbers to be a little better, so why not just cheat a little bit? Cut down on quality a bit and charge the same price. The customer won't know the difference." Price preached a different kind of relationship with customers: Membership in the club creates a two-way commitment. If the store simply keeps its end of the bargain, the customer will return. So Price closed the gap between wholesale and retail, cut out advertising costs, and rejected nearly all credit cards -- whatever it took to keep prices down.
Price Club lost money its first year. But as soon as Price and his buyers figured out what the public would buy in mass quantities, profits soared. As long as Price was around, his no-frills approach was law: The company's annual report was printed on plain paper with no pictures. Price Club has no logo. Even its top executives have concrete block bookcases and use ballpoint pens sold in the warehouses. Company memos are often written on the flip side of used paper.
Price and his family have been out of the picture since Price Club merged with Costco in 1993, creating the industry behemoth known as Price/Costco. But executives of the successor company speak reverentially of Sol Price, and managers still swear by his philosophy of price -- and his arsenal of profitable retailing gimmicks.
David Givens can walk through a Price Club without buying a thing. He looks around with the requisite awe, but he is impressed not so much by the products as by the behaviors around him. As a research anthropologist, Givens, whose salt-and-pepper beard lends him that outdoorsy academic look, studies the last 500 million years of vertebrate behavior and tries to predict the next 10,000 years. He has concluded that Price Club may be the most evolved expression of human behavior on earth.
It is, he says, where we are headed. And it is who we are.
Cut off from the outside world, Price Club is a universe of artifacts, and for a species that makes, collects and consumes artifacts, that makes this a very heady place indeed. Anthropologists have studied every form of human existence and concluded that all human beings collect stuff. In the South Pacific during World War II, tribes experiencing their first contact with industrialized society developed "cargo cults" after seeing what U.S. and Japanese soldiers carried. On one island after another, natives built imitation landing strips and mock military bases in the vain hope that soldiers would land there and deposit their alluring tools, packaging, foods and trash. Members of cargo cults would march around handing each other pieces of paper, just as they saw the soldiers do, hoping that by imitating the foreign warriors, they might lure their artifacts.
Modern American society has devoted itself to the artifact as has no other society. We spend something like 97 percent of our time in what Givens calls The Artifact -- the man-made environment: office buildings, sidewalks, cars, houses. And Price Club is one step further down the road toward total separation from nature.
"Humans in the future will not need outdoor space," says Givens, who works at the American Anthropological Association in Arlington. "We will expand our Artifact until it provides everything we want. And this is the latest and biggest display of human artifacts anywhere on earth."
Price Club appeals to the caveman within. This great flat savanna of savings is a staging area for Americans' hunting and gathering. In uncertain times, man hoards, finding security in surplus. The warehouse offers everything we need to subsist. It emphasizes essentials -- virtually everyone walks out with giant packages of toilet paper -- even as it tantalizes with items no one really needs.
And now, especially in this time when the intangibles in life seem so fleeting, so precarious -- family, jobs, political stability, opportunity for the next generation -- the things we can hold in our hands become that much more important.
Seen through an anthropologist's eyes, Price Club's appeal is a natural. There's so much color, and the color is carefully restricted to the items available for purchase. Unlike a mall or a department store, no decorations distract us from the artifacts. Everything is smooth, shiny, attractive to the touch, the eye and the nose. Malls are antiseptic, but here, you can smell the tires and the baking croissants.
Attracted by the bright colors and shiny paper of a bag of cookies, Givens picks it up and gives it a little hug. Here, man is satisfied.
We get a warm and satisfied feeling just walking into the big club warehouse. Here, everything is big. Amid the canyons of consumer goods, Price Club offers a brand of chocolate chip cookies called BIGGER AND BETTER . So what if we can barely lift 200 ounces of laundry detergent? And who knows what to do with? a huge jar of mayonnaise?
No matter. Size links us to the Price Club belief system. Price Club constantly studies consumer tolerance of oversized packaging -- most recently, customer resistance to gallon-sized jars of pickles has led to experiments with half-gallon containers -- trying to figure out exactly how big they can get away with. "The inconvenience of the packages has a benefit to us and to the customer," says Neal Harris, the Price Club vice president. "It's less handling, less labor, less transportation for us, and whatever lowers our costs, lowers the price."
But bigness is about more than economics. Big has intrinsic value, especially to Americans. Price Club is the kind of big that's just right for difficult times. All the stresses of modern life -- the dying environment, the facelessness of bureaucracy, the automation of the workplace, the atomization of the individual in a suburban society -- have stolen away the big things that used to make us happy. No more big cars. Who can heat a big house? The big vacation's out of reach. Big families are what we see in the movies.
Of course, we still love big. That's part of being American, the frontier, Manifest Destiny and all that. But these days, we take our big in smaller bites: We'll settle for the big-screen TV. We'll smile as we Supersize those fries. And if Price Club entertains us by tucking the mammoth-sized jars of Tabasco sauce down one of its shadowy aisles, we will say thank you and bring home the big game.
Price Club doesn't sell just products, it sells trophies, items you can load up, take home and show the neighbors.
Trophies appeal especially to men. So men shop the warehouses in surprising numbers, with an astonishing lack of grumbling about the whole thing.
Price Club knows that many men would rather go in for an MRI than have to troll through a mall, so warehouse designers keep it big and simple. Small numbers of products, hardly any choices to be made. There might be two kinds of detergent, one brand of orange juice. No need to ask questions, because there's no choice to be made. A department store might carry five styles of toasters in four brands, three colors and two sizes. Price Club offers a toaster. You want it, you put it on your pallet.
"When you come home with a huge supply of toilet paper, when the man enters the house with this, he is truly the conquering hero," Givens says.
"Males are more comfortable in a warehouse environment," says Hendrick Serrie, a member of Sam's Club and a cultural anthropologist who teaches about the anthropology of business at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's a more familiar place for men. It's the kind of space where we scavenge."
The man comes home from the warehouse with things to boast about. Serrie recalls the first time his wife dragged him along to Sam's. "I was laggard until I found myself collecting items for a party. Someone in my church told me about the huge tins of lasagna they have and I got hooked on them. Now I show them off to anyone who will listen. It's a five-point buck rather than a three-point buck."
The warehouse is entertainment, shopping as sport, packed with surprise. Every few weeks, 25 percent of the goods in a Price Club change. "It's hard to get excited about toilet paper and tuna fish," Harris says. "But what we do is a show, so you have to create a sense of urgency every time people come in. They have to know that whatever they see now is not necessarily going to be there next time."
One act in the Price Club repertoire is loading the front of the store with "road shows," one-time-only items at strikingly low prices. They might be leather handbags one week, Oriental rugs the next.
"We keep the excitement of the treasure hunt going," says Price Club's Campbell. The hunt starts back at company headquarters, where Campbell and the company's regional staff work out of a no-frills spread in a Loudoun County office park. The furniture is generic, faceless Price Club stuff. The lobby is stocked with giant cans of Price Club Colombian Supremo coffee and towers of foam cups, stuffed under a table because these are Price Club packages and they don't have any idea where to store them either.
Campbell, like everyone else here, dresses casually, tennis shirt and slacks, the perfect uniform for the anonymous and slightly furtive work of finding name-brand items to sell at non-name prices. Many Price Club goods are so-called diverted items, bought not from the manufacturer -- some of whom resist selling to warehouse chains because they don't want their brand names sullied or their artificially high prices deflated -- but from middlemen who make their deals without divulging their ultimate customer.
The products are then displayed with little if any fanfare. Like Columbus alighting onto the shores of the New World, the shopper then discovers the item anew, on his own.
At Price Club, there's no one to ask, no need to pretend that the old sales relationships even exist. The club is the medium. It has made the initial selection for you. A century and a half after the medicine wagons rolled into small towns and salesmen rustled up crowds to sing the praises of their magical elixirs, retailing has turned its back on that kind of face-to-face encounter. Where once you could walk into a department store and trust that the lady behind the glove counter would know everything there was to know about gloves, now if you find someone to query, the answer is likely to be, "I don't know, I just sell it."
"They can't help us anyway, so we might as well just do it ourselves," says William O'Barr, a cultural anthropologist who teaches Advertising and Society at Duke University. "Commerce has lost its authority, and so we return to the forest to see what we can find, to hunt."
You have permission to hunt alone. And you are comfortable foraging by yourself because the cult of expertise has been rejected. Price Club tells us we are the expert shoppers, we don't need sales assistance, we know what's good and cheap, and with our trained bargain-detecting powers, we can and will find the buys, no matter how deeply hidden they may be.
Walk around a mall and you see shoppers interacting with sales clerks. Walk around Price Club and you see shoppers eyeing one another's carts. This is an example of isopraxis, the tendency of members of a species to act like one another. Deeply rooted in the reptilian part of the human brain, isopraxis is a way of fitting in, Givens says, an explanation of why turkeys suddenly begin gobbling all at once, or of why human beings go in for fashions and fads.
This is a behavior Price Club does everything in its power to foster. "People don't quite realize they're caught up in it," Harris says. "Full carts are going by you and everyone's looking around to see what everyone else has found. You don't want to miss out. And then you're proud of finding it." In all of Price Club, only a couple of signs point the way, toward the pharmacy or the cigarettes. Otherwise, your only guide is the behavior of those around you.
You have cut out not only the middleman, but the hype as well. All consumers have developed pretty thick defenses against ads and marketing these days. Desperate to break past our cynicism, advertisers have taken to jiggling cameras, mysterious messages, self-insult, spoofing their entire line of work. We remain suspicious, if gullible all the same.
The warehouse stores propose to circumvent that entire world. Shoppers at Price Club say they believe warehouse prices are cheaper in good measure because the store does not advertise, does not bombard you with signs and colorful banners, does not engage in any of the tricks that are standard in retailing -- the sales, coupons and special deals.
Instead, of course, the warehouses have their own gimmick: membership.
Anthropologists love this: "Here's the commercial enterprise providing social identity," O'Barr says. "It's like paying an extra $20 to be a billboard for Ralph Lauren. Only here, you really feel you are part of a group and that by paying your membership fee, you are making the club work, making the prices cheaper."
Indeed you are. Price Club executives say they could not keep their markups nearly as low without the income -- about 2 percent of their gross -- from 18 million card holders paying for the privilege of shopping in warehouses. But membership also builds loyalty, which is essential to the club's success.
"Supermarkets tend to give away beer around the holidays," Harris says. "So we'll put up a small sign saying that a competitor's prices on beer may be temporarily better. We're straight with people because a member's trust is a sacred thing."
Serious words to describe a store. The people who run warehouse stores like to say they are returning authority to customers. But surely something this carefully conceived, this minutely organized to shape consumer behavior is not solely about liberating the shopper from manipulation by business.
Anthropologist Givens sees Price Club on a much grander scale. This is not about bargains or hoarding so much as it is a human experiment. Warehouse stores show us that perhaps we can be satisfied entirely by products of our own making, perhaps we no longer need the natural world. Givens believes we are preparing ourselves for the eventual colonization of outer space, a place that may look a good deal like Price Club. And what the Club says to David Givens is this: "Indoors is not an unnatural place for us. We'll be fine out there."
Marc Fisher is a reporter for The Post's Style section. He last wrote for the Magazine about screening calls for a radio talk show. CAPTION: Anthropologist David Givens believes that when man colonizes outer space, it may look a good deal like Price Club.