Lost in the Warehouse

The American family has lost half a kid over the past 20 years. The Census Bureau reports that this year the American family reached a record low of 3.17 people. This is the lowest figure since 1940, when the bureau began keeping such statistics, down from a peak 3.7 people in 1965.

But we are shopping for groceries as though we were a ravenous army.

Back in the days when families were large, people shopped in little stores. The clerk or his son would reach for the cans with a grasping pole that could scale the top of a pyramid of fruit cocktail. One by one he'd pull the pickles out of a pickle barrel. He could add a column of numbers with his bare brain.

Mom-and-pop stores were replaced in the '50s by large impersonal supermarkets. This was a convenient place where you could save time by combining trips to the butcher, the baker and the contraceptive-sponge maker. Then you could wait in the express line for 20 minutes while someone tried to cash a check with his Liechtenstein passport.

Now that we are 3.17, we shop in cavernous warehouses. Discount-membership buying clubs are spreading rapidly as the way for families to shop. This arrangement appeals to several needs. There is a predilection for the warehouse ambiance among people 18 to 45. The yuppie is a minimalist animal. There is the shrinking budget of the two-working-parent family. And there is also the fear of disaster that seems to lead some people to stockpile essential items, such as 20-pound bags of nacho chips.

Another reason for the appeal of these buying clubs is exclusivity. You have to be a member to shop there. But it's not exactly the Chevy Chase Country Club. Membership in some other club, such as the public library or a Furniture U.S.A. credit card, will usually suffice.

The old grasping pole of the mom-and-pop market is replaced by the forklift. At the helm, a cheerful man drives through the two-lane aisles bringing plastic-wrapped sets of 48 Diet Cokes, 36 English muffins and 24 rolls of toilet paper to the anxious 3.17.

At Costco (the particular warehouse that services the Kahn family army of four), you enter and are greeted by 11 TV sets. They stand at attention, from the mighty 45-inch screen with stereo down to the lowly AM/FM radio-TV with a 5-inch screen. Like a hall of mirrors, all reflect "The Days of Our Lives."

Everything you want but don't need is here. The prices are low, but the catch is that you can only buy in enormous quantities. If the bottles aren't huge, then several are bound together in cellophane two- or six-packs. There are 100-count Tootsie pops, a 3.8-pound bottle of Cara Mia Marinated Artichoke Hearts, a 4-pound bottle of Meet's Wisconsin Fresh Bulk Style Kraut, a three-pack of Jakes World Famous Clam Chowder, a six-pack of 2-ounce cans of Spam and a two-pack of 2 1/2-pound cans of refried beans.

You do not want to be seated next to a Costco family in a crowded theater.

There are foods juxtaposed incongruously here, like the 64-ounce jar of Restaurant Quality Lo-Cal Italian Dressing next to the 1-gallon plastic vat of Miracle Whip. These are just a short forklift ride from the 10-pound bags of Ambrosia Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, 38-ounce cartons of Cheddar Goldfish tiny crackers and the 58-pound sacks of Atta Boy Dog Food.

The fruits of food technology are represented by 30-ounce cans of Swanson Chunks O'Chicken, two packs of 12-ounce boxes of Chicken-Flavor Stove Top Stuffing with real chicken broth, and a triple pack of artificially flavored Wild Blueberry Muffin Mix "bursting with real blueberries." These items seem to question the very nature of reality.

But what we are really talking about here is pure Americana--most clearly seen by the end aisle display direct from Chattanooga, Tenn.: one dozen 36-ounce Double Decker Deluxe Moon Pies.

Costco has stretched the frontiers of grocery shopping to include "Oscar de la Renta" terry robes; stacks of Lee Iacocca's book, "Talking Straight" (no discount on a three-pack); a six-pack of control-top panty hose; 144-count Pampers Plus; 18-liter Chablis in boxes; "Children of a Lesser God" videos; audios of "Co-Dependent No More"; Michael Jordan Jammer Basketball Sets; Weed Eater Blower Vacs; Julio Iglesias on compact disc; and a three-piece sectional sofa including sleeper and recliner in pearl or sunset acrylic.

This is a world in which no one gets out alive without a 24-pack of toilet paper. The American family 1988-style--half a kid less and a lotta stuff more.

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