The photographs taken by the Costco influencers are just devastatingly banal: a two-pack of Primal Kitchen Caesar Dressing & Marinade (made with avocado oil) hovering in a shopping cart in a fluorescent aisle. A bottle of ZZZquil Pure Zzs Sleep & Immune Support in a Costco parking lot. Twelve boxes of Saffron Road Thai Yellow Curry W Jasmine Rice stacked under a crumpled tag reading $12.99. Spread over a dozen accounts, some with as many as half a million followers, they are starkly lit, dizzyingly expansive in their offerings, and share no common ground save their pursuit of a great deal: Deals on oat creamer or mini-eclairs or pink flamingos with which to decorate a yard, all available at the nation’s premier discount warehouse. There is no variation whatsoever in style. All the Costco accounts look exactly the same.
They are unlike almost any genre of Instagram account in that browsing them feels more or less exactly like the experience they represent, a literal depiction of shopping at Costco’s warehouse store with its mountains of product and fluorescent lights. The conventions of the influencer universe, with its flattering camera angles and fuzzy promises, don’t exist in this world. The Costco lifestyle is simple. It’s about shopping at Costco, a practice best suited to Americans with basements and large garages in which to store their indiscriminating hauls. The influencers who post every week from the bulk discount store must have underground bunkers for all that they buy.
There’s Laura, a Dallas-area mother, running Costco Hot Finds and demonstrating how to make “cocoa bombs,” a novelty hot chocolate concentrate found at Costco, when local stores ran out. There’s Costco Beautify Bargains (🚫Not affiliated w/Costco), posting photographs of an $11.00 dawn-to-dusk facial set they came across in the aisle. The Costco Connoisseur reports from warehouse stores across the country, a kind of shopping club tourism. Cooking accounts—the Costco Contessa and The Costco Kitchen—post naan pizzas and organic black bean hummus. One account simply offers photographs and brief reviews of various Costco wines. In aggregate, the accounts are overwhelming, an infinite scroll of products photographed plainly in their packaging. The style is nearly indistinguishable from that of the official Costco account, all of them a grid of fire-roasted Jalapeno potato chips, Calm magnesium citrate supplements, Rojos “street corn dip,” an electric kettle, a Roomba, a pillow the size of a couch. It’s sort of unclear why they exist at all.
Predominantly run by fans somewhat bafflingly dedicated to the fifth-largest retailer in the world, the accounts don’t represent aspirational brand presentations so much as people who have taken it onto themselves to act as human coupon books. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to since trying to discern whether the Costco influencers are the kinds of brand-loyal avatars only the internet could produce or people paid regularly to boost products by the country’s most recognizable shopping club. As far as I can tell, running a Costco-themed Instagram account or being, say, the administrator of the Organic Costco Moms Facebook group is mostly a way to build a large audience of suburban parents—most of them women—which in turn generates various sponsorships deals with entities like Wholly Veggie Buffalo Cauliflower Wings or Ocean Spray cranberry juice and, occasionally, Costco itself.
After all, pretty much every kind of product a person can imagine can be found at Costco, and women with incomes and families are some of the most brand-loyal and sought-after demographics in this country by far. It’s all part of the bizarre logic of advertising and influencing, distinct industries which overlap but are almost never the same thing. If it’s an intentional way to monetize an account, it’s a brilliant strategy: Where other Instagram personalities appeal to specific (and often impossible) subgenres and hyper-specific tastes, the people who unofficially affiliate with Costco are simply endorsing the desire to consume.
My lack of certainty here comes from a few places, the most important of which is that neither Costco nor the person who runs Costco Hot Finds—among the only accounts that don’t have a prominent disclaimer noting she isn’t paid by the shopping club for her posts—returned my calls about the scope of their partnerships. (Eventually, Costco corporate wrote in response to questions about its brand ambassador program that “management has no comment at this time.”) Costco Hot Finds, though all of its posts use language that wouldn’t be out of place in a used car lot, tags maybe one-fifth of its posts as sponsored. But according to Costco’s official policy, it does not “participate in paid advertising or sponsorships” of any kind.
This statement is muddled somewhat by the fact that the company does appear to have an influencer program, and one expansive enough to require a third-party job board. As Taylor Lorenz reported for the New York Times last month, Costco is one of the companies, along with Sephora and American Eagle, to contract a company named Fohrs to create a custom “ambassador management platform” where potential influencers can apply. Elsewhere on the internet, Costco’s “partners” have disclosed that they receive free products from the company, typically items coming to the warehouse in the next few months. So it seems likely the network of accounts posting daily about what they find at Costco could be getting advance review products, if not cash, from the store itself.
The original Costco influencers came to post their hauls from an adjacent if somewhat more intuitive Instagram account: Laura Wiertzema and Jen Coleman, internet friends and rather hip mommy bloggers, started Target Does It Again a few years ago to highlight their love of the big box store. Its success inspired them to start a similar account for Costco, which at one point had half a million followers, though the pair told CNN last year they didn’t talk to the company and characterized their work as “free advertising.” Perhaps sensing an opportunity—or finding themselves inspired by the follower counts and engagement—other accounts followed, posting videos of their shopping trips or images of price tags as they wandered the vast warehouses cataloging everything an American could ever want to buy.
If you’re shilling for Costco in any capacity—even an unpaid one—there’s no carefully curated brand to sully, no real way to sell out, which makes it perhaps the most honest of Instagram pastimes. The human coupon books of the Costco influencing world are already partners to the brands they’re endorsing, whether they’re paid in cash or product for the privilege or just doing it for free. And really, this kind of thing is reverse-engineered influencing, a handful of accounts becoming successful based on their ability to latch on to the broader vibe of a brand itself—a brand that just so happens to entirely comprise of shopping without any of the context that typically muddles the pursuit.