An American Mastodon in Paris

How Costco became an unlikely hit in a city known for its refined tastes

Rami Niemi

It can be difficult to predict which American exports will stick the landing in France. Jerry Lewis, Burger King, and anything très Brooklyn: a resounding oui. Uber, Netflix, and Skippy peanut butter: not so much.

Until June, when Costco opened its first French location, on the outskirts of Paris, the warehouse chain seemed doomed to join the latter. Last fall, Le Parisien dubbed the chain an “American mastodon” and wondered whether the French really wanted five-kilogram chocolate bars and half-meter pizzas.

French culture “is much less about abundance and excess,” Doug Stephens, the founder of the consulting firm Retail Prophet, told me. “The French buy to consume, not to have.”

So I was surprised, two weeks after the French Costco opened, to find it mobbed.

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C’est quoi ça?” my taxi driver muttered with bewilderment. The lot was nearly full, even though it was the beginning of France’s summer holiday season, when retail shops are supposed to be dead.

A bouncer in a black suit checked membership cards and pointed first-time visitors to the enrollment area, where more than 100 people stood waiting to pay the €36 annual fee. The store had signed up 12,000 members in its first 10 days.

I asked Pascale Charbonneau, the assistant warehouse manager, to give me a tour. Costco had brought over Francophones like Charbonneau from its Quebec operations to launch the warehouse. She looked at me quizzically. Hadn’t I ever been to a Costco? I had.

“It’s exactly the same,” she said, and hurried off.

It was in fact very similar, with a few Continental tweaks. The day I visited, shoppers snapped up products with names calibrated to convey maximum New World authenticity, including Real American Super Buns (baked in the Netherlands) and Shipyard American IPA beer (brewed in Britain). French foods got a more discerning reception. Costco-size packages of charcuterie flew out of a refrigerated display, but the house champagne—Kirkland Signature Brut—sat untouched.

The fluorescent cathedral’s most familiar aspect was its uncanny ability to make shoppers act more, well, American. So much of French life is segregated, but Costco’s newest members formed a diverse melting pot: hijab-clad mothers, stooped pensioners, Franco-bros in Hollister T-shirts, women with African head wraps. Children raced, shouting, around a maison enfant. An employee handing out cheese samples cracked a joke, and a shopper burst out laughing. A toddler had an atomic meltdown in the candy aisle. I had never seen so many public displays of naked emotion in France.

In the rear of the store, I found a gaggle of black and Arab adolescents in soccer jerseys, pushing a massive shopping cart. Their nominal leader held his smartphone aloft as he narrated to an absent friend, via videochat, the deals to be had.

Quarante bouteilles, €3.79!” he cried. A blurry face shouted back approvingly, and the boys began hoisting cases of Kirkland bottled water into the cart.

Why had they come?

“It’s cheap!” one kid replied, in French. He and his compatriots tore off, their cart careening down another canyon. The last one backpedaled around the corner, rubbing his fingers together, and called out, in heavily accented English: “Money!”