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Chris Potter, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

13 Things You Might Not Know About Costco

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Chris Potter, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As the second-largest retailer in the United States, warehouse giant Costco has become synonymous with towering steel shelves full of toilet paper and peanut butter. Its cavernous sales floors are navigated by 79 million customers a year who pay a minimum annual fee of $55 to access some of the least marked-up products in retail.

You probably realize the stores are busy, hard to navigate, and could probably feed a family of four in free samples alone. You might also be curious to know more.

1. You Don’t Actually Need a Costco Membership to Shop There.

dirtyblueshirt, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

Big-box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are able to offer low prices because of massive purchasing orders and profits that are subsidized by member fees. No membership card? No 12-gallon drums of mayo for you. But there is one loophole: If you know a member, they can purchase a Costco Cash (i.e. gift) Card on your behalf, which you can use at your leisure. Costco policy states you don’t need to be a member in order to use this payment method, but your success may be store-dependent: some employees get a little irate when you can’t produce your membership card at the door.

2. They’re Messing With Your Brain.

David McKelvey, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Brainwashing is an unadvertised membership perk. Costco often stocks a variety of large-ticket items—expensive handbags, entire barrels of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey—not necessarily because they expect to move those items, but because retailers know that the desire and excitement they cause releases dopamine. Now you’re shopping in a pleasure state and are more likely to splurge on items that grumpy and budget-conscious people avoid.

3. No ID? Airport Security Will Accept a Costco Card.

With the Transportation Security Administration’s strict security measures, you’d think a government-issued ID would be the only way you’re getting through a checkpoint. But KPIX 5 in San Francisco discovered the TSA will accept everything from utility bills to Costco cards as proof of identity. The catch: you’re more likely to get a pat down or a swab test than if you used your driver’s license.

4. They’ve Upset Brad Pitt.

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Brad Pitt has called upon Costco to stop selling eggs produced from cage-raised hens. In July, Pitt wrote to CEO Craig Jelinek, asking him to set a timetable for a company overhaul of its bird policy. “Many major corporations, from Burger King to Unilever, are getting rid of cages,” Pitt wrote, apparently hoping the shame of being less animal-conscious than Burger King would motivate them to action.

5. The Rotisserie Chicken Has Its Own Fan Page.

Chicken Martinez, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The company moves 157,000 whole birds every single day, estimating they lose $30 to $40 million a year by sticking to a $4.99 price point in order to keep members happy and foot traffic high. Devotees trade recipe ideas for the chicken on a Facebook fan page.  

6. They Have Horse and Buggy Parking for the Amish.

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In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, anyway. The county is home to a large population of Amish, so the company decided to construct a livestock parking stall as a courtesy. There’s a rail to tie the horses to, and a roof shields them from inclement weather. Per the Addicted to Costco blog, the reserved space leaves an unanswered question: which lucky employee gets to clean up after the horses?  

7. They Once Had to Recall a Punching Bag Filled with Dirty Underwear.

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Through a manufacturing hiccup that may never be fully understood, Costco was forced to send out a public recall notice after discovering punching bags made by TKO, Inc. were filled with dirty men’s and women’s underwear instead of sand. In 2007, Fox reported that a Cincinnati family was distraught to find thongs, bathing suits, and bras inside of their new purchase. Anyone who bought the bag got a replacement and a shipping label to send the laundry back.  

8. They Consider Shopping to Be a “Treasure Hunt.”

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Costco’s floor plan may seem haphazard, but like most things in retail it’s been very carefully designed to maximize business. The company regularly relocates necessities like toiletries, light bulbs, and other frequently-replenished items so the customer has to begin a search—or “treasure hunt”—for them. The strategy exposes shoppers to new areas of the store, and their wallets to new trauma.

9. They Once Labeled the Bible as “Fiction.”

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A Simi Valley pastor incited a minor Twitter flare-up in November 2013 when he was browsing in a Costco and noticed their copies of the Bible were labeled “fiction.” The company deemed it a labeling error, and there is some corroborating evidence that points to a wider trend: the following month, a “memoir” from fictional, imbecilic newscaster Ron Burgundy was filed under “non-fiction.”

10. They Sell More Cars Than (Almost) Anyone.

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Costco moved nearly 400,000 cars in 2014, making it the nation’s second-largest car dealer—but they don’t actually get a portion of the sale. In another attempt to provide value for membership fees, the company negotiates directly with a dealer for a set price, then acts as an intermediary for the customer.  

11. They’re Secretly One of the Biggest Pizza Chains Around.

Because pizza is only one component of Costco’s food service, it doesn’t really qualify as a pizza franchise. Bend the definition a little bit, though, and they could make a strong case for industry dominance. With nearly 500 stores, they’re among the top 20 footprints of pizza chains in the country. To keep up with demand, their stores are usually equipped with automated sauce spinners like the one seen above.   

12. A Couple Got Married in the Frozen Foods Section.

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It’s the day every bride dreams of: walking down the frozen foods aisle to meet her groom. Robert and Meredith Bonilla were married atop a pallet at a Santa Maria, California Costco in December 2014, a year after meeting at the store. Management gave them permission to hold the ceremony after operating hours.

13. They Have Everything You Need For a Funeral.

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Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean the savings have to stop. The retailer offers an entire array of funeral necessities, including caskets, urns, and flowers. The coffins are shipped directly to the mortuary of choice. For the easily confused, Costco reminds members that they are not a licensed funeral home and “may not offer or perform funeral services.” Yet.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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