CORALVILLE — Weston Wellendorf of Iowa City took a day off from work as a crane operator on Costco's opening day in Coralville Wednesday and began his assault at dawn.
The 142,000-square-foot store, stocked with close to 3,500 different items in the converted refrigerator warehouse, sprawled out before the burly 30-year-old like a bargain hunter's paradise .
Three hours after his 6 a.m. arrival, Wellendorf had been joined by his cousin Logan Nash of West Branch, and they were far from bargained out.
In the cart was a virtual lifetime supply of Band-Aids, a carton of red velvet cake cupcakes — "almost too big to eat," he said — a 18-pack of Corona beer and a bottle of Templeton Rye whiskey.
And those strange-looking oval things? A five-pound carton of kiwi fruits.
"They were just $1 a pound," Wellendorf shrugged.
Wellendorf and Nash had been driving more than 30 miles to Sam's Club in Cedar Rapids, so they were delighted when a Costco opened nearby.
"They have a little more selection," Wellendorf said, "and a lot more American-made stuff."
"It's fun — you can wander around here all day," Nash added.
The store is at 2900 Heartland Dr., just north of Interstate 80 and west of Highway 965.
The pair paused briefly to have cell phone photos snapped with Jennifer Adams, the bedding designer, who'd flown in from Scottsdale, Ariz., for the chance to promote her products during a Costco opening.
Adams was rippling with charisma as she greeted shoppers and other vendors to extol the benefits of her microfiber sheets and comforters, which she said cost 50 to 60 percent less here than in other stores.
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Costco rotates upscale lines such as Jennifer Adams's into its stores for a limited appearance of about 10 days. Customers have the added incentive of a limited-time offer, Adams said, and the sales are so effective that she can justify lowering the prices on her items.
It is Adams's first year with the warehouse club store, and she couldn't afford to have anything go wrong. She said the company has stringent standards for product quality, display and restocking quickly.
"I made it a point to come here because it's such a big deal to be part of an opening," said Adams, a regular on syndicated television program "The Better Show."
Adams pointed out a table of Prada and Louis Vuitton handbags in the $1,000-and-up price range and an extensive selection of quality wines as proof of Costco's attention to upscale shopping. She said the Issaquah, Wash.-based chain also is known for its Kirkland house brand, a label that even shows up on tequila in some stores.
Many of the first-day shoppers already were among the Costco devout. They included Eric and Annette Arbogast of Williamsburg, Va., who were back in their home state to visit their parents.
Eric even bought a new truck through a Costco program that pre-negotiates the price with the auto dealer.
"As you grow old, you find places you swear by — Costco's one of them," Eric said.
The Coralville Costco was bigger than the one the Arbogasts visit in Virginia, and had the added distinctions of a gas station and fully enclosed parking garage.
Mickey Burgess of Marion had shopped Costco frequently while wintering in Arizona and had even asked the store manager in Mesa, Ariz., if Costco could open a store in Eastern Iowa.
"We were tickled pink when they opened one here," Burgess said.
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She finds the widespread use of bulk packaging a mixed blessing. She is careful to avoid buying bulk quantities of food that might spoil, but other items can be stored for years until needed.
The average cash register receipt for a Costco shopper tends to range from about $115 to $160, depending on the store and season, according to Costco Store Manager David Pierce.
"The value is the big appeal," said Pierce, who relocated from Saginaw, Mich. "People can really save a lot buying the simple things they use every day."
Local leaders were among 1,500 people showed up for a VIP party Tuesday night, Pierce said.
"The community just wanted us here," he said.
The early morning, mid-week timing of the Coralville opening made for a little less traffic than many hectic Costco openings, but Pierce expected heavier crowds through the weekend and July 4 holiday."Everybody at every level deserves a good night's sleep," he added.