WARRENTON - Out with the old, in with the new.

Here's a partial list, in no particular order, of the things I saw this morning at Warrenton's new Costco that I never would have dreamed of seeing at the old one (roughly half the size) on Neptune Drive:

? a full parking lot before 8 a.m.

? sirloin steak samples so big they barely fit in my mouth

? company co-founder and CEO Jim Sinegal alone in the food court, answering my questions

? State Sen. Betsy Johnson with a cartful of stuffed animals: a lion, a tiger and a frog, I believe?

? Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen asking: "Do you take American Express?" as he renewed his membership (they do).

? Alderbrook residents Bob and Nancy Ross gushing about rotisserie chicken.

"It's been voted the No. 1 chicken for the last five years," Nancy Ross exclaimed.

"Some people say, 'Oh, it's been injected with all kinds of flavors and things,' Bob Ross interjected. "I say, 'Oh, yes it has!'"

Some of the 100 or so shoppers lined up outside the store for its grand opening today were excited about the new store's addition of a food court, pharmacy, hearing aid center and optical department.

But a surprising number couldn't wait to get their hands on a fresh rotisserie chicken from the deli - the first Costco has ever sold in Warrenton.

Nancy Ross said she was "totally stoked" to see the new store open.

"You know how some people keep Advent calendars? Well, we've been keeping a Costco calendar," she said. "We spend half our time in Portland and half our time here, and our little Cosc-ito was a little substandard."

The old 72,000-square-foot Costco building next to Fred Meyer might have seemed huge compared to any store in Astoria, but to regular Costco shoppers, the new 137,000-square-foot building across U.S. Highway 101 from Warrenton's Home Depot feels much more normal.

"It's about average size," said CEO Sinegal, who lives in Seattle and has attended every one of Costco's 566 store openings. He thumbed through a company manual to double-check his numbers: the company has 411 stores in the U.S., and others scattered around Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, Wales, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Puerto Rico.

Sinegal said building a new store in Warrenton was a business decision that should pay off for the company.

"The other unit was half the size, and we'd always been successful and profitable there," he said. "We felt the people in this part of Oregon deserved the real deal."

As the global economy hit the skids, he said, "the consumer has become more cautious about what they're purchasing. They're more discerning. There's more of a tendency toward the basics."

But Costco, headquartered in Issaquah, Wash., reported 3 percent growth in sales in September and October, "which, compared to other retail outlets, is pretty good," said Sinegal.

Christmas sales will come later this year because of all the cautious shoppers, he predicted: "We should have a reasonably good holiday season, but I don't think it's going to be memorable."

One trend he's noticed in his warehouses is an uptick in sales of home-entertainment systems, which he sees as a sign of the times.

Steven and Melody Teets came up from Seaside for the opening and wasted no time loading their cart with a 46-inch flat-screen television, DVD home theater and a stand for both. They knew it was a good deal when they saw it advertised for one-day only: they got all three for $950.

"The TV alone is $1,000 normally," said Melody Teets.

Peggy Nosack drove from Tillamook with a shopping list and waited, cart in hand, for the roll-up doors to open at 7:40 a.m. Among the items on her list: a television, which she said they do sell in Tillamook, "but they're cheaper here," she said. "Better prices. That's why we're here."

Annie Stoelzel came from Long Beach, Wash., to buy a crock pot.

Really? A crock pot?

"We just wanted to see the new store," she said, and admitted she would probably buy more.

Shoppers flocking to Warrenton from Tillamook and Long Beach: "That's what we expected - to draw from a great distance," said Sinegal. "People are drawn by pricing and value. If we don't give it to them, they get bored with us."

After Sen. Johnson cut the big red ribbon and Assistant Store Manager Jeff Hazen, also a Clatsop County commissioner, drew the doors open, shoppers and their carts funneled into the seemingly endless new warehouse. There must've been a back wall somewhere, but I couldn't see it from the entrance.

Three mayors - Van Dusen of Astoria, Don Larson of Seaside and Gil Gramson of Warrenton - attended the opening.

Van Dusen said the new store would be good for the county as a whole and is employing a lot of Astorians.

This warehouse will employ 170 people, compared to 120 in the old building.

Costco opened its original warehouse on Warrenton's Neptune Drive in 1993. The company determined that the location was too small to provide all the amenities that the newer buildings have and this year built the new facility a mile south off Highway 101, at 1804 S.E. Ensign Lane.

Before I left, I had to check to make sure that - among all the new amenities - they still had one staple item that defined my first impression of the store's overwhelming shelves of bulk items: the 6-pound bag of pretzels.

Years ago, this oversized item became infamous in my family when I plucked one off a Costco shelf to marvel at it while shopping with my uncle, a Costco devotee.

From then on, at each of our annual gatherings he made a point of buying me yet another bag, which would sit on top of my refrigerator for a year, shrinking slowly until the remnants were too stale to stomach.

I passed over countless sample stations on my hunt this morning, and I will tell all you pretzel-lovers out there?- as long as you promise not to tell my Uncle Neal - the same 6-pound bag awaits you still.


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