THIRTY-FOOT-HIGH columns of Kodak film. Seven stacks of acoustic guitars sandwiched between automobile tires and computer software. Four-foot-wide aisles. The Costco corporation makes shopping a science by offering consumers an experience where they can pleasantly buy bulk goods at a significant bargain. But according to prosecutor Kim Stephens of local law firm Tousley Brain, the Costco experience also involves ripping off consumers.

Costco, whose profits reached $379 million last year, has grown from an initial location in Issaquah to a worldwide company with warehouses in Japan, Mexico, and England. The wholesale company is a consumer mecca. Costco's business model is simple: Buy a ton of goods from the manufacturer, and then sell it fast and cheap to the consumer. However, Costco's tactics are at the heart of the class-action lawsuit that is being heard this Friday at King County Superior Court. Lawyers allege that Costco, in a rush to move products out the door, systematically duped consumers.

The seven-page suit, filed in July, makes two points. First, Costco knowingly and systematically sold products with expired rebates. Second, the company advertised those products aggressively. The suit states, "[Costco] has intentionally, recklessly, and/or negligently engaged in a consistent pattern of selling products whose rebates have expired, failing to disclose the expiration dates to its customers, or removing the rebate information from the products' display cartons or packaging." The document further states that the "display and marketing of those products is materially misleading." Did Costco's business model--buying huge amounts of products--simply lead to the expired rebate oversight? Or did Costco receive significant discounts from manufacturers, thereby increasing profits at the expense of the consumer?

Woodinville resident Maradee Abel, one of the plaintiffs in the case, alleges that she repeatedly bought products with expired rebates. For example, Abel claims she bought some Ortega nacho cheese sauce and discovered later that the $2 rebate was expired. She immediately went back to the Kirkland Costco where she bought the cheese sauce, and complained. The Kirkland employees assured her that Ortega would honor the rebate if she mailed it in. She did, and heard nothing back from Ortega. Stephens says there are countless others who've had similar problems with Costco.

Selling and advertising products with expired rebates may not seem like a big deal when you're talking about nacho cheese sauce, but do the math: Costco has about 30 million shoppers. (Incidentally, to shop at Costco you must pay a $40 annual membership fee.) If just half of those members bought a $1 product under the assumption that they would get a rebate, that means Costco made $15 million under false pretenses.

Costco, who would not comment, is trying to get the case thrown out by asserting that the main plaintiff in the case, Mark Yellen of Boynton Beach, Florida, cannot legally challenge the corporation from out of state.