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According to Consumer Reports, shoppers can save up to 55 percent at warehouse clubs – on everything from bulk packages of toilet paper and frozen pizza to Coach handbags and vacation packages. If you belong to one, you’re probably enjoying the savings and the “treasure hunt” shopping experience – never quite knowing what you’ll find on shelves and pallets.
It’s no surprise that as warehouse clubs open more locations and offer a wider range of items, sales are growing. The $390 billion industry has seen a 137 percent jump in sales from 2001 to 2011, compared to 47 percent for all general merchandise stores, according to First Research.
But which warehouse club is best for you? Sometimes it’s as simple as finding the one closest to home, but if you have choices, you should consider factors, from selection to return policies. We put the big three to the test by comparing 11 factors – from basic membership costs and locations to selection of luxury goods.
1. Membership costs
Basic membership is $50 a year at BJ’s, $55 at Costco, and $40 at Sam’s Club. If you want to test the waters first, keep an eye out for free trials.
Warehouse clubs offer rewards programs, but they’re not free. Become a BJ’s Rewards member for $100 a year (or upgrade an existing membership for $50), and you’ll get 2 percent back on most in-club and BJs.com purchases. Costco’s Executive Membership is $110 a year and also offers 2 percent rewards – capped at $750 a year. Sam’s Club is experimenting with the idea of a cash rewards program; in a new rollout, Plus members ($100 a year) are now receiving $10 for every $500 spent – which also comes out to 2 percent – capped at $500.
3. Nonmember surcharges
Thinking about shopping at a warehouse club without footing the bill for a membership? Costco is the least expensive: the surcharge to nonmembers is 5 percent. BJ’s is the highest at 15 percent, while Sam’s Club’s surcharge is 10 percent.
Costco and Sam’s Club have more locations than BJ’s. Sam’s Club has 620 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, while Costco has nearly 450. BJ’s has just more than 180.
5. Shopping experience
In a Consumer Reports survey, 26,000 shoppers evaluated their experiences at 10 major retailers: Costco, JC Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Meijer, Sam’s Club, Sears, Target, and Walmart. Costco was the top-rated store in the survey. Sam’s Club got average or slightly above average grades in all categories. BJ’s wasn’t included.
In another survey by Temkin, 6,000 consumers ranked companies based on customer service. Costco ranked third, behind Amazon and Kohl’s, with 79 percent of survey respondents giving it an “excellent” or “good” rating. Sam’s Club and BJ’s were close, however, at 78 percent.
While this doesn’t point to a clear winner, it’s safe to say the overall shopping experience at any of the big three doesn’t differ much – and doesn’t disappoint.
6. Return policies
From Costco’s return policies page: “We guarantee your satisfaction on every product we sell with a full refund. The following must be returned within 90 days of purchase for a refund: televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touch screen tablets, MP3 players and cellular phones.”
From Sam’s Club return policies page: “We offer a 100% guarantee on merchandise and Membership. We will refund purchases in full with a receipt. Click here to view our Return/Refund exceptions. No receipt: We will refund the purchase(s) at the last selling price with a shopping card.”
From BJ’s return policies page: “Items eligible for return must be returned within 30 days from date of shipping. For more information, please see the “Proper Conditions for Return and Credit” section of BJ’s Return Policy.”
So Costco and Sam’s Club have similar return policies, while BJ’s policy is far less liberal.
7. Coupons and sales
BJ’s is the only warehouse club that accepts manufacturer’s coupons. BJ’s also has 24-hour flash sales online, promoting deals on items like HDTVs and digital cameras – often with free shipping.
At Sam’s Club, discounts can get even deeper with online auctions. Online members can bid, with all bids starting at $1.
All three warehouse clubs offer similar prices for tech products, including HDTVs, digital cameras, and printers. If you’re an Apple fan, you’ll want to head to Sam’s Club – the only warehouse club to carry iPads and iPhones. All warehouse clubs, however, offer a decent sampling of iPad and iPhone accessories, including cases, stands, and docking stations.
Sam’s Club also excels when it comes to delivery, installation, and technical support – thanks to 24/7 customer service.
9. House brands
According to Family Circle, you can find the best deals on products in warehouse clubs by purchasing house brands. At Sam’s Club, this is Member’s Mark. BJ’s carries house brand Berkley & Jensen, and Costco’s is Kirkland. The pricing on house brands at all three chains is nearly identical, so it comes down to individual preference.
10. Food prices
Food prices don’t vary all that much at warehouse clubs. According to a face-off between Costco and Sam’s Club conducted by Cheapism.com, a shopping cart test of 38 typical grocery items was $12 cheaper at Sam’s Club. But because they got a greater quantity of some of the things in the Costco cart, they went back and compared unit costs. Based on that, Costco was 3.6 percent less expensive.
Cheapism.com also noted slightly smaller unit packaging at Sam’s Club, which could be an advantage to avoid waste.
11. Luxury items
All warehouse clubs sell designer jewelry and offer car deals. Some of the most in-demand items at Sam’s Club are Ray-Ban frames for glasses and sunglasses, Eddie Bauer home décor and apparel, and Children’s Place apparel, according to Carrie Foster, company spokesperson. At Costco, you’ll find Coach handbags, Herman Miller chairs, and Waterford Crystal.
If you’re looking for vacation packages, you’ll want to shop at Costco or BJ’s, since Sam’s Club stepped out of the niche.
The bottom line…
When shopping for a warehouse club, it comes down to individual preference. If you’re looking for low membership cost, a generous return policy, and 24/7 customer service, Sam’s Club is the way to go. If you value the added savings from manufacturer’s coupons and don’t mind a subpar return policy, consider BJ’s. If you’re into travel, you’ll find plenty of deals at Costco or BJ’s. And if you want the top-ranked in customer service, Costco is the winner, but only by a narrow margin.