Best Warehouse Store: BJ’s, Costco or Sam’s Club?

We compare the big three warehouse clubs and rank them on everything from locations to prices.

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.

2. Rewards

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 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.

4. Locations

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.

To see if there’s a warehouse club near you, check out the locators for BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club.

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.

8. Electronics

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, 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. 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.

Stacy Johnson

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  • rayfrattone

    I am a member at Sams Club and Costco. Both are very good with one huge exception. Sams Club has all the aisles marked for your convenience and Costco does not. It takes at least twice as long to shop because they keep moving product around (on purpose). They will not change this policy. Sams Club is 15 minutes farther away but still quicker overall,not to mention less aggravation.

  • Malinda Tenge Harris

    I’ve had both and prefer Costco. The products themselves are very similar and honestly the Costco is further from my house. But as a company Costco pays there employees better and I get MUCH better customer service at Costco in all areas. They also have better quality meat. I like to support companies that support their workers too.

    • GBMartin

      I’ve been a BJ member for over 20 years and initially wasn’t certain that I was receiving what I should have considering membership, distance, store brand products, etc. I’ve even had a problem with a store manager at one of BJs, that situation BJ properly handled, and I also share membership at Sam’s Club. While I don’t shop as much at Sam’s Club, I find BJs to be my number one choice because I have access to 3 locations fairly close to my home, Bjs store brand products are comparable to many famous brands and sometimes better. The coupons that I receive through the mail are big savers and I also use coupons from suplimental newspapers; bearing all of this in mind. I would say BJs is a better choice for me. That does not mean that I don’t have any concerns, my greatest concern and one that might cause me to leave BJ is BJs yearly membership increases whichi I feel is excessive. At the rate BJs is going $55.00 now will increase- in 5 years to $80.00, BJs will have to step-up and offer its customers more.

      • Malinda Tenge Harris

        there are no BJ’s where I live so the choice is Sams club and Costco. Like I said, its not just about the products for me. Its about the company itself.

  • colorfunch

    I belong to both BJs and Costco. Both are pretty close to where I live. I prefer BJs because they have more brand selection per product line(different kinds of juices, diapers, health and beauty) than costco. I go to costco for organic meats and better customer service.

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