When I think about clubs, I’m always reminded of that old joke (originally attributed to comedian Groucho Marx) about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member. But there are lots of clubs I can join that will save me money — from AARP to AAA to Costco to Sam’s Club to Amazon Prime — and I’m happy to be a member of any of those.
Warehouse shopping clubs are descendants of the shopping co-ops that used to dot the country’s small towns and farming communities. Today’s warehouse-style shopping clubs probably owe their heritage to California entrepreneur Sol Price — who opened the first “Price Club” store in San Diego in 1976 in an old aircraft hangar once used by Howard Hughes. Price Club later merged with Costco.
Warehouse clubs have for a number of years faced increasingly tough competition for your shopping dollars from online retailers, most notably Amazon, which boasts a market value of $355.9 billion — making it larger than Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, JC Penney and Sears combined.
Sam’s Club versus Amazon
As a consumer, it’s a good time to compare the value of a traditional warehouse club membership (like Sam’s Club) with Amazon and its Amazon Prime membership. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do — and show just how and why you might choose one over the other.
In order to compare, as much as possible, “apples to apples,” we have picked the $100 Sam’s Plus membership from Sam’s Club, just a buck more expensive annually than the $99 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Sam’s Club has the immediate and obvious advantage over Amazon of offering both brick and mortar stores as well as online shopping. Amazon does have a handful of retail sites — in Seattle, San Diego and Portland, with plans for additional stores in Chicago; Dedham and Lynnfield, Massachusetts; Paramus, New Jersey; and New York City.
But that pales in comparison with the 655 outlets operated by Sam’s Club across the United States and Puerto Rico. So if you are near any one of those 655 outlets, Sam’s Club has the advantage of in-person shopping.
Here are a few of the other things you get when you sign up for Sam’s Club:
- Cash back: $10 for every $500 spent in qualifying purchases (up to $500 annually).
- Extra Protection Service Plan: Members get an extra year of coverage when they buy a “Sam’s Club’s Protection of Care Plan” with their purchases. Note, however, that this plan excludes cameras, computers, smartphones and tablets.
- Discounts on select prescription drugs: It includes five select prescriptions available for free every day, with more than 200 prescriptions available at $4 and 400+ more prescriptions available at $10.
- Benefits and discounts on eyewear and vision products: Members get $50 off their first pair of glasses (frame and lens) with the purchase of a year’s supply of contact lenses, as well as $40 off a second pair of glasses with the purchase of two complete pairs of regularly priced prescription glasses not using vision insurance.
- Sam’s Club MasterCard: This card provides 5 percent cash back at U.S. and Puerto Rico gas stations and on gasoline at Sam’s Club (with 3 percent cash back on dining and travel and 1 percent cash back on other purchases).
- Instant Savings: Sam’s Club says it provides “special savings” from its top suppliers that go beyond the savings regularly offered to members.
- Tire and battery services: Members get free flat repair, regardless of where your tires were purchased, plus free battery testing and free wiper-blade installation. Also get free emergency tire changing with purchase of a Premium Tire Installation package.
Amazon Prime also includes a lot of benefits, although many of them relate to getting free digital content, rather than discounts.
Here are a few highlights:
- Prime Shipping: Amazon offers free two-day shipping on a lot of items and free same-day delivery in select areas.
- Amazon Family: 20 percent off diaper subscriptions and 15 percent off eligible products from a baby registry.
- Prime Video: Membership includes access to a basic library of “thousands” of movies and TV shows.
- Early access to deals: Prime members get 30-minute early access to “lightning deals” on Amazon.com.
- Amazon Prime store credit card: The card promises 5 percent back on purchases.
- Prime Now: Amazon offers one- and two-hour delivery times on “tens of thousands of items” from Amazon and local stores.
- Member discount on video games: Discounts apply to preorders and collector’s editions for PC, PlayStation 4, XBox One, Wii U, 3DS and more.
- Prime Music: Amazon offers streaming access to 2 million songs with this “basic” music service (Prime members also get a discounted rate to subscribe to the much larger catalog in Amazon Music Unlimited).
A little mystery shopping
If we do a quick, highly unscientific, “mystery shopping” poll of three random items from Amazon and the same (or similar) items from Sam’s Club, then Sam’s Club appears to win on price, but only by a hair.
A 55-inch smart TV from LG (the VIZIO SmartCast 55-inch Class Ultra HD Home Theater Display — E55u-D2 to be specific) costs $578 at Sam’s Club and the same amount (well, $577.99) from Amazon. Amazon does have a variety of other sellers for this kind of item, so it is possible to find a refurbished one for less.
But what about just getting some coffee for your morning brew? Well, Sam’s Club wins this one handily — with a price of $16.98 to get a 32-ounce package of Starbucks Pike Place Roast Ground Coffee if you buy it in-store (compared with $26.35 if you order the same item from Amazon).
How about something that will help you keep those New Year’s resolutions to get in shape? For that, we selected the stylish-looking Fitbit Blaze watch and fitness tracker. At Sam’s Club, you’ll pay $198.98 — and at Amazon, the same item is $199.61 (although it is available for as low as $190 from another Amazon seller, as long as you’re willing to wait at least a week for shipping).
Why not both?
If you’re a big consumer of digital content (music, video and eBooks) — and you shop Amazon regularly anyway — then it won’t take you long to make back the cost of your Amazon Prime membership on reduced shipping costs (and monthly fees you don’t have to pay for other streaming music and video services).
Meanwhile, Sam’s Club provides discounts on everyday items — whether you buy them in Sam’s Club stores or online — to quickly make back the cost of a Sam’s Club membership. To get an idea of how quickly you could earn back the cost of the $100 annual membership, take a look at your monthly grocery list, then use the Sam’s Club website to compare the cost of the same items if you bought them there.
Do you have a favorite discount warehouse or online shopping membership? Share how you save money in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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