How to Pick the Best Wholesale Club

Photo (cc) by goodiesfirst

Want to save 20 percent on groceries? Then stop buying them at the grocery store.

Wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club generally offer the best prices on groceries and household items, according to Consumers Union’s ShopSmart magazine.

For their December issue, ShopSmart compared the prices of 18 grocery items at wholesale clubs, supermarkets, big-box stores like Walmart and Target, and online retailers like Amazon. Fifteen of the items proved at least 20 percent cheaper – and as much as 63 percent cheaper – at wholesale clubs.

Plus, wholesale clubs are good for more than just cheap groceries, especially this time of year.

“Take advantage of club ‘extras’ like eyeglasses, gas, cell-phone service, and health screenings, and your membership will pay for itself even faster,” as ShopSmart found. “Same goes for holiday shopping. The clubs are full of great gift ideas, including books, movies, clothes, and electronics, so now is a good time to join.”

How to decide

If you’re ready to join a wholesale club or try a different one, a little homework will help you get the most out of your membership.

I belonged to Costco for years but now love BJ’s Wholesale Club. I chose Costco because it was on my way home from work, but I didn’t end up shopping there often because it was always a zoo at that hour. I fought for parking just to wait in a long line. So as soon as a BJ’s opened in a less-trafficked location that’s closer to my house, I switched.

If you have more than one club to pick from, consider which factors are most important to you before you sign up…

  1. Basic membership cost: This expense doesn’t vary much from club to club, but if you don’t expect to take advantage of your membership often, consider Sam’s Club, where it’s $10 to $15 cheaper.
  2. Locations: Costco and Sam’s Club are by far the most common, but you may have clubs in your area that you didn’t realize were there. (I didn’t know till now that there’s a Sam’s Club 20 minutes away from my house – just because it’s in a city I seldom drive through.) So be sure to take a minute to plug your ZIP code into all three clubs’ websites.
  3. Hours: If you’re a night owl like me, consider BJ’s, which is often open till 10 p.m. If you’re an early bird, paying an extra $60 a year for Sam’s Club’s Plus membership opens the doors at 7 a.m.
  4. Coupon policy: If you’re a big couponer, you’ll prefer BJ’s. Costco and Sam’s Club don’t accept manufacturer coupons.
  5. Return policy: If you expect to return much, consider Costco or Sam’s Club, which both have generous policies.

A cheat sheet

BJ’s

  • Basic membership cost: $50/year (A free 60-day trial membership is also available till Dec. 31.)
  • Locations: More than 180 stores in 15 states
  • Hours: My BJ’s is open till 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, as are many other locations. (A few close at 9 p.m.) Almost every location opens at 9 a.m. daily.
  • Coupon policy: In addition to the in-house coupons that BJ’s posts online and mails to members, they also accept manufacturer coupons.
  • Return policy: BJ’s return window is 30 days (14 for computers). They do not allow online purchases to be returned to a store – and they won’t pay to ship them back either. BJ’s also has a relatively lengthy list of nonreturnable items.

Costco

  • Basic membership cost: $55/year
  • Locations: 433 stores in 40 states and Puerto Rico, 82 stores in Canada
  • Hours: Most locations close by 8:30 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on weekends. Most locations do not open until 9:30 or 10 a.m.
  • Coupon policy: Costco offers online-only coupons for online purchases but does not accept any non-Costco coupons.
  • Return policy: Costco is known for having an accommodating return policy. Their return window is endless with the exception of certain electronics, which must be returned within 90 days. Costco also allows online purchases to be returned to a store or will pay to ship them back.

Sam’s Club

  • Basic membership cost: $40/year
  • Locations: Sam’s Club has 596 stores, according to their last annual report, but that includes stores located in Puerto Rico (9) and foreign countries (127).
  • Hours: Most stores close at 8:30 p.m. on most days and open at 10 a.m. on most days. Business and Plus members can shop as early as 7 a.m.
  • Coupon policy: I scoured Sam’s Club’s website but couldn’t find any mention of whether they accept manufacturer coupons. According to ShopSmart, however, they do not accept them.
  • Return policy: Sam’s Club’s return policy is essentially the same as Costco’s with the exception of auction purchases, which must be returned within 30 days.

Karla Bowsher runs our Deals page, writes “Today’s Deals” posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and covers consumer and retail issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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