Smart SpendingSmart Spending

How to pick the best wholesale club

Not all wholesale clubs are the same. Here's the breakdown on BJ's, Sam's Club, and Costco.

By Stacy Johnson Dec 13, 2011 7:18PM

This post is from Karla Bowsher at partner site Money Talks News.

MoneyTalksNews on MSN MoneyWant to save 20% 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 Wal-Mart and Target, and online retailers like Amazon. Fifteen of the items proved at least 20 percent cheaper -- and as much as 63% 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," says ShopSmart. "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 (owned by Wal-Mart), 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, 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. Post continues below.
A cheat sheet
Here's how BJ's, Costco and Sam's Club stack up.



  • 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.


  • 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 mails limited-time in-store coupons to members and also offers online-only coupons for online purchases. The stores do 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.
More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Dec 14, 2011 10:35AM

Why post comments with ***** too many and the comment is unreadable and worthless.

I belong to Sam's and Costco where I live they are about two minutes apart. Costco seems to have the best pricing on electronics and definitely better quality jewelry, their meat is far better than Sam's although a bit higher in cost. I buy quite a lot from Sam's except never meat just like it's parent Wal-Mart the meat has an odd taste. 

Dec 14, 2011 2:02PM
I love getting ****'s , i mean shopping at ****'s.  Okay i love both.
Dec 14, 2011 6:12AM
I picked Sam's, primarily because the other ones don't exist where I live.  it was an easy choice.
Dec 14, 2011 5:59PM

For my husband and I, Costco makes the most sense, hands down.  The savings from the monthly coupon book items more than pay for our membership every year.  Their meat is first rate.  As an added bonus, $1.50 for a hot dog or polish dog and a soda cannot be beat!  A nice inexpensive break from my typical brown bag lunch!


We have a Sam's Club where we live, but the one time I shopped there, I was not impressed.  Poor selection and non-existent customer service.   



Dec 14, 2011 1:39PM
Having been the manager at the cafe' in a Sams Club, I can tell you how strict their policy is for food prep, food handling and food storage.  They have tougher guidelines then many state health depts.
Dec 14, 2011 7:21AM
I like ****"s but its membership price keeps going up its great for groceries.and electronics
Dec 14, 2011 7:36AM
After years with Sam's Club we decided to try Costco. Prices on the average seem the same, except possibly the meat. Costco is not as convent for us because the two stores in Indy are in a direction I usually do not drive. Costco does have the advantage of having more diverse products. Pretty much a wash. Not sure who we will go with this year.
Dec 14, 2011 7:01PM
I had both Sam's and Costco. Although I shopped more at Sam's because they have more of a variety than Costco.  It's 2 name brands plus Kirkland at Costco. It's 3+ name brands and Member's Mark at Sam's Club. I went ahead and renewed my membership with Sam's Club and not Costco.  I hated that I could never find parking at Costco and the checkout lanes were horrible no matter what time of the day. Not to mention that every time I left Costco, I always left that place in a bad mood. No longer a problem. I just shop at Sam's Club.
Dec 14, 2011 11:45AM

I believe that the author (Stacy Johnson) did not factor in the types of payment that these wholesale clubs accept.  This is a big factor for me because Costco only takes American Express as a credit card and no other.  That was one reason why I cancelled my membership there because I do not like using my debit card anywhere to purchase things because of security reasons.  I am with ****'s now because they accept all major credit cards.

Dec 14, 2011 11:37AM
Not our Costco.  I carry in the store all the time.
Dec 14, 2011 12:55PM
Dec 13, 2011 11:56PM
Based on personal experience, you may trust the quality and sanitation standards of Sam's greatly in excess of ****'s .  I would not buy fresh foods from ****'s.  Sam's is **** about sanitation.  ****'s seems to put it on the back burner. 
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.