The Fru-Gal

Fru-gal: A look inside the savings at Costco vs. Sam's Club

Contributing columnistJanuary 4, 2014 

Is it worth it to shop at the warehouse stores?

Now that Costco has come to Lexington — at the corner of Man o' War and Polo Club boulevards — it is giving Sam's Club some competition.

I'm often asked whether it is worth it to shop at these stores instead of your local grocery store. I recently visited both stores to weigh in on that question.

Don't expect anything fancy when shopping at these stores. They are no frills big warehouse stores and are usually a little out of the way of your mainstream shopping areas.

There's lots of sampling of food items in both stores. A friend suggested I bring a bottle of water when I shopped, which was great advice.

It's best to determine what kind of shopper you are before tackling either of these stores. To start, are you the kind of shopper who has extra storage for bulk items, and will you take the time that's needed to break down big packages of meat, produce and dairy to reasonable sizes and wrap them for later use in your freezer?

Warehouse stores specialize in large quantities, so going in you may think something is a great deal. But check out per-unit pricing. Just because something is in a bigger container doesn't make it a better deal. I used my smartphone a lot to calculate prices. It's a smart thing to do.

These warehouse stores do not take coupons. If you are a coupon clipper, you may save more money by using coupons at smaller retail stores. For example, at CVS this week you can purchase Colgate Total for $1.74 and children's PediaCare for 99 cents. You can get the item for free by printing a $1 coupon at Pediacare.com. Belonging to CVS, RiteAid and Walgreens loyalty programs can give you great deals on shampoo, conditioner, soap, razors, toothpaste, deodorants, cereal and mouthwash. I'd put these items on your "never buy at a warehouse store" list.

If you are buying high-end electronics such as televisions, computers, car accessories or household appliances, I suggest conducting price checks to make sure you're comparing the exact same make and model. Costco seems to be the leader in the electronic category, accepting returns on electronics for up to 90 days. In comparison, Best Buy only accepts returns for 15 days. Not only that, but Costco extends the one-year manufacturer warranty to two years on TVs and computers for no extra charge. Costco also offers technical support for any television, computer, camera and most other electronics purchased at Costco or Costco.com. You can call and speak to technicians for troubleshooting, warranty information or any other questions you have about your item.

Sam's Club, which also offers a 90-day return policy, offers a similar technical support service for all questions regarding electronics purchased at Sam's.

I'm one of those shoppers who thinks I shouldn't have to pay to shop in a store, the store should be paying me. Nonetheless, both warehouse stores charge membership fees.

Costco and Sam's Club offer different levels of membership.

Sam's Club offers an advantage membership for $45 in which you receive two annual cards, free flat-tire repair, car battery testing and wiper blade installation service and the "Click 'n Pull," a service where you order the item online one day and pick it up at the store the next. Advantage Plus membership for $100 lets you shop starting at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, receive eight percent off name-brand prescriptions and a 40 percent discount on a number of generic prescriptions. Advantage Plus members use the "Click 'n Pull" to order online by 5 p.m., their order will be pulled and ready for them the next day. This also comes with no-cost flat tire repair, car battery testing and wiper blade installation.

Costco's Gold Star Membership is $55. This membership allows you to purchase products for personal use and provides one additional card for free. Costco Executive Membership for $110 makes you eligible for a 2 percent reward (up to $750) on qualifying purchases at Costco. You will also receive additional benefits and greater discounts on their suite of Costco services, including Costco Travel. Apply for the Costco American Express TrueEarnings Card and you earn a rebate on your eligible purchases including gasoline at Costco and anywhere else you use the card.

I do not belong to either of these warehouse stores, mainly because I don't usually travel in the areas where they are located. My friends with memberships often ask me if they can pick up anything for me when they are going. I have a short list of items that I cannot find coupons for and do use daily that I feel are worth the bulk buying and price.

If I were to join one of the clubs, my preference would be Costco. I felt the Lexington store was friendlier and had a better layout. I liked that Costco has exclusive Kirkland Signature label on many popular items such as vitamins, detergent, dog food and drinking water, and, if you're not completely satisfied, your money is refunded. It also offered more upscale items with more brand names to choose from.

Even if you shop at these stores regularly, you will still need to stop at your local grocery store for items that you don't want to purchase in bulk. Once again, being organized and checking prices on your items will, in the end, tell you what is a better choice for you.

Oh, and here's a good bit of news about these warehouse stores: you do not need to be a member to receive pharmacy discounts at either.

In other savings news: Don't forget, now is the time to stock up on discounted holiday wrapping paper, ribbon, tape, ornaments and other decorations.

Deborah Morris' column, The Fru-Gal, can help you save money. Feel free to share tips on Kentucky.com and visit her website, Fru-gal-friends.com.

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