The warehouse club market is dominated by two chains: Costco and Sam's Club.
You pay an annual fee to be a member and in exchange get access to discounted, bulk items as well as a a wide offering of electronics, clothing, homewares, furniture – pretty much everything.
But unless you're happy paying a combined $105 a year for access to both Costco and Sam's Club, those thinking of signing up have a choice to make.
In that spirit, the Tip Jar has done another of its grocery store comparison guides, looking at which wholesaler gives you more bang for your buck when doing your food shopping.
We compared the prices of 45 grocery and household items at Costco and Sam's Club. You can see a full spreadsheet of our results here, and below is a summary of what we found.
(We also compared these prices with a Cub Foods to see how much you can save being a member of a wholesale club – scroll further down for that part.)
Costco vs. Sam's Club
Sam's Club is Walmart-owned, and Walmart is known for driving a hard bargain, so this probably isn't a huge surprise. Previous comparisons between the two stores (including this one, which gets really, really in-depth) have similarly found that Sam's Club is the winner on cost, if not always quality.
This Huffington Post report notes Costco tends to target more affluent consumers, investing more into its signature Kirkland brand that competes with brand names, as well as having a huge selection of organic goods. (Sam's Club has its brand, Member's Mark, but Huff Po says it's not as extensive as Kirkland.)
So considering Costco is targeting wealthier shoppers, it's no shock that it's more expensive – in this case by $24.86.
(Note: The total cost in both cases above includes the price of a membership based on visiting the store 20 times during the year. For Costco that works out at $3 per visit, for Sam's Club it's $2.25.)
Sam's Club pulled ahead with cheaper offerings in bakery, fish, frozen food and household goods, while Costco was cheaper on fresh produce.
These chains are big competitors, and prices on many items are almost identical between the two, with Sam's Club on several occasions (Folger's Coffee, bell peppers) undercutting Costco by a single cent.
In fact, as we were filming for the video above, I mentioned to the Sam's Club manager that Costco was cheaper on a particular item. He told me he would change the price to match Costco within a half-hour. (This is a useful tip if you want to get either of these retailers to match the other.)
Sam's Club still managed to be cheaper despite a couple of instances where Costco had discounted items, including on Colgate and Kraft Mac & Cheese, to the point they cost much less than in Sam's Club.
Costco vs. Sam's Club vs. Cub Foods
It's no secret that buying in bulk saves you money, but how much it saves you in the Twin Cities is the question.
Seeing as Cub Foods is the most popular grocery store among Twin Cities shoppers (the Star Tribune says it has 23.7 percent market share), we compared the 45 items we checked out at Costco and Sam's Club with the offerings of the Cub Foods store in Edina.
The results, as you can see, are significant. The cost of shopping for the same items in the same quantities at Cub is $79.12 more expensive than Costco, and a whopping $103.98 more expensive than Sam's Club.
With those kinds of savings, you can basically write off the cost of a year's membership to a warehouse club in one visit, with the wholesalers particularly cheap in the meat, dairy, frozen and household essentials.
Nonetheless, the comparison did throw up some surprising results. The following bulk items were better value at Cub than at either Costco and/or Sam's Club:
- Bounty kitchen roll
- Heinz Ketchup
- Coca Cola cans
- Cheese pizzas
- Frozen chicken nuggets
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Green beans
I'm a Costco shopper myself and I figured that we'd find both Costco and Sam's Club to be significantly cheaper than Cub.
And I'm not completely shocked at Sam's Club being cheaper than Costco too given the ferocity of their rivalry.
Even paying for a membership, you make the savings back pretty quickly, albeit I would still urge shoppers to stick to their list and try not to be tempted by unnecessary purchases. (My wife and I are OK in Costco, but we always come out of Menards with way more stuff than we went in for.)
But there's a big caveat to this comparison: you only get true value from buying in bulk if you use it all.
It's fine for dried, frozen and household goods, but there's always a risk with fresh produce that it may spoil if you don't use it soon enough – either that, or you need a humongous freezer to store it all.
Shopping at grocery stores takes that out of the equation, because you can buy in smaller quantities that you know you'll use, reducing the overall cost of your shop as a result (seriously, has anyone ever spent $415 at a Cub Foods in a single visit?)
Notes about the research
– The prices were taken from the Costco in St. Louis Park on Friday, Sept. 1; the Sam's Club in St. Louis Park on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and the Cub Foods in Edina on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
– In some cases, the prices for meat and produce are done on a per-pound basis rather than actual sizes sold in store. This was for the ease of comparison given the difference in product sizes between retailers.
– Similarly, we calculated toilet paper on a "per roll" basis to make things simpler.
– On other occasions we rounded prices up or down depending on quantities. For example, Sam's Club and Costco sell Tide detergent at sizes of 170 fluid ounces, while the biggest at Cub is 150 fluid ounces, so the Cub price was adjusted to apply to 170 fluid ounces.
– What about Aldi? The German chain was the clear winner in our regular grocery store price comparison but I felt it would prove more useful to use Cub Foods as the test case given it's more popular among Twin Cities shoppers. That said, you can check out this Passionate Penny Pincher guide comparing Costco, Sam's Club and Aldi, which found that the wholesalers were cheaper than Aldi in a lot of areas.