Costco or Sam’s? Which Wholesale Club Is Most Worth the Membership Cost?

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Somebody just spent a lot of time shopping the aisles, running the numbers, and evaluating everything from hearing test services to Cheerios prices to electronics installation at two of the biggest wholesale membership club retailers.

The website Cheapism, which prides itself on finding and analyzing the best, cheapest consumer products and services, has put the microscope to Sam’s Club and Costco. (Alas, BJ’s was not included.) In head-to-head comparisons, Cheapism’s researchers offer verdicts in 18 different categories, including several you probably care a lot about (groceries, gas, membership fees) and a few you might not (auto services? health screenings?).

In the classic price comparison tale of the tape, 38 typical grocery items ranging from eggs to oatmeal to trash bags were bought at each store. A sprawling comparison table details each item and lists not only the actual price but the unit price as well, to ensure we’re comparing apple to apples. Well, actually, neither apples nor oranges were included in the sample shopping excursion, but there are direct applesauce-to-applesauce and orange juice-to-orange juice comparisons.

(MORE: 3 Changes at the Checkout Line)

The table also lists a comparison price at a standard supermarket, so the shopper knows how much (or how little) they’d save at a wholesale club. Milk, for example, was 15% cheaper at Costco ($2.39 per gallon vs. $2.78 at Sam’s), and both were less expensive than the average supermarket ($2.89). (In my experience, supermarkets often charge a lot more than that for a gallon of milk lately.)

Sam’s won the overall shopping competition, beating Costco with a final shopping bill of $12, but afterward, when the researchers ran the numbers, they realized that Costco’s unit prices were slightly better (3.6% cheaper).

As for the other categories evaluated by the researcher’s, Sam’s beat Costco in most—among other things, Sam’s accepted more payment methods, offered better delivery and installation of electronics, and had more membership options and benefits. But figuring out which club is right for you depends on which of these services and products you care about, or will even use at all.

There’s often good reason to not buy everything at your wholesale club, even as you’re trying to justify the annual cost of membership. Costco, for instance, beats Sam’s in the price war for photo printing, but online services like Snapfish are usually cheaper than either wholesale club.

A recent Mint.com post tackles the larger question—whether these warehouse clubs are worth the cost of membership at all. The verdict here is that the fees are worth it if you have plenty of storage space and host lots of parties:

“Costco is one of my favorite big event resources,” says Teri Gault, founder of sale site TheGroceryGame.com. Prices are great on fancy frozen appetizers like spanakopita, bacon-wrapped scallops and mini quiches. “These really beat the price of a caterer, and are easy to serve,” she says.

The flip side is that if your place is on the small side, and you’re not regularly hosting dinner parties for 12, wholesale club membership could very well be a waste of money. Joining the club is also probably not worth it if you’re into couponing (they’re usually not accepted), or, quite obviously, if you have to drive an hour to get to the nearest wholesale club.

(MORE: Worst Stuff to Buy at BJ’s Club and Costco?)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

1 comments
kelakala2
kelakala2

With regards to the membership price: 

At Sam's two people can get a shared membership even if they don't live in the same household. My sister and her friend go split the membership cost and they don't live in the same household. Great if you are single or full membership seems like too much to pay. So even if two families want to save money and split the membership cost, they can.

Costco will not let you do this and they have the higher priced membership. My friend( in CA ) wanted to share her membership with me( in TX ) but was told I would have to get my own membership as we did not live in the same household or share the same address. Two separate families wanting to split the membership cost is NOT possible.