The Complete Guide to Warehouse Club Shopping

Shopping at warehouse clubs is something that comes up a lot in the personal finance community. Readers pose questions like these often:

  • Are the items actually cheaper?
  • Is the membership cost worth it?
  • What do I buy and what do I avoid?
  • Which is better–Sam’s, Costco, BJ’s or (insert yours here)?

I’d like to share some of my own experiences and lessons learned about warehouse clubs, in the hopes that you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions about the worth of these stores.

A Brief Note About My History

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here’s a brief history of my shopping experiences at warehouses.

  • I shopped at BJ’s in New York from 1995 to 2000, and sporadically since then.
  • I was a Costco member from 2005 to 2010.
  • I’m currently a Sam’s Club member since 2010.

While I haven’t “seen it all” when it comes to warehouse clubs, I think my experience gives me a good handle on what I’ll share with you today.

Defining the Basics

Just so that we’re all talking about the same thing, let’s define what I mean when I say “warehouse club.” Generally speaking, it’s a large, warehouse-like retail store that charges an annual membership to its members and sells most of its items in bulk quantities.

There are exceptions to all of that, and I’ll cover some of those in today’s post.

Memberships usually range from around $40 for basic memberships to upwards of $100 for “business-style” arrangements. The card you get for your money allows you entrance to the store and the right to make purchases there for the next 12 months.

Services

In addition to what you can actually pick up and buy at the store, most clubs also offer “services.” These usually include optometry (and an adjacent eyeglass center), car buying, vacations, insurance, and even things like carpet installation and caskets.

Since you essentially have to “seek them out,” these services are often overlooked by warehouse shoppers, even though they can often represent significant end savings.

Products

What does a warehouse club actually sell?

Since most stores are laid out in a similar fashion and sell the same types of products, that’s actually easy to talk about. Walking through a typical warehouse club, you’ll cross the following sections:

  • Electronics, including the TVs, computers, printers, software, DVDs, etc.
  • Office goods, like bulk paper, pens, furniture, etc.
  • Housewares, including cookware, vacuums, coffee makers, etc.
  • Appliances, and other big items like mattresses
  • Wine
  • Bakery, which usually sells breads, pastries, and even custom cakes
  • Meat department
  • Produce and cheese (featuring a broad selection of stuff)
  • House consumables, like paper towels, detergents, plates, etc.
  • Dry grocery goods, such as pastas, cereals, tuna, etc.
  • Sporting goods, seasonally stocked with things like camping gear or tennis rackets
  • Seasonal items, which vary widely by store and region
  • Clothing, everything from socks to hats
  • Candy, cookies, crackers, and all the other processed sugar your heart desires
  • Baby stuff
  • Personal care and vitamins
  • Pharmacy, often featuring deep discounts

The differences between clubs, and a key reason why many people prefer one over another, are the exact brands being sold in the store and/or the quality of the products.

Many stores also sell a variety of things (foods, especially) in smaller quantities and with more variety available. It’s the differences in what they choose to make available that are key to the clubs consumers prefer.

What is “Bulk?”

When I mention warehouse clubs to single people and small families as a way to save money, 4 out of 5 inevitably bring up the “How am I going to eat all that stuff?” question.

It’s easier than it looks.

To demonstrate how these portions might actually get utilized in a kitchen, here are some of the items from our last trip and the sizes they came in:

  • 2 pounds of green beans, steamed for 2 dinners
  • 12 chicken breasts, 3 used for dinner and 9 frozen for later
  • 4 children’s shampoos, which will last about 12 months
  • 2 loaves of bread, easily used up in time
  • 12 cans of chicken broth, enough for a month or two of cooking
  • 8 tilapia filets, all used the same night

If you have a freezer, and you don’t mind eating the same thing a few nights in a row if it can’t be frozen, it’s more than doable.

The other major question that new warehouse shoppers face is where to store this stuff. Food items can usually fit between the fridge and the pantry, but larger things like 15 rolls of paper towels will need a dedicated space.

That means you’ll need to clean out a part of your closet or garage if you intend to buy anything big. Hey, that can actually be a good thing!

Our Shopping Habits

Since we consider ourselves a fairly “typical” young family, an overview of what we actually purchase at warehouse clubs is a convenient way to see how it could benefit you. Here’s a rundown of the things we buy the most:

  • Gas. Without question, gas is always cheaper at the warehouse club than any other gas station in town. Anytime we are there to shop, we stop to fill up the tank. Most clubs have a gas station on the property, and there’s usually a long line.
  • Baby needs. I always joke that the diapers alone justify the cost of membership, but I’ve actually done the math, and they do.
  • Meats. Warehouse prices on beef, pork, chicken and fish are usually unmatched at any supermarket, even when they’re having a sale. Yes, we end up with 12 chicken breasts in a package, but that’s where we utilize a freezer.
  • Technology. It’s tough to be competitive in the tech field, because you can get anything online these days at rock-bottom prices. But warehouse clubs can be cheaper for anything from TVs to computers and printer ink, as long as you double-check. Many clubs also offer bonuses like free warranties on some of the tech items they sell. What have we bought there specifically? TVs, printers, monitors, web cameras, ink, software (at a deep discount), digital cameras, and more.
  • Toiletries. You all know the pain of buying deodorant and wondering how such a small item could cost over $4. Well, we get it in a pack of 5 and it makes things much cheaper. Also sold at your local warehouse are soaps and shampoos, toothpaste (and the ever-important floss), razors (another painful item), and more.
  • Home goods. Where do I start? Anything from our dish detergent to our waffle maker is all from a warehouse club.
  • Eyeglasses. I paid about $150 for a pair of simple prescription glasses at both Costco and Sam’s. The same pair of glass (granted, it was a designer frame, I think) almost ran me $500 at your typical eyeglass chain store. It just doesn’t compare.

“Premium” Membership

No discussion of warehouse clubs is complete without touching on the subject of the “premium” or “business” membership. Anyone who is already a member knows exactly what I’m talking about–you get harassed about it whenever you’re checking out.

Typically, this membership is about twice the cost of a regular membership, but you’re often promised benefits, like:

  • Cash-back rewards.
  • “Extra” coupons for stuff in the store.
  • Early and late shopping hours.
  • Discounts on other member “services.”

If it sounds too good to be true, it might be. The cash-back programs do actually give you cash back, while the coupon programs are typically for things we don’t buy anyway.

My basic policy is to keep things simple. I avoid these extra membership fees like the plague. I can’t be bothered to track the extra $10 I’ll get back at the end of the year, or the gift cards I might get in 6 months for buying X and Y.

Prices

The decision on using a warehouse club for your shopping usually comes down to price. This is where things get difficult, since prices vary insanely depending on region.

While meat may be at rock-bottom prices in one city, it might make no sense at all in another.

There’s also the argument that shopping with coupons at the grocery store results in a cheaper bill than buying at warehouse prices. For certain things, like dry grocery goods, this is definitely the case. For things like meats or produce items that almost never go BOGO (buy-one-get-one) and never have coupons, buying warehouse makes more sense.

Ultimately, you have to evaluate the landscape for yourself. Many warehouse clubs will let you walk through the store or even try out their membership for a few months to see if it makes sense for you.

Other Helpful Tips

Now that you have a good idea of what to expect at a warehouse club, here is a handful of miscellaneous tips for your experience:

  1. Shop during off-hours for shorter lines and less stress. My favorite times are late weekday evenings. Stay away from the store before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  2. See if you can get a try-out membership to test things out. Many clubs offer them, usually in January.
  3. Compare the prices you get at the club to your local grocery sale prices.
  4. Check out the services your club offers–they can save you money in unexpected ways.
  5. Plan your storage strategy before you go out shopping.
  6. Shop on Saturday afternoons to take advantage of sample stations. Bonus!
  7. Many clubs don’t require memberships to use some of their services, like eye care and the pharmacy. Double-check if you’re interesting in saving without the cost of membership.

Try It Out

All I can say now is…try it out and see if it works for your family. Warehouse shopping cuts our bills down significantly, and it can be part of your own frugality plan, too!

(Photo credit)
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