Shopping Clubs: Deal or No Deal?

My mother-in-law vowed recently that she wouldn't buy her meat and fish anywhere else but Costco. My mother gushes over the great deals on wine at BJ's Wholesale Club. And one of my friends heads straight to Sam's Club when she's throwing a party. Personally, I've always been a bit terrified at the thought of actually buying a 5-gallon drum of tuna and trying to find 50 ways to prepare the canned fish. And where would I store 500 rolls of toilet paper?

To learn more about these mega shopping clubs, I decided to take a stroll through BJ's to see what they have to offer and to conduct an informal survey of club prices vs. those of a traditional grocer like Giant. Shopping at BJ's is like shopping at a grocery store, drug store, electronics store, mattress store, and a tire store, all neatly packaged in a large drab warehouse. I focused my mission on the items I normally buy at the grocery store. What I found was worth the trip -- and the annual membership fee (which is $40 at Sam's Club, $45 for BJ's and $50 at Costco). The bargains: meat, seafood, beer and wine. The items you should pass on: paper goods and dog food.

Beer and wine: I guess it is time to throw a party! The alcohol prices were super cheap. A 24-pack of 12-ounce Heineken bottles was $23.99. That's $1 a bottle. Coors Light was even cheaper at $14.99 for the same box. The wine section featured many bottles for under $10 like BV Coastal Merlot for $6.99, which normally sells for around $11.99 and Rosemont Shiraz for $6.99. (I've seen Rosemont for $10.99 at my local grocery store.)

Meat and fish: OK, I hate to admit it, but my mother-in-law was right. I was hard pressed to find chicken breasts, but lean ground beef was $2.99 per pound, which is normally around $4.29. London Broil was $3.49 per pound, which I've seen for $4.99. And the rib eye was $7.49 per pound, again much lower than the $11.99 per pound it goes for at my grocer. Salmon fillets were a cool $5.99 per pound. I've never found them under $8.99. Scallops were $5.50 per pound. Wow. Enough said.

Paper goods: Traditional grocery stores and places like Target have better deals. A 24-roll pack of Charmin toilet paper sold at BJ's for $19.99, whereas the same pack sold at Giant Food for $6 less than that. Bounty paper towels blew me away: A puny pack of 12 rolls sold at BJ's for $14.99, yet a pack with three more rolls went for $9.99 at Giant.

Dog food: I searched the aisles for the food my snobby dog eats -- Iams MiniChunks -- and found that Giant sold it for nearly $2 less.

What are your results? What's worth hauling home from a shopping club and what is better reserved for your local grocer?

By Tania Anderson |  October 25, 2007; 3:00 AM ET General Interest , Grocery Deals
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Comments

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BJ's is just a total fake warehouse store. You're obviously in Virginia--why not go to Costco? You forgot about frozen food, snacks, bread, dairy, not to mention electronics and drug & beauty--all better at a warehouse store.

Also, more than half of us can't buy booze at BJ's.

Posted by: dynagirl | October 25, 2007 5:49 AM

I became hooked on Costco when my kids were in diapers - those were a real deal! I've stayed a memeber over the years because of their meat which is not only cheaper but often of a higher quality than the local grocery stores.

Posted by: momof3 | October 25, 2007 7:12 AM

She could be in VA, but still go to Costco. My friends in Fairfax go to the one in Sterling -- it even sells gas!

We are Costco shoppers. If only the ones in MD sold booze, my husband would be in heaven. I have never noticed that their prices on paper good are worse than Target, etc., but I do think cereal can be bought cheaper through sales & coupons.

Posted by: To dynagirl | October 25, 2007 8:15 AM

Unfortunately Costco has fallen prey to the lure of coupons. They regularly have 4 to 5 dollar coupons for the paper goods. Which may seem like a good deal at first. But as you found, it really isn't.

Which makes me sad. One reason I loved Costco was the fact I could go in there at any time and believe I was getting a fair price on any item. Sure I could shop at the supermarket or Wal-Mart to get better deals on specific items. But it felt good that I could in at anytime and get a fair price at place with good customer service that treats it's employees well.

Nowadays I have to consider if I want to make a purchase or if it would be better to wait to see if a coupon appears. The same thing happened at Hecht's. Which I (and many others apparently) stopped shopping at because the coupons became too much of a hassle. Hope that Costco amends their ways and drops the coupons.

Posted by: Columbia | October 25, 2007 9:16 AM

The best deals on produce and meats can often be found at markets frequented by Hispanics. Try FoodStar in Arlington (Columbia Pike)-- Amazing!

Posted by: EB | October 25, 2007 9:25 AM

The membership price of Costco just went up to $50 a year. It used to be $35 or $40. I am not so sure the $50 is worth it. My Costco sells gas, so that alone would almost pay for the membership if I lived closer! I primarily buy about 10 items at Costco, but the rest I get at grocery stores, Target or Wal Mart. With coupons and "club cards" it is usually cheaper than Costco. Every 2 months I get the 24-pack of Scott Toilet Paper. The price is good and I don't have to keep buying small packs every week. I also buy the gigantic bottle of olive oil and refill a normal sized bottle. If you get the huge trays of pork chops or chicken breasts and freeze most of it, you have enough meat for weeks! And because we use a lot of canned mushrooms and diced tomatoes, I buy those 6 or 12 packs. That way I always have a can when I need to throw some in a recipe! I buy a few other random things here and there, but thats it. I can't understand the people that buy several gigantic bags of chips, 4 enormous boxes of cereal, and 2 dozen loaves of bread. Pretty much every grocery stored has buy 1 get 1 free deals on that stuff all the time. Soda is a rip off at Costco too. You can get 2,3 or sometimes 4 12-packs for $10 at Safeway all the time. That is much cheaper than the soda at Costco.

Posted by: LBH219 | October 25, 2007 9:56 AM

Another great deal at Costco is the optical shop. I have an awful prescription and need to get the expensive high-index lenses. They are significantly cheaper at Costco than anywhere else (even Sears or JC Penney). I estimate that I saved at least three years worth of membership fees ($150) with the last pair of glasses I bought. I also order my contacts through them, and they are cheaper than elsewhere.

Posted by: alexva | October 25, 2007 11:30 AM

My wife and I were members of BJs for a year. The observation I had was that you saved on name brand food items but when you compared prices of store brands to the BJ prices for name brands the store brands were still cheaper. Plus my wife is a super coupon clipper so using coupons usually seemed to save us money at the regular grocery store.

Whoever didn't like your photo is crazy. You look great.

Posted by: NW in Alexandria | October 25, 2007 11:30 AM

So apparently "OBVI" didn't have anything intelligent to add to the conversation at hand so he/she decided to make a feeble attempt at trashing someone to make themself feel better. If only they sold manners in bulk...

Posted by: aswa4681 | October 25, 2007 12:36 PM

I have totally opposite info on paper goods at costco. First off, the toilet paper packs at Costco are not the same at the grocery stores. My wife and I checked and it would be the 72 roll pack at the Giant was $2 less on sale than Costco's 96 roll pack was every day. Almost all of the big paper companies have separate diaper packs or paper towel packs at Costco than they have at standard retail stores. One great example was my wife wanted to buy me a camera, she looked online at Costco, but found it $5 cheaper online. when the box came from the online store it did not contain the lens kit and carrying case the Costco-only model came with.

This reminds me of a coworker who used to say that tuna was cheaper at grocery stores and then try to compare house brands to name brands to prove his point. uhhh... not.

thirdly, only a person living alone or a fool wouldn't sign up for Costco's Executive membership plan at $100 annual plus rebates. I did and with the amount of money I spend on kids clothes, food, electronics and the like, we regularly get annual checks of $100-200 back from Costco on this plan (which is unavailable to people signing up at $50). Therefore my Costco membership is not only free every year, I make about $50 back in rebates.

Then add-in the additional rebate from Amex.

So from my personal experience and research, this story is false or incorrectly reported. the club stores are universally cheaper than non-sale grocery stores.

Posted by: DCer | October 25, 2007 1:14 PM

I may need to eat my words a little. Costco sells Bounty paper towels delivered via a business account for $1.77 per roll regardless of how many you order. Peapod sells the same at $2.04 per roll, but in sets of 15 the price mysteriously drops to $1.07 each.

Posted by: DCer | October 25, 2007 1:56 PM

I would love it if you could do a cost comparison of Sams vs Costoc - we have a sams near us and a costco about 30 min away and its a constant discussion around here as to which is better. any chance for a part 2 of this blog?

Posted by: sailor | October 25, 2007 3:36 PM

BJ's is a great place for loading up on party supplies like beer/wine, but for quality fresh meats I prefer Whole Foods.

Posted by: faraz | October 25, 2007 3:55 PM

You are wrong about the dog food at Giant. I can get purina fit and trim at giant and costco for the exact same price. The difference is the giant bag is 20 pounds and the costco bag is 44 pounds.

Posted by: sean mcveigh | October 25, 2007 7:28 PM

I'm near a BJs, and my mom loves shopping there for chicken wings, bacon, cheese and veggie plates when we're having a family party.

Although BJs was a lifesaver when I did my pre-freshman year dorm shopping (big boxes of female personal products, cereal and bottled water for dollars less than the campus store)
I personally hate shopping there now because the lines are long, and I generally prefer the ambiance of a grocery or Target store over the dull stockroom look of the warehouses.

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | October 26, 2007 9:47 AM

Having been members at all three at some point or another in my life, I have found Costco to consistently have the bargains on their items. BJs was the worst and Sam's just depended. Costco is basically a gourmet Sam's. A few frozen items are about the same as a grocery store, but at Costco I can simply stock up and not have to run to the grocery store every week. The biggest saver is milk, as my family drinks a lot. Luckily, Costco is closest in this area and it's a regular trip in my world!

Posted by: Arlington | October 26, 2007 10:20 AM

I've purchased 3 flat panel TVs at Costco (1 as a gift). That and the Shiseido Bio-Performance Super Restoring face cream I have to buy for my wife ($75 - she claims it's $115 anywhere else) paid for my membership MANY times over.

Posted by: Costco is better than BJ's or Sam's | October 26, 2007 10:52 AM

I second the request for part two of the blog to focus on comparing the other shopping clubs. It would be great if you could expand it to cover electronics (TVs especially), make-up (plus face cream, etc), and even home improvement stuff (I've found great deals on bamboo flooring at Costco before).

Posted by: Sarah | October 26, 2007 12:08 PM

Tania, any chance you'll be comparing the costs of lap dances at the many DC strip clubs? With a toddler and infant at home, I really don't have the time to spend traipsing from club to club. Naturally, I'm interested in cost versus beauty plus effort. If the dancer is Russian, that's a bonus.

Posted by: Cousin M | October 26, 2007 3:45 PM

Some of these stores are known to sell designer handbags, too. But, I heard the bags they sell are counterfeit and some have been busted by the designer for selling them. The best place for below retail priced designer handbags is http://www.efashionhouse.com. With Christmas coming, it's a good and safe place to shop for the women in your life.

Posted by: anna miller | October 27, 2007 3:51 PM

Thing to consider: ownership.

Sams is Wal-Mart. With all the baggage pro and con.

Costco was named a business of the year a few years ago. The CEO actually canceled a contract after a supplier dropped prices on an item but did not tell the Costco CEO.

Posted by: Silver Spring | October 30, 2007 10:18 AM

Has anyone heard of Adli's? www.aldi.com They don't advertise, take coupons or take credit. It would be a culture shock to most because they don't sell many name brands. Meat is cheaper at BJ's and milk costs the same, but otherwise you can't beat Aldi's prices on anything else. Plus you don't have to buy HUGE quantities to save!

Posted by: ljp | October 30, 2007 12:48 PM

ljp -- Aldi is a rock-bottom German discounter and also the owner of Trader Joes. For their Aldi stores they offer a no-frills environment -- in Germany they charge you for bags, shelves are not merchandised in the traditional sense... no experience here in the US.

Posted by: tntkate | October 30, 2007 2:14 PM

Where to shop for seafood? Several stores (including Wild Oats, Safeway, and Whole Foods) have voluntarily agreed to post the FDA's advisories on mercury in seafood and they have had positive responses from customers and no loss in seafood sales. But other companies like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Giant Eagle have refused to do so. Oceana, a conservation group, has a list of which companies care about their customers' health enough to post this advice, as well as a list of companies that don't. You can get the Green List and Red List at their website.

Posted by: Melissa | October 31, 2007 12:18 PM

Online shopping is my favorite...I visit Target store at Couponalbum.com and recently I received free shipping with a free gift from this store..!!

Posted by: Trim | November 5, 2007 3:16 AM

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