Shopping Clubs: Deal or No Deal? (Part II)

One of the liveliest blog posts I've done since Shop To It's launch was on shopping clubs. As you may recall, I did a rundown of what not to buy at members-only clubs like BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco. As regular shoppers of these clubs know, the stores are humongous beasts filled with everything from food to tires. I covered a small portion of the stores when I wrote about deals on meat and wine. But many readers posted comments on the deals they've found on things like electronics and beauty products. So I went back to BJ's to explore electronics, beauty products, medications and baby products. Here's what I found:

Electronics: My conclusion? Shop around. It was hit or miss at BJ's Alexandria store, which had among its selection televisions, DVD players, laptop computers, cameras and movies. BJ's prices were lower on its Sony Bravia Home Theater system, its Bose Home Theater system, as well as most of its televisions. The best TV deal I saw was a Sony 40-inch LCD, high-definition set for $300 less than Costco's price tag of $1,500. One of its Sony Vaio laptops, which offered a rebate taken at the register, was about $20 cheaper than the same one seen at Wal-Mart. Many of its cameras were cheaper online. I only found a deal on one of its Sony Cyber-shot cameras, which was selling for $120, slightly less than the lowest online price of $137 at B&H. Amazon.com has a better deal on DVD movies, which sell for around $17. The same titles were being sold at BJ's for $19. Just be sure to spend at least $25 at Amazon to get the free shipping. Take a pass on BJ's GPS devices, which sell for nearly $100 more than what you find at Amazon. The Xbox 360 also sold for $150 more than Circuit City's sale price of $280.

Beauty products and medications: BJ's definitely had better deals on drugstore items. A 70-count bottle of the popular allergy medication, Claritin, sold for $32 at BJ's, compared to $22 at Giant Food for a 30-count bottle. The per-unit price, which is the cost of the medication for every 100 capsules, was $45.70 at BJ's and $73.30 at Giant. Same deal with Tylenol Extra Strength. BJ's 325-count bottle sold for $14.19, compared to a 150-count bottle at Giant for $12.49. The per-unit price here was $4.37 for every 100 capsules at BJ's, compared to $8.33 for every 100 at Giant. It also makes sense to pick up your beauty products at BJ's. A 3.4-ounce container of Olay's Total Effects moisturizer sold for $28 at BJ's, compared to a bottle half that size at Giant, which sold for $20. It was the same price difference for Olay's Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum. You can also get a better deal on Dove's shampoo and conditioner at BJ's. A 40-ounce bottle of either shampoo or conditioner sold for $7, compared to $8.49 for a 25.4-ounce bottle at Giant. One could argue, however, that stores like Giant do have pretty good sales and it's possible to get a better deal there when one such sale is occurring.

Baby products: Get baby formula and diapers at BJ's. The price differences aren't huge but could save you a few bucks. The shopping club had a 36-ounce can of Similac Advance with Iron for $30, cheaper than Amazon's smaller 25.7-ounce can for $36, plus $6 for shipping. It was the same deal with Nestle Good Start. A 24-ounce can of its Natural Cultures baby formula sold for $26, compared to $30 at Diapers.com, which gives you free shipping on orders above $50. BJ's has a whole row dedicated to diapers, which had slightly better deals compared to online prices. A 184-count box of Pampers Swaddlers was $35, compared to nearly $40 at Amazon and Diapers.com. Pampers Easy Ups were $25 for an 80-diaper box, compared to $27 at Diapers.com.

Where do you find the best deals on some of these products? Do you belong to a members-only shopping club? Which shopping club should I visit next? Post a comment and tell me about it.

By Tania Anderson |  January 10, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Grocery Deals
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Comments

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What about those members-only "buy direct" furniture places that have been heavily advertised over the last couple of years? I cna't imagine that it would be a genuine good deal - something tells me its just another rip-off - but maybe I'm wrong. Does anyone have any experience with that type of place?

Posted by: Karen | January 10, 2008 9:05 AM

Don't forget that you can use brand-name coupons at BJ's, too.

I live by myself (I split the membership cost with my mother), so I go about every other month, whenever I'm low on Fruit 2-0 and/or Carnation Instant Breakfast (I buy two boxes when I'm there).

About every 6 - 9 months or so, I buy toilet paper and paper towels. The key is having the storage space, which I do.

I find their wrapping paper to be a good deal, as well. Sometimes it's even Hallmark paper (complete with cutting grid and Hallmark crown) disguised as American Greetings!

The downside -- they're 15 or less (or whatever it is) line is sometimes closed and on a trip in the fall, I made the mistake of buying two boxes of the 100 Calorie pack snacks and I am sick of eating them.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | January 10, 2008 9:23 AM

With regard to Direct Buy, they seem to run infomercials non-stop on the weekend and I have yet to find anyone who says good things about them. We foolishly signed up for the sales pitch without realizing what we were getting into...it was worse than what you get at a timeshare with no upside like a $100 AMEX gift card. Take a look at http://www.infomercialscams.com/scams/direct_buy_scams for one perspective.

As far as warehouse stores go, we have been long time Costco shoppers, but may be switching to BJ's. They had a reduced price membership offer over the holiday with a $10 coupon. Our favorite section in both stores are the frozen foods which work well as meal starters several nights per week. These are also great for entertaining and we know of at least one high-end caterer who gets a lot of items from BJ's.

While I don't buy a lot of electronics, I needed a new fax machine and purchased a Canon MP530 for $99 which was at least $40 less than any local retailer and $25 less than what I found online.

One way that we use these stores is to buy donations for our church's food pantry. We will buy peanut butter, jelly, multi-packs of tuna, canned fruit and veggies, cereal and chili and you would be surprised how far $100-125 can go on these items.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | January 10, 2008 10:10 AM

Also forgot to mention that the BJ's in Fairfax has a gas station. While I would not make a special trip, planned correctly I can save $2-3 over local gas stations in Burke.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | January 10, 2008 10:12 AM

The thing with the warehouse stores and electronics such as the XBox, is that you may actually be getting a few games, an extra controller and a few other nice little additions you can't get anywhere else. A few years ago, I believe it was Costco (my parents were members at both for a while) that had the original Playstation that came with four games, two controllers and a switch for the TV set. This was about $100 more than what you got from the very basic system at Circuit City (which did not come with a game or a switch and only had one controller). Good thing we read the box!

You can also find some things cheaper at Office Depot. We used to buy a lot of our office supplies at Costco until I needed some things in a hurry one day and found I spent about $40 less at Office Depot (a savings of about $75 off Staples).

Posted by: Jarrod | January 10, 2008 11:04 AM

Those price differences are likely due to different systems tiers. There is an Xbox 360 Arcade without a lot of the normal features for $280, the shopping club version likely had a harddrive, extra games, etc.

I've found that shopping for electronics at the shopping clubs is only a deal if you are ver familiar with the product numbers. For examples, there are lots of 42" HDTVs out there, but not all are the same.

Posted by: XBox Note | January 10, 2008 11:51 AM

Gasoline is definitely a plus to all 3 major clubs in our area - we have membership to all 3. The price of gas at Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club in Woodbridge is far far less than anything else - we can pay our membership fees on what we save alone on that.

Posted by: ann marie | January 10, 2008 12:00 PM

When we had to provide most of my daughter's food through formula for medical reasons, Costco saved us literally hundreds of dollars. Their house-branded items are generally great quality and even cheaper than Trader Joe's for things like nuts.

The tires are cheaper than our local place by about $40 per tire. The trick is to avoid impulse buying (very hard) and shop like you do at the grocery (produce, cheese, meat, frozen), but skip the junk food aisles.

I love buying a big box of Kirkland kitchen trash bags and not thinking about needing trash bags again for a year or so!

Posted by: restonmom | January 10, 2008 12:23 PM

Costco is a great place for tires, and they keep your records in their computer, so can give you credit it you get a blowout when your tires are only half or three quarters through the warranty. Voice of exsperience here. Their tire crews are very customer friendly.

Fresh meats are a great deal at Costco, but it is better to go with a friend or relative so you can divide the steaks or salmon or fancy fresh foods, as they include too much for a small family.

Costco's Kirkland house brands have very strict quality controls that Costco can force from its suppliers. A few years ago, I bought a few pairs of reading glasses-- I liked the small size, but noticed that the sctrews worked loose in what I thought was an unreaaonable time. Not only was my money returned, but that supplier was dumped in a heartbeat because fo poor quality.

As a caution against buying huge jumbo containers of canned goods, just remember the classic Seinfeld episode where Kramer bought many huge containers of canned beans, and ended up feeding the beans to his horse (in a short-lived horse/carriage scheme to take people through Central Park). If you didn't see it: think of being downwind in Kramer's carriage from his horse after the horse's meal of canned beans....

Those gigantice cans now seem to havebeen supplwemented with shrink-wrapped sets of large cans-- also easy to share with friernds or neighbors.

Posted by: Ex DC-er | January 10, 2008 1:05 PM

ditto on the Kirkland trash bags!!!

Posted by: hype2new | January 10, 2008 1:05 PM

Every winter, I receive a postcard in the mail for a free trial membership at BJ's. I use the promotion every year to buy nonperishable products that will last me a year (eg toothpaste, cotton swabs, etc) and then the membership just expires. It's only three of us in our family and we don't need a lot of foods in bulk. Besides, they don't carry all the brands that we like.

Posted by: mediajunky | January 10, 2008 1:53 PM

I know for a fact that when I was buying a digital camera that none, as is not one single, online store had the digital camera packages that Costco had. Costco included extras, like extra batteries, SD cards or other things in every package. So of course the online prices were $10 less, they OFFERED LESS!

I doubt the journalistic integrity of this story based on my personal experience and when I have time will compare like the author does to see if the items are in fact the same or are different.

My personal experience is that they are definitely not the same items.

Posted by: DCer | January 10, 2008 2:43 PM

We joined DirectBuy-- HUGE mistake!! Total ripoff, stay away from them. The only person I've met who liked it was someone who was in the midst of building her house and she bought everything from them. But I redid my kitchen and was only able to buy the appliances from DB-- and, I had to return and re-order several times due to mistakes. Also, I didn't like many of their suppliers and a lot of the 'deals' on countertops and installations that DB offered were not worth it. Terrible customer service, AND we paid about $2,400 for the privilege of joining! Awful, awful.

Posted by: JJBooknut | January 10, 2008 4:50 PM

We belong to Sams & BJs. Sams has the best deal on roasted chicken and photo printing. I send pix online and pick up prints in 1 hour at Sams Club. Still you need to shop around no matter who you buy from, then you get a feel for good pricing on stuff. Books, DVDs, TVs, etc vary. I got a real good deal on a BlueRay DVD player from BJs. Smart shoppers - and D.C has plenty - know how to compare and still they flock to Costco, BJs and Sams Club. You just gotta do your homework and forget impulse buying. I even get many good deals at my local ACE hardware store. Ask and learn from others and soon you, too will be racking up the savings! All these prior comments show that these folks know what I mean. I've seen women take a fistful of coupons into Giant and a $20 bill and come out with change and nearly $100 worth of stuff. It can be done! That's a shopper!

Posted by: Fredthe BlackLab | January 10, 2008 9:19 PM

We belong to Sams & BJs. Sams has the best deal on roasted chicken and photo printing. I send pix online and pick up prints in 1 hour at Sams Club. Still you need to shop around no matter who you buy from, then you get a feel for good pricing on stuff. Books, DVDs, TVs, etc vary. I got a real good deal on a BlueRay DVD player from BJs. Smart shoppers - and D.C has plenty - know how to compare and still they flock to Costco, BJs and Sams Club. You just gotta do your homework and forget impulse buying. I even get many good deals at my local ACE hardware store. Ask and learn from others and soon you, too will be racking up the savings! All these prior comments show that these folks know what I mean. I've seen women take a fistful of coupons into Giant and a $20 bill and come out with change and nearly $100 worth of stuff. It can be done! That's a shopper!

Posted by: Fredthe BlackLab | January 10, 2008 9:21 PM

I recently called around for the best price on a seriously expensive drug my son is taking (Accutane) and someone suggested I try Costco. I didn't know they had a pharmacy (BJ's does not, at least in Bowie) but found they had the best price, by a mile, and you don't have to be a member to use the pharmacy. Great deal!

Posted by: PBear | January 17, 2008 12:15 AM

I am a long-time Costco shopper (Fairfax). I go there one time each month and spend $150-200 and feel very good doing it because I am getting great value for my money and very good quality food. What do I buy? Flank steak is $2.00 per pound cheaper than Giant. The whitefish salad is so good my NYC relatives request it when they visit - and it's one-third the price of the bagel stores. The salmon is $5.49 or $5.99 at Costco but that is the same price as Giant when Giant has it on sale - which is fairly often. I buy OJ and grapefruit juice at Costco for $6.49 and $4.99 for 2 96 oz bottles. McCormack Vanilla (my wife is a great and avid baker) is much cheaper than elsewhere.

Butter and eggs are 10-20% cheaper than Giant (though the prices have increased over the past year - it was $3.55 for 3 dozen eggs in early 2007). Laundry detergent (Wisk), dishwashing liquid, paper plates, the big red solo cups, garbage bags, ziploc bags, plastic wrap and aluminum foil are all much cheaper at Costco than elsewhere, as are vitamins, shampoo, contact lens solution and soap.

Is it sometimes possible to find something cheaper at Target, if you use a coupon and if its on sale? Sure. But for consistent value, Costco is the easy winner.

And of course, if you are ever having a party or people over, the economy size bags of chips, or tubs of dip, or cheeses are very cost-effective. And don't get me started about their great pies and cakes ($10-15 for a monster-sized cake that feeds 30 people).

Finally (!), I have gotten contact lenses for 50% of the cost from the local chain store optomitrist.

Happy shopping!

Posted by: Davidb | January 17, 2008 1:10 PM

In regards to Claritin, which was mentioned as being sold for $45/100 ct at Costco: if you don't mind buying the generic version, you can get a 100 count bottle at target for $30 ( I take one every day, so that's a big savings for me).

Posted by: AEH | January 24, 2008 10:32 AM

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Thank you!

Posted by: vacation | January 28, 2008 8:05 AM

I was using Costco for long time. I like their return policy and quality of the products they sell.
We buy regularly milk, bananas, serials from Costco. Their coupons are good some.

Apart from that for Electronics I will look at best deals website http://www.dealshotdeals.com
You can get the best deals on the street if you watch and buy electronics. Most deals are better than then the club member ship deals. Any cameras, Lapotps, MP3 players, buying when there are deals is the best way.
When there are coupons, Costco or BJ's good.If not buying electronics from them is not a great choice.
One thing with the Costco is return policy on electronics. You can little premium to get the return policy and additional warranty.

Posted by: Dhan | February 23, 2008 3:34 PM

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