Warehouse clubs: Which is cheapest?

Even nonmembers can find deals at warehouse clubs, though the savings vary. We go comparison shopping for the best bargains on commonly bought items.

[Related content: retail, Costco, economy, shopping, budgeting]
By SmartMoney

Beyond bulk food, cavernous shopping spaces and almost guaranteed savings (an average of 30% per item, according to a recent study by "Warehouse Club Focus," a trade publication), warehouse clubs like Sam's Club, Costco and BJ's do have differences. And those differences can have big effects on how much shoppers save.

The most obvious disparity is in annual membership fees -- $50 at Costco, $45 at BJ's Wholesale Club (BJ's is offering a two-month free membership with this coupon) and $40 at Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart. But in-store prices and policies play a bigger role when it comes to your bottom line at checkout.

That's why it's important to compare prices on the items you need most frequently. A gallon of skim milk at Sam's Club, for example, costs $1.88, while Costco charges $2.29. Need to stock up on Secret deodorant? At BJ's, it's 81% cheaper than at the supermarket, while the savings is 67% at Sam's Club.

Another factor: coupons. BJ's is the only warehouse club to accept manufacturers' coupons, which can give its prices an edge over the competition. (There are times, however, when combining those coupons with the sales in the weekly circular can result in even better deals at your local supermarket, says Teri Gault, founder of shopping site TheGroceryGame.com.)

Nonmembers who want to try out a warehouse club also should weigh the surcharge they'll pay at checkout. Costco charges nonmembers 5%, Sam's Club tacks on 10% and BJ's adds 15%. Clubs usually permit nonmembers to purchase alcohol and prescription medications without having to pay a fee.

We went shopping for household staples and other items shoppers might regularly purchase to see which stores offer the best savings. We compared prices for 17 items from three warehouse clubs in the New York metro area against one another as well as local stores, including supermarket chain C-Town, drugstore chain Rite-Aid, pet-food purveyor Petco and beverage retailer K&D Wines and Spirits.

Because warehouse clubs tend to carry bigger sizes, prices were adjusted for a unit-by-unit comparison where necessary. We also factored in manufacturers' coupons where available, since both BJ's and local stores accept them.

The results: Even for nonmembers, warehouse clubs offer plenty of good deals, with some of the best savings on over-the-counter medications, personal care products and pantry staples.

There were exceptions to that rule, however. Most notably, bell peppers at the warehouse clubs were almost twice as expensive as at the supermarket, and prescription cholesterol medication was slightly more expensive at one of the clubs than at the chain pharmacy.

The winner? Sam's Club's prices were consistently among the best, although BJ's coupon policy made it a serious contender in many categories.

Here's our side-by-side shopping list, assembled using membership prices at a Sam’s Club in Secaucus, N.J., a BJ’s in East Setauket, N.Y., and a Costco in Brooklyn, N.Y. Nonwarehouse club prices are from New York locations of C-Town, Rite Aid, Petco and K&D Wines & Spirits. Prices were adjusted per unit for comparison.

Prices compared
Item Nonwarehouse BJ's Costco Sam's Club

Skim milk, gallon


$2.09 -- Savings: 36%

$2.29 -- Savings: 30%

$1.88 -- Savings: 43%

Eggs, 1.5 dozen


$2.99 -- Added cost: 7%

$1.50 -- Savings: 46%

$2.93 -- Added cost: 5%

Strawberries, 2 pounds


$3.99 -- Savings: 33%

$3.50 -- Savings: 41%

$3.48 -- Savings: 42%

Bell peppers, half dozen

$2.97 (on sale)

$5.99 -- Added cost: 102%

$6.99 -- Added cost: 135%

$5.88 -- Added cost: 98%

Chicken breasts, 10 pounds


$22.29 --Savings: 25%

29.90 -- No savings

$19.70 -- Savings: 34%

Skippy creamy peanut butter, two 40-ounce jars


$7.39 --Savings: 48%

$6.99 -- Savings: 51%

$6.04 -- Savings: 58%

Claritin allergy medication, 90-count

$69.97 (with $5 coupon)

$29.99 (with $5 coupon) -- Savings: 57%

$34.49 -- Savings: 51%

$31.74 -- Savings: 55%

Lipitor, 10-mg cholesterol drug, 90-count prescription


Not available

$259.79 --Added cost: 2%

$250.72 --Savings: 2%

Charmin Ultra Soft toilet paper, 36 rolls

$31.22 (with 25-cent coupon)

$18.74 (with 25-cent coupon) -- Savings: 40%

Not available

$17.88 -- Savings: 43%

Tide liquid detergent, 170-ounce

$31.93 (with 35-cent coupon)

$20.14 (with 35-cent coupon) -- Savings: 37%

$20.99 -- Savings: 34%

$20.97 -- Savings: 34%

Secret women's deodorant, 4-pack

$20.96 (with $1 coupon)

$3.79 (with two $1 coupons) -- Savings: 81%

Not available

$6.83 -- Savings: 67%

Huggies diapers, 176-count

$71.11 (with $1.50 coupon)

$37.99 (with $1.50 coupon) -- Savings: 47%

$42.79 -- Savings: 40%

$36.43 -- Savings: 49%

Poland Spring water, 35 bottles


$4.19 --Savings: 59%

$4.99 -- Savings: 51%

Not available

Pepsi, 36 cans


$9.49 -- Savings: 37%

$9.49 -- Savings: 37%

$9.10 --Savings: 39%

Folgers coffee, 48-ounce can

$17.72 (with 50-cent coupon)

$8.49 (with 50-cent coupon) -- Savings: 52%

$8.99 -- Savings: 49%

$8.39 -- Savings: 53%

Grey Goose vodka, 1.75-liter bottle


Not available

$59.99 -- Savings: 13%

$57.82 -- Savings: 16%

Purina dog food, 50-pound bag

$31.23 (with $1.50 coupon)

$21.49 (with $1.50 coupon) -- Savings: 31%

Not available

$22.58 -- Savings: 27%

This article was reported by Kelli B. Grant for SmartMoney.


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