Patti Barrington was on the forefront of wholesale-warehouse shopping.
In the 1980s, she qualified to shop at FedMart, a predecessor to today’s Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s that was only open to government employees. “It really had great prices on everything we needed,” Barrington says. She was hooked on the concept. So when it went out of business in 1983, she had to find a replacement. Today, at 53 and living with her elderly mother in Riverside, California, she’s a membership club devotee.
“They have great prices on staples like milk, butter and fruit,” she says. If one membership club doesn’t have what Barrington wants, she goes to the second, making trips about once a month and supplementing those with visits to the traditional grocery store for a few items not found at a club.
“My favorite thing to buy at wholesale stores is toilet paper,” Barrington says. “Most grocery stores—and even Walmart and Kmart—have high prices for a four-pack. Buying 44-roll packages is our biggest savings of all.” She saves about $300 annually with this tactic alone.
Realizing the value of shopping wholesale
Barrington is a longtime wholesale advocate, but I am a recent convert. I used to scoff at wholesale stores, convinced that my mode of shopping locally and buying small quantities was superior to bulk purchases because it allowed me to support local merchants and find higher-quality products. But life changed, and I signed up at my local Costco, eager for the good prices and ease of shopping. And my life is better for it.
I do a big grocery shop once every three or four weeks (opposed to weekly) and supplement my fresh produce supply with short jaunts to my local markets. I have been thrilled by the high-quality offerings and abundance of organic options. Plus, I estimate my food bill has been cut by about 40%. No kidding.
But like any life skill, wholesale shopping takes strategy, especially because these clubs are growing in numbers, and you likely have more than one in your area to choose from.
A breakdown of each club
Costco: 450 stores in 40 states
Membership fee: $55 a year for both the Gold Star and Business memberships or $110 for the Executive membership. I opted for the higher level because it comes with a 2% cash-back program, which, for a family of three (my kids are 4 and 6), has made up the difference between the two programs in the past eight months.
Hours: Most open at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. (late, by my estimate) and close by 8:30 p.m. on weeknights and 6 p.m. weekends (early).
Coupon policy: Costco doesn’t accept outside coupons but offers in-store rebates and delivers in-store coupon books to your home.
Special perks: The store has extensive programs for new car purchases and travel packages.
Sam’s Club: More than 600 stores in 47 states
Membership fee: $45 a year for the Sam’s Savings and Sam’s Business memberships or $100 for the Sam’s Plus rewards program, which gives members $10 back for every $500 spent (again, about 2%).
Hours: Business and Plus members can shop extended hours (7 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Friday; and 7 a.m.–9 p.m. on Saturday). Everyone else is restricted to shorter hours (10 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Monday–Friday; 9 a.m.–8:30 p.m. on Saturday). But on Sunday, all members get the same shopping hours (10 a.m.–6 p.m.).
Coupon policy: Sam’s offers coupons in Sunday newspaper inserts and on the RetailMeNot Sam’s Club page.
Special perks: Sam’s has a unique auction page, where all bidding starts at $1, and returns are guaranteed for 30 days. The club also has a Click ’n’ Pull program that allows you to shop online for regular grocery and consumer items by 5 p.m., and then pick up and pay for your purchases the next day.
BJ’s: More than 200 locations in 15 states
Membership fee: $50 a year for a Personal Membership or $100 a year for the BJ’s Rewards Membership, which shares a similar 2% cash-back program with Costco.
Hours: Most open at 9 a.m. and close at 10 p.m., except on Sundays, when closing time is 8 p.m.
Coupon policy: This is the only club that accepts manufacturer’s coupons. Get BJ’s coupons here.
Special perks: BJ’s offers travel deals as well as a program to cash in on your unused gold. Also, it’s the only of the three to officially offer a free 60-day trial.
Tips for getting the most out of your in-bulk shopping
As with any shopping, wholesale spending requires strategy and know-how. For advice, I turned to David Bakke, a personal finance expert with Money Crashers.
- Do not experiment. Remember: This stuff is bulk. If your family has never tried seaweed snacks, do not be tempted to buy a flat of 12-packs.
- Not everything in bulk is a good deal. “There are a few categories that are generally cheaper at a wholesale club (when compared with a traditional grocery store), and some that tend to be more expensive,” Bakke says. Membership clubs typically save shoppers 10% to 15% on tires, dairy, eggs, beer and wine, Bakke says. They also are about 10% to 15% pricier for books, DVDs, diapers and soda, he adds.
- Sometimes coupons and weekly deals at your local grocery store are better prices than the standard rates at wholesale clubs. Remember to comparison shop by unit (ounces or sheets of paper towels, for example)—not on the ticket price alone.
- Look for store brands. Like most chain stores, wholesale clubs carry store brands: Kirkland Signature at Costco, Berkley & Jensen at BJ’s and Member’s Mark at Sam’s Club. I have found some amazing-quality Kirkland products. For example, I bought a 16-ounce bottle of Kirkland pure vanilla abstract for $9, compared with $5 at my local grocery store for 2 ounces. Score!
- The pharmacy, by federal law, is open to the public—members or not.
Costco: Sign up for an Executive membership and get a $20 Costco Cash Card.
Sam’s Club: Military members who join or renew their memberships get a $15 gift card.
BJ’s: Check for sales and discounts on the BJ’s coupon page.