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Way back in the days before I started this blog and learned all the secrets of cutting my grocery bill in half, I regularly shopped at warehouse club stores such as Sam’s Club, BJ’s, and Costco. I always thought I was saving money. Oh sure, there were occasionally a few impulse buys (those samples are so yummy) but I was buying in bulk. Wasn’t that a better bargain than just walking into a grocery store and purchasing items at the shelf price?
Not necessarily, as it turns out.
Once I began to do the math, I started to realize that warehouse stores aren’t always what they are cracked up to be, and on many items, the prices really aren’t that good, especially when compared to sale prices at the regular grocery store.
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That said, warehouse stores do serve a purpose, and my husband and I still maintain a Sam’s Club membership for this reason. While not everything is a bargain, certain items are simply a better deal.
Of course there are a couple strategies that will save you before you even walk in the door. The first thing to know is: you don’t have to be a member to shop at the warehouse store! Warehouse stores will offer a one-day membership for an additional 5-10% (which is still saving a bundle if you’re buying a big ticket item and if you really stick to your plan).
Another strategy is to use gift cards. Costco will allow you to use a gift card in lieu of a membership and you can walk right in the door and use the card towards your purchase! The next time a membership-holding friend goes to the store, ask her to pick you up a few $10 gift cards and use one each time you go. Easy! Check with your child’s school as well. Some schools offer gift card Scrip programs with cards to Sam’s and Costco.
The best days to warehouse shop are usually Tuesday and Wednesday or anytime during the morning or mid-afternoon on weekdays. You’ll avoid the crowds, the lines, and yes, the free samples—plus, you’ll save time!
There are a few items that warehouse stores are great for. Purchase these items at warehouse stores—these deals will likely beat even coupon prices:
Big Ticket Seasonal Items
Warehouse stores typically stock one or two top-selling items. This isn’t the place you’ll find every type of tent or every grill option. Instead, you’ll find one or two vetted options—the best options. Seasonal items such as sporting goods, camping equipment, Christmas trees and yard tools are often priced to move and to get customers in the door.
Some Electronic Items
Televisions, computers and tablets are often offered at great prices at warehouses. No, you won’t find the selection or expertise that you’d find at a specialty store like The Apple Store or Best Buy, but if you know what you want and you’re looking for a good deal you can take home right away, warehouse stores are competitive. Often they pair with a few manufacturers to offer rebates and other bonuses.
Sam’s Club, BJ’s and Costco might not the place to find the unique and beautiful setting for your dream engagement ring, but watches, tennis bracelets and classic pieces such as diamond pendants and earrings are offered at better deals than you would ever find at a jeweler. These items still have an IGI appraisal and rating and are also insurable.
While the customized bouquets and delivery options won’t be what a florist would offer, you can get great, beautiful seasonal flowers at a warehouse store. Most bouquets are generous and they last a very long time. Typically they’re priced between $10-$20.
Beer, Wine and Liquor
If you need to stock up on a single spirit for say, a signature drink at your next party, consider purchasing the store brand. Unlike generic spirits and beers at the grocery store, warehouse brands are often highly rated and on par with others (especially for party drinks).
The wine selection at Costco is pretty renowned. They offer many basic table and popular wines at unbeatable prices. If there’s a wine you like to have on hand, consider stocking up on your next trip.
Trays of party foods are always a bit of a splurge, compared to DIYing it. However, if you need to stock up on items for your next get together, you can save on pizzas, pre-roasted chickens, deli trays and bakery items, especially compared to a caterer or even a grocery store deli.
Kids Coats, Snow Gear and Seasonal Clothing
Gymboree it is not, but warehouse stores have basic coats, snow pants, and other gear (as well as swimsuits and Halloween costumes) that will outfit a quickly growing youngster for a season. Kids outgrow items so fast, and younger children don’t care about the brand or design. For functional, decent quality clothing basics, warehouse shopping can offer some real steals.
I’ve found that flour and vanilla are two items that are amazing deals at warehouse stores. Even with coupons, you just can’t beat the prices. $6.00 for a very large bottle of vanilla and $6.00 for a 50-POUND BAG of flour! If you go through a lot of baking staples, sugars, olive oil, or a particular spice, check the warehouse store price against your Rock Bottom Price List. You may find that a bulk purchase will save you money ounce for ounce.
While soft cheese (like brie or mozzarella) can be hard to use up before it goes bad, crumbled cheese like feta, blue cheese (my favorite) and parmesan are a great deal at warehouse stores. Typically they come in a large container. A handful on salad, pizza, soups and other dishes, just adds that flavor boost and fancy finishing touch.
Pet Food, Litter and Supplies
Warehouse stores offer flea and tick preventatives at a discounted price, as well as doggie clean-up bags, dog food and kitty litter. If your pet is not on a specialty diet, a 50-pound bag of food for $16 cannot be beat. Pet items can be very pricey, but comparing prices at a warehouse can beat many specialty pet stores, and even prices at Walmart, Target and the grocery store.
Shrimp, Fish & Other Shellfish
While these items do go on sale, the fish selection at warehouse stores is often quite good and high quality. A large salmon filet for under $20 can be portioned out into several meals and frozen. I find the quality beats the pre-frozen portions that are found on sale at the grocery store.
A word on produce—there are deals to be found here. Avocados, for example, can often be found at 6 for $3. Lemons, pineapple and other fruits can also be a great deal. Keep in mind that not all of the produce is cheaper—and it can be a really bad idea to purchase highly perishable fruits and veggies (berries, spinach, lettuce) in such large quantities. I don’t make a special trip for produce, but I always check the prices to see if there’s a great deal on something while I’m there.
Dairy Milk, Almond Milk, Cream and Butter
Heavy cream is hard to find on sale, so if I have a big baking project coming up, I stock up. Butter is also available a good price and can be frozen, if needed. Almond milk and soy milk can be found in quantities of two or three, but if your family goes through a lot of non-dairy milk, they’re much cheaper at warehouse stores. Regular milk is usually a dollar cheaper and if I’m already going to the warehouse store, I pick some up!
What You Probably Won’t Save On:
There are some items that just aren’t such a “deal” especially if you’re a coupon shopper. There are, of course, exceptions, but as a rule of thumb, never buy anything larger than your family can use before the expiration date.
You probably won’t save on these products, especially if you have a coupon or shop sales elsewhere:
- Soda, juice and sports drinks
- Bathroom sundries like razors, toothpaste, shampoo
- Canned goods
- Cereal bars
- Ready-to-bake items (like Pillsbury)
- Cleaning supplies like dishwasher detergent, laundry soap, dish soap
- Cereal bars, granola bars and pre-portioned snacks
- “Junk food” chips, cookies, crackers
With a few smart strategies, warehouse shopping can be great deal, so long as you know up front which items you’ll save on and what to skip. To determine whether a membership is right for your family, assess whether the items listed are ones you buy frequently. Depending on your needs, you may find that it is well worth the cost, or not so much. (Check Groupon for discounted membership deals!) One great alternative to check out is saving on household goods through Amazon Subscribe and Save. Check out this detailed post for more info and a price comparison!