I belong to all three major “warehouse clubs” in the United States: Sam’s Club, BJ’s, and Costco. I hold the higher levels of membership in Sam’s Club (“Plus”) and Bj’s (“Perks Rewards”), and the standard-level membership (“Gold Star”) in Costco. This is a comparison of the three clubs based solely on my own experience and observations, and nothing more.
Before I begin, let me mention that probably 80 to 90 percent of the inventory carried by all three clubs is identical. Each club does carry a few products that the others don’t, both in-club and on their Web sites, which is one of the reasons I hold membership in all three clubs. But any of the companies carry most of what I need.
All three companies also have similar return policies, which can be summed up as most items being returnable forever — as long as you’re still a member — if you decide you’re not happy with them. There are some exceptions, such as electronic items and perishables; but most merchandise can be returned if you stop loving it, and I’ve never had any problems at any of the stores in that regard.
All three companies also provide satisfaction guarantees on their private-label products. But I’ve found the private-label products sold by all three companies to be excellent and have yet to take them up on their guarantee. I’ve always been satisfied.
I’m pretty sure that the same manufacturers make most of the products for all three companies because I’d be hard-pressed to find any differences between them. The blue jeans sold by Sam’s Club as “Members Mark” and by BJ’s as “Berkley Jensen,” for example, have the same design and stitching, including the double belt loops in the rear. They also wear like iron. They are without exception the most durable jeans I’ve ever worn.
Because all three companies sell pretty much the same products and have similar policies, the differences between them are both subtle and subjective. I’m going to discuss a few of the differences between them, in my order of company preference. I’m starting with Sam’s Club because they’re my favorite and come closest to “perfect,” in my opinion. My reviews of BJ’s and Costco will be framed in comparison to Sam’s Club.
Sam’s Club is a semi-autonomous company owned by Walmart. Most Sam’s Clubs are located next to (or at least in the same malls as) a Walmart store, often sharing the same parking lot. I assume this is for logistical reasons: Walmart owns its own fleet of trucks that deliver to both Walmart and Sam’s Club stores.
If it were an independent company, Sam’s Club would be the eighth-largest retailer in the United States. It’s also my overall favorite wholesale club, for these reasons:
- Sam’s Club and Costco have almost-identical “regular” prices, which almost always are slightly lower than BJ’s prices on the same products. Sam’s club, however, has more sales.
- Sales at Sam’s Club do not require clipping coupons. The products are simply labeled as “instant savings.”
- Sam’s Club has more locations near where I live.
- Of all the three clubs, I like Sam’s Club’s store layouts the best. I’ve found them to be the cleanest, best-lit, most open, and most shopper-friendly. I’ve been to quite a few different Sam’s Club locations in several states, and any of them were more to my liking than any of the other two companies’ locations I’ve been to.
- I find the meat at Sam’s Club to be of excellent quality, and the prices are very reasonable for the quality.
- With a “Plus” membership, shipping on almost anything purchased online from Sam’s Club is free. That can make a big difference on heavy or bulky items such as the shelving unit I ordered this morning.
- Sam’s Club’s Web site lists shows club inventory, although in an odd way. Basically, I’ve found that items that are in-stock are listed as “available for pickup as soon as tomorrow.” I suppose that can also mean that they’re expecting a shipment of those items tomorrow; but in practice, I’ve never found them to be out-of-stock today on any item listed as being available tomorrow.
- I’ve found Sam’s Club’s Web site to have slightly better variety and selection than BJ’s and Costco, at least on the items that I need.
- Sam’s club provides military and veteran membership discounts in the form of a gift card, various free items, and special coupons. The discount doesn’t automatically persist across renewals, but it will be granted at renewal time if requested.
When I have to buy routine stuff that I expect will be available in any of the three clubs, I usually head for Sam’s Club unless I happen to have a coupon for one or more of the items from BJ’s. I’d estimate that about three-quarters of the food and household items I buy come from Sam’s Club. I also order quite a bit of stuff from their Web site.
BJ’s runs second to Sam’s Club in my order of preference, but I still like them well-enough to have purchased their higher-level “Perks Rewards” membership, which earns cash back and allows me earlier entrance into the stores. I buy enough stuff from BJ’s that I earn back more than the cost of the membership upgrade. They also carry some items that neither of the other two companies do.
Prices at BJ’s are almost always slightly higher than prices for the same items at Sam’s Club or Costco, but BJ’s does send monthly coupon books to members. The discounts available using these coupons are considerable, sometimes higher than 30 percent. There also are coupon books that are distributed in-club only and which contain additional savings. But you still have to clip the coupons if you want the discounts, which I consider to be kind of a drag.
In terms of BJ’s stores’ overall organization and layouts, I’ve found them to be almost as pleasant as Sam’s Club. The Sam’s Club stores I’ve been in have a slight edge in terms of lighting and cleanliness, but not very much. The BJ’s clubs, I’ve been in have been pleasant enough places to shop.
BJ’s Web site does provide in-store inventory information, and I’ve found it to be generally reliable. They also allow online ordering for in-store pickup, which is handy on items that you know you want to buy and are afraid will sell out.
Another nice thing about BJ’s is that they discount memberships for active-duty military or veterans by $15.00, and the discount persists across renewals. So my $100.00 Perks Rewards membership renews at $85.00 automatically.
My only real gripes about BJ’s are that the “regular” prices are slightly higher than those of Sam’s Club or Costco, and that I have to clip coupons if I want to get sale prices. Other than that, I like them well enough that I routinely renew my membership.
My relationship with Costco has been an on-again / off-again one for years. I actually canceled my membership once and have sometimes chosen not to renew it until they had a sale on some particular product I wanted. At present, I have their standard-level “Gold Star” membership.
The reasons for my lukewarm opinion of Costco is that although their prices and inventory are almost identical to those of Sam’s Club, their memberships are more expensive, they have fewer locations outside of major urban areas, and most of the Costco warehouses I’ve been in have been poorly-organized and not especially shopper-friendly. The first word that comes to mind when I walk into a Costco warehouse is usually “zoo.”
In addition, unlike Sam’s Club, Costco doesn’t provide free shipping to members holding its higher-level membership (called “Executive”). If they did, I might upgrade, because almost all my purchases from Costco are through their Web site. (Their nearest club is about two hours away from me.)
Another mildly annoying thing about Costco is their credit card policies. In-warehouse, they accept Visa and only Visa. Online, they accept Visa, MasterCard, and Discover. They also claim to accept most PIN-based ATM and debit cards. I’ve found that to be a hit-or-miss proposition for all except Visa-branded debit cards.
The problem for me is that when I make business purchases, I prefer to use American Express. It’s the only business credit card I have, and using it for all business purchases makes bookkeeping easier. But Costco doesn’t accept AmEx, either in-person or online. It’s pretty annoying — especially considering that not long ago, American Express was the only card Costco accepted.
Finally, Costco’s Web site does not provide warehouse inventory information. With the nearest warehouse being two hours away, I’d like to know that they have the item in stock before making the trip. I can’t think of any other major retailer whose Web site doesn’t even try to keep track of inventory in individual stores. I consider it a major deficiency.
Calling ahead to ask whether an item is in stock has not been very successful, especially on items that they sell more than one version of. Even when given a SKU number, whether you get a correct answer when you call and ask about availability is very much hit-or-miss. A wasted two-hour drive after one such “miss” was the reason I canceled my membership and got a refund some years back.
Costco does provide a military and veterans discount that appears to be in the form of merchandise and coupons. But getting the discount is a rather cumbersome process that begins online and must be completed at a warehouse. I didn’t bother. But for the sake of accuracy, a military and veterans discount is available for those who qualify. It’s just cumbersome to redeem.
All that being said, Costco does tend to have one or two incredibly good deals every year on something that I really want, with discounts significant enough to justify the cost of the membership on those purchases alone. Hence my on-again / off-again relationship: When my membership expires, I tend to put off renewing until that next incredibly-good deal rolls around.Maybe if there nearest warehouse weren’t two hours away, I’d feel differently.
In summary, if I could only have one membership, it would be in Sam’s Club. That’s where I shop most often and where I save the most money. But I do spend enough at BJ’s to justify that membership, as well. With Costco, I usually spend enough in a year to justify the basic membership, but the savings usually come from one or two high-ticket purchases. Take those away, and the membership wouldn’t be worth it.