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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| August 8, 2019Updated February 2020
When time is short and your shopping list is long, it can be tempting to make a single stop at the warehouse club. After all, Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's stock everything from groceries and cleaning supplies to electronics and clothing – often in bulk quantities and often at discounted prices. Plus, you need to get your money's worth from the annual membership fee you're paying. Smart shopping move, right? Not necessarily.
While many warehouse club deals are, indeed, good, you might want to skip over certain items. There are three big reasons. One, buying in bulk doesn't make sense if you don't need bulk quantities or you won't use them up before they spoil or expire. Two, quality isn't always up to snuff at warehouse clubs. And three, you're missing out on the money-saving power of weekly sales and coupons – Costco and Sam's Club don't accept manufacturer coupons; BJ's does, but with restrictions.
Here's a look at 19 common items stocked by warehouse clubs that you might want to pick up somewhere else.
Warehouse clubs stock name-brand cereals, but budget-conscious shoppers know they can grab the breakfast staple for less elsewhere. Kellogg, General Mills and other cereal manufacturers regularly offer discounts and coupons that can be used at your local grocery store or big-box retailer – but not at Costco or Sam's Club – says Cindy Livesey, founder of LivingRichWithCoupons.com.
Look for these coupons in your Sunday newspaper or on the manufacturer's website or Facebook page. Also, you can stack these coupons with any sale your local retailer is promoting. "This allows you to get a better deal at the grocery store than what you'd find at a warehouse club," she adds. For example, a recent weekly sale promotion at Target featured a "two for $7" deal on select cereal brands including a 24-ounce box of Kellogg's Rice Krispies. On Kellogg's website, you can print out a coupon for $1 off on two boxes of Rice Krispies. So, you could buy two boxes at the big-box retailer (48 ounces total), plus get a dollar offer with the coupon, which drops the sale price to $6. That amounts to about 12 cents per ounce – two cents cheaper per ounce than what we saw at a warehouse club.
Don't be fooled by the discounted prices you might see on designer clothing items (think: Nicole Miller, DKNY or Calvin Klein) at Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's. "These items are not the same high-end items you can buy directly from the manufacturer or at high-end retailers," warns Kristin McGrath, an editor and shopping expert for Offers.com. The designer clothing and accessories you'll find at warehouse clubs are typically constructed using lesser-quality materials and are designed specifically for lower-tier retailers, she adds.
If you're simply on the hunt for a basic t-shirt or pair of jeans and don't care about labels, warehouse clubs will offer competitive prices, McGrath says. Just remember that you aren't getting the same pair of designer jeans that you'd find at Neiman Marcus.
Err on the side of caution when purchasing skincare products containing sunblock from a warehouse club, warns smart shopping expert Trae Bodge. That's because SPF degrades over time and Costco, Sam's Club and BJ's usually sell these types of items packaged in sets of two large containers Before buying, you should consider how often you'll use the product and if you'll be able to use it up before the expiration date.
Skincare products containing SPF have a shelf life of up to two years, if stored properly, according to Dermstore.com. However, if you're only applying a thin layer of product each time you use it, it can take longer to finish, the site notes. Unless you frequently use these types of skincare products or are sharing them with someone else (say, your spouse), you may want to steer clear of buying them in bulk, Bodge says. You're better off purchasing a regular-size version (about 6 ounces or less) from your local drugstore, where you can take advantage of weekly sales, coupons and loyalty discounts. You'll get your money's worth, since you should be able to finish it before it's time to toss it out.
Ground spices have a shelf life of two to three years for peak freshness and flavor, according to manufacturer McCormick. If you're buying standard-size spice bottles (which usually range from 0.6 ounces to 3 ounces at a traditional grocery store or big-box retailer), finishing them within that time frame is realistic. However, when you buy spices in bulk at warehouse clubs, which can range in size from 4-ounce bottles to 5-pound containers, it can take much longer – especially if it's a spice you don't use often, says smart shopping expert Bodge.
While spices don't "go bad" the same way that perishable food items do, they do lose their potency over time, she explains. So that cinnamon apple pie you make every summer that everyone looks forward to at the family reunion may not be as flavorful if the ground cinnamon in it is several years old. Unless you regularly cook with certain spices (say, curry or chili powder), Bodge recommends buying them from your local grocer in regular sizes so you don't end up wasting money or disappointing diners.
For families with young children, shopping at a warehouse club can offer huge savings. But defaulting to Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's without doing your due diligence could cost you -- and this is especially true when it comes to diapers and baby supplies.
We looked at prices for store-brand diapers (in size 3) at Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's and Target. Here's what we found: At Costco, a 198-count package Kirkland Signature Supreme diapers costs $35.99 (about 18 cents per diaper). At Sam's Club, you can get 234 Member's Mark Comfort Care diapers for $39.84 (17 cents). At BJ's, a 180-count package of Berkley Jensen Ultra Absorbent diapers totals $25.99 (14 cents). By comparison, at Target you can get a 222-count box of Up and Up diapers for $28.99 (13 cents). Based on unit price, the big-box retailer offers the better deal.
When looking for deals on other baby supplies, such as wipes and diaper ointment, consumers can score big using Amazon's Subscribe and Save program, Offers.com's McGrath says. The program allows parents to set up auto-delivery on everything from lotion to hair-care products for kids. Amazon Prime members qualify for 20% off diapers and other related products when ordering at least five items per month, she notes. "You can even skip a delivery if necessary or you need to change diaper sizes. You're not committed to the size on a giant box of diapers you purchased in bulk a month ago at a warehouse club," McGrath adds.
Shopping at a warehouse club can help you save big on a variety of kitchen staples, but there are a few you should consider buying elsewhere. This includes soda and other soft drinks. Consumers can pick up these same items at a traditional grocery store or big-box retailer at cheaper prices when shopping their weekly sale promotions, says LivingRichWithCoupons.com's Livesey.
At a Washington, D.C.-area Harris Teeter location, we spotted a buy-one-get-one-free sale on a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale (regularly $7.49 each). That amounts to 24 soda cans. At Sam's Club, a 24-pack of the same size cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale cost $7.58. That's nine cents more than Harris Teeter's BOGO deal. A weekly sale promo at a D.C.-based Lidl location included a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of Lidl's store-brand sparkling water (the packaging was very similar to La Croix's) for $2.69 each. At Costco, a 24-pack of La Croix sparkling water totaled $8.59. You could purchase two 12-packs from Lidl for $5.38. That's over $3 less than at the warehouse club. And if you favor diet sodas, remember that their shelf life is limited, so don't overbuy.
Liquid cleaning products tend to lose their efficacy over time. Huge bottles of liquid dish soap or laundry detergent may not be a smart money-saving strategy – especially if you end up having to use twice the amount of product to get the desired result with a single wash. "Unless you do a lot of laundry [or wash dishes by hand] very regularly, it is best to buy liquid detergents in smaller quantities," smart shopping expert Bodge says.
If you prefer to shop exclusively at warehouse clubs rather than making multiple trips to several stores, consider buying powder-based cleaning products instead, Bodge recommends. When stored properly in a cool and dry place, they have an unlimited shelf life.
Before stocking up at warehouse clubs on household products you only need infrequently, consider the size of your home, McGrath suggests. Buying carpet/upholstery cleaner, plumbing clog remover, air freshener and other seldom-used products, either in multi-packs or in large containers, will just take up valuable storage space underneath your kitchen or bathroom sinks, she adds. You might even forget you stored them there and end up not using them for months at a time, if at all. For everyday shoppers, big-box retailers are the better option for purchasing these types of household products in smaller quantities, McGrath advises.
We've all been there: You're rushing to print out an important document at home only to discover that your printer is out of ink. Frustrated, you make a mental note to pick up one of those bulk-size packages of printer cartridges on your next Costco run.
While warehouse clubs offer loads of deep discounts on computer accessories, you may want to skip buying bulk printer ink cartridges, says Joanie Demer, co-founder of TheKrazyCouponLady.com. That's because with some online research, you can find even cheaper deals from other retailers.
For example, we spotted a two-pack of Brother's Innobella ink cartridges (each pack contained three color ink cartridges) selling for $49.99 on Costco's website. On Amazon, a single pack of the same printer cartridges costs $19.98 (or $39.96 for two packs, so $10 cheaper than Costco.com). When purchasing ink cartridges or similar products from Amazon, be sure they're sold directly by the e-commerce giant and not by a third-party seller. This helps ensure authenticity.
If you've ever suffered from an unexpected headache only to discover that you're out of ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), stocking up on a bulk-size bottle of pills during your next warehouse club trip may seem like a smart idea. But keep in mind that unless you have a medical reason to use such products on a daily basis or have multiple people in your home using them, you might not get through that entire 750-count bottle of pills before they expire, warns consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.
Should you consider using pain meds beyond the expiration date stated on the bottle, note that they can lose potency over time. This can make them less effective per the recommended dosage. In fact, Advil recommends consumers stop using any expired bottles of their products for just that reason.
Like to keep your pantry stocked with snacks for binge-watching your favorite Netflix series? Then you may be enticed to buy that huge tub of hummus or artichoke dip at your warehouse club of choice. Yes, you get more for the money. However, will you have eaten that entire 40-ounce container of hummus by the time you're done watching the latest season of "The Mandalorian" in just two days? Let's hope not.
Unless you're buying food for a party or have a large family, you should only buy refrigerated hummus, cheese dip and salsa in smaller quantities, consumer savings expert Woroch recommends. That's because these are perishable food items that go bad after a specified amount of time once opened. For example, the packaging on Sabra brand hummus containers includes a disclaimer that states it should be consumed within seven days after opening.
On a unit-price basis, you might end up spending more at a traditional grocery store, but you're more likely to finish the smaller container. If you're dead set on scoring a deal, pay attention to weekly sale ads at places such as Trader Joe's, Target or Walmart, which regularly offer discounts on chip dips and spreads, Woroch notes.
If the Apocalypse ever happens, those six-pound cans of beans you've got stashed in your kitchen pantry may come in handy. Otherwise, you're better off buying regular-sized canned goods from your local grocery store that you'll actually finish, suggests LivingRichWithCoupons.com’s Livesey. Some grocers even offer exclusive deals on canned items at various times of the year when prices are slashed, she says. According to the Canned Food Alliance, canned goods can last up to two years after the date of purchase, so shoppers can stock up in moderation with these sales.
Livesey notes that at ShopRite grocery stores (located in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania) offer a two-week-long sale known as the "Can, Can Sale" twice a year. It includes deep discounts on canned goods and other kitchen and household items. Kroger, a national grocery chain, also hosts "Mega Event" sales that require shoppers to buy a certain amount of select items in order to get the discounted price. For example, one of their recent sales included a deal on canned organic tomato sauce, as mentioned on TheKrazyKouponLady.com. Regularly priced at $1 per can, the sale dropped the price to 50 cents each for a purchase of at least six cans.
If you're planning to stock up on chicken, beef or seafood during your next warehouse club visit only to stash it in the freezer when you get home (with no immediate plans to use it), reconsider. Unless you're prepping for a large family gathering or have a house full of kids, there's a good chance you might forget it's even there, Offers.com's McGrath suggests. And, by the time you do remember, that four-pound bag of tilapia may be covered in freezer burn and worthless.
There's nothing wrong with stocking up on meats you cook regularly – especially if you like to meal prep. However, do so in smaller quantities at your local grocer, McGrath recommends. You'll be less likely to overbuy. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for weekly sales at your favorite grocery chain or coupons in the Sunday paper. For example, at Washington, D.C.-area Harris Teeter locations, we regularly see buy-one-get-one-free deals on packages of sausages, bone-in chicken breasts, pork tenderloins and spare ribs.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be pricey – especially, if you're buying organic versions from specialty supermarkets. Warehouse clubs offer a variety of organic options, and they often cost around the same price as you would pay for smaller amounts elsewhere. For example, at Sam's Club, a 32-ounce bag of organic green beans sold for $5.48 (about 17 cents per ounce) compared to $5 for a 16-ounce bag (31 cents per ounce) at Whole Foods. Based on the unit price alone, the warehouse club may seem like the obvious better deal.
But before you plunk down your hard-earned cash on big boxes of fruits and veggies, ask yourself some questions first, says Bodge. How many people in your household will eat those items? Will they be able to finish them before the produce starts to go bad? If you answered no to the latter question, your money is better spent buying the smaller package that you'll actually finish.
Many of Costco's Kirkland Signature products have been lauded for their quality and affordability. But not all are worthwhile, says TheKrazyCouponLady.com's Demer. She specifically calls out the quality of Kirkland Signature facial tissues, which Demer claims don't last as long as other brands. "I use them up fast ... and spend more money to refill them sooner," she says.
You can find deals on better-quality facial tissue at big-box retailers compared to what you'll get with Costco's private-label version, Demer notes. For example, at Target we found three 3-packs of Puffs Plus Lotion 2-Ply Facial Tissues, which contained 372 sheets per pack (that's 1,116 sheets total), selling for $14.07. At Costco, a 12-pack of Kirkland Signature 2-Ply Facial Tissue, which contains 1,080 sheets total, cost $14.29.
Stocking up on toothpaste can be a money-smart move no matter if you're single or have a family. That's because it has a longer shelf life compared to other personal care items. Toothpastes containing fluoride can last up to two years, according to Colgate.com. If you often find yourself running out at the worst times, buying toothpaste in bulk at your favorite warehouse club may seem like a no-brainer. However, you'll want to comparison shop before throwing that five-pack into your cart the next time you're at Costco. You'll likely find better deals at your local drugstore, especially if you shop weekly sales or stack coupons, TheKrazyCouponLady.com's Demer says. Keep in mind you'll need to be flexible on the brand and can expect variations in product size versus what's available at a warehouse club.
At Costco, we spotted a five-pack of 6.4 ounce tubes of Colgate Total SF Advanced Whitening toothpaste selling for $17.49 (32 ounces total). At RiteAid, you could buy a two-pack of 6 ounce tubes of Colgate Cavity Protection toothpaste with fluoride for $3.79 (12 ounces total) with no purchase limit. Multiply that by three and you'll pay just $11.37 for six tubes (30 ounces total) at the drugstore. That's six bucks less than at Costco for practically the same amount of product.
Vitamins, herbal supplements and the like can be pricey, especially if purchased at a pharmacy or specialty store. For example, a 300-count bottle of Centrum Complete Adult Multivitamins is $25.99 (unit price: $0.08 per vitamin) at CVS. At BJ's, a two bottle package of the same vitamins (425-count) totaled $19.99 (unit price: about $0.05 per vitamin).
If you're only concerned about price, BJ's is the obvious better deal. However, there's another factor to consider before you buy, suggests smart-shopping expert Bodge. "Unless more than one family member is sharing the vitamins with you, they may expire before you finish the bottle," she says. While vitamins don't necessarily "go bad" after their expiration date, they can lose their potency, according to Healthline.com. So if you're taking a dietary supplement to manage a nutrient deficiency, taking expired pills may not be as effective.
To help ensure you get your money's worth, Bodge recommends checking the expiration date, then calculating how long it will take to finish that bulk-size bottle or two. If it's after the expiration date, you may want to buy those supplements in smaller quantities elsewhere. Doing this math helps avoid having to toss out half empty bulk-size bottles of vitamins, which amounts to money wasted.
When it comes to personal care items, it can pay to comparison shop before committing to a bulk-size package of a desired item. While warehouse clubs are known for their deep discounts, you might still score better deals on certain products at other retailers. This includes razors, which Demer says are almost always cheaper at a big-box retailer or drugstore during their weekly sales or when you use a manufacturer's coupon.
We found Demer's claim holds true. You can buy a 14-count package of Kirkland Signature Triple Blade razors, which includes one handle and 14 blades, for $22.99 at Costco. By comparison, Walmart had a rollback promotion on a six-count package of BIC Comfort 3 Hybrid Men's Disposable Razors, which included one handle and six blades for $5.68. You get more bang for your buck by purchasing three packages of name brand BIC razors (18-count total) at the big-box retailer for only $17.04. That's nearly $6 less.
If you visit Costco, Sam's Club or BJ's on a random Saturday or Sunday on an empty stomach, you'll probably walk out feeling stuffed. That's because they offer free food samples that you can enjoy as many times as you want. Members can score sample-size versions of everything from mini quiches to potstickers. While this is a tasty perk, warehouse clubs are hoping you'll like these free goodies so much that you'll impulsively toss a bulk-size package or two into your shopping cart.
But if you do, warns Offers.com's McGrath, "this becomes a much bigger investment than your average grocery store impulse purchase." Not only will you need to find space in the freezer or cupboard to store your bulk purchase, but if your family ends up not liking that 48-count box of snack bars you bought on a whim, you may never finish them by yourself, she notes.