Maximize Your Membership: 16 Tips to Shopping Warehouse Stores

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More than one-third of 1,900 consumers recently surveyed by The Frugal Shopper said their "favorite way to save money" was to shop warehouse clubs. Clearly, the recession has given these super-super-super-sized stores a boost. More than 75 million cardholders shop the 500-plus warehouse stores spread across the country.

Some find the price savings invaluable to reign-in tight budgets. Others are simply confused by these stores that average more than 100,000 square feet and offer everything from creamed soup to caskets.

Warehouse stores are no-frills and no-service discount stores, usually located in low-rent areas. Many grocery chains now have their own warehouse stores, which allow them to attract low-income, value-conscious buyers while maximizing their buying power. Major warehouse stores include Sam's Club, Costco, BJ's Wholesale Clubs, and Kroger's Food4Less. Some clubs focus on a single type of merchandise, such as clothing, children's products or pet supplies.

Coupon Sherpa compiled 16 guidelines to help you make the most of your warehouse club membership.

1. Membership Fees

Paying for the privilege to shop seems like an oxymoron. Shouldn't THEY be paying us to shop their stores? Do the math, however, and you may find the $30 to $50 annual fee is well worth 365 days of savings. As a rule of thumb, you'll need to spend at least $250 annually to justify the fee. Keep in mind the value of a membership also greatly depends on the location of the store, as well as your family's size, shopping and cooking habits and available storage space.

2. Split a Membership

Split the cost of membership dues with another family or friend and you'll only need to spend about $125 per year to cover the cost of the card. Check with each store to make sure they allow membership splitting, however.

3. Shop for Prescription Drugs

Federal law stipulates warehouse stores may not require club membership to use the pharmacy, meaning you don't need to recoup a membership fee to save money on prescriptions. Many prescriptions are substantially cheaper through warehouses, so this can be a real boon to your budget. For example, 100 pills that cost $40 at WalMart may run just $10 to $12 a Sam's Club. Surveys indicate you can save anywhere from 25-percent to 77-percent on many prescriptions at a warehouse.

4. Payment Methods

Many clubs don't accept credit cards, preferring you pay using cash, checks, or debit cards. If this is going to be a problem each time you shop, it may not be worth your while.

5. Make a List

Warehouse stores depend on impulse shoppers for hefty profits. How many shoppers pop in for a gallon of milk and come out with two full shopping carts. Buying in bulk fills those carts fast, so make a list and stick to it.

6. Pull Back on the Perishables

The prices on bananas or artichokes may be mighty tempting, but perishable items as produce, breads, and dairy products may go bad long before you can use them. Check expiration dates — even on batteries — to make sure you'll use up the product before it expires.

7. Not Everything is Cheaper

You'll want to shop elsewhere for paper products, cereals, pet food, can goods, and snacks as warehouse prices on these items rarely prove to be a good deal.

8. Comparison Shop

Don't assume the warehouse price is the lowest price available. It helps to have a rough idea of supermarket versus club per-unit prices for commonly purchased items. Unit prices are usually listed as "cost per pound," "cost per tissues," etc. and are listed at the bottom of price tabs on store shelves. In some cases, you can comparison shop on the Web before heading out to the warehouse.

9. Consider Gas Prices

Gas is generally 5 to 10 cents per gallon cheaper than local stations. If you do a lot of driving, it'll take no time to recoup your membership fee. A Costco membership also entitles you to a free tire check and refill.

10. Wine, Beer, and Liquor

Most clubs sell alcohol at an amazing discount. For example, a 30-pack of 12-ounce Coors cans averages $17.50 at Sam's Club, nearly $4 less than at your local Stop & Shop.

11. Shop the Periphery

The middle aisles are filled with discretionary-spending items (aka non-necessities), while row ends push sale items that aren't always that good a price.

12. You Snooze, You Lose

Inventory turns over rapidly and may be replaced by an entirely different brand the next time you shop. If you spot something you frequently use in the brand you prefer, grab it.

13. High-ticket Items

Electronics, furnishings, and appliances are often sold at deep discounts, as compared to major-chain stores. Don't compromise, however, on brand, style, or quality just to save money. You may end up with a product that doesn't suit your needs and will disintegrate before your eyes. When comparing high-ticket prices, however, keep in mind that most membership stores don't charge a restocking fee, as opposed to big electronic stores that may charge up to 15 percent on returns.

14. Shop for the Office

Some Clubs offer executive memberships to small-business owners that include a two-percent annual return on expenditures. It's a great way to stock up on frequently used items, like paper and pens, and such major purchases as office furniture, computer peripherals, etc. Again, research quality before you buy.

15. Know the Benefits

Read the brochure so you'll know all the benefits included in your membership, such as discounts on carpet cleaning, automotive services and more.

16. Break It Down

After unpacking your bags and boxes at home, separate large combo-packs into smaller packages for easier storage. For example, divide packets of multiple-chicken breasts into freezer bags containing one or two breasts so you need only defrost as many breasts as you need for a meal.

This is a guest post by the Coupon Sherpa, a source of reliable online, printable and grocery coupons. You can download the free Coupon Sherpa iPhone app with in-store mobile coupons, or check out more great tips from the Ask Coupon Sherpa blog:

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Guest's picture

We are Costco members primarily for contact lenses, gas and paper products. But many other items are not that great of a deal, especially if theres any doubt you will use it before it goes bad. Also a very bad store for impulse buyers and very time consuming with the lines. I have a hard time waiting 15 minutes to save $1 on gas.

Guest's picture

This only works if you have storage space, but I only get a Costco Membership every other year. At the end of the membership I stock up on the stuff that I use regularly (having extra shelving in my garage and a chest freezer helps with this) and then I go membership-free for a year. Then 12 months later I pay the fee again, use the membership for a year, and then at the end stock up all over again.

Guest's picture

I'm single and live alone, so the only reason I can justify having a Sams Club membership is because I can share it with my sister. They have absolutely no problem with us having different addresses (different states even) and different last names. We were together when we signed up, so that might be a requirement. And having to sort out who owes who when it comes renewal time takes a bit of doing, but we make it work.

I buy gas there regularly. It's about $0.05 cheaper than the next cheapest stations. And it's super convenient, which is a nice bonus.
Some things that I find good deals on and buy regularly:
- Baking supplies - especially chocolate chips (I use a lot of chocolate chips), brown sugar and powdered sugar. White sugar and flour I generally find better grocery store prices when I can combine deals and coupons.
- Cheese - I like the individually packaged string cheese sticks for my lunch. Sometimes I find a better deal at the grocery stores, but it's rare.
- Bread - There's a brand that I really like, almost never has coupons and is slightly cheaper at Sams. If I'm tight on the grocery budget or find a GREAT deal on other acceptable bread for sandwiches, I'll buy it at the grocery store.
- Lunch meat - If I can't catch a BOGOF sale at the grocery store, I buy it at Sams. This one is usually about 50/50.
- Dried fruit - I get this mostly for trips. If you can handle eating pounds of the stuff, Sams prices are the best.

I also sometimes buy ziploc bags, kleenex, fresh fruit, milk and specialty cheeses. But these are less often because I usually get better prices at the grocery store or can't use it all before it goes bad.

DVDs and books are often cheaper at Sams, if you're stuck buying from a brickandmortar store. Amazon is sometimes better, but you have to wait for it. Sams doesn't have the best selection though. Their music used to be cheaper than other places, but now I buy most of my music through iTunes or used CDs.

For me, I also benefit having a Sams membership because I can pick up things in bulk for church activities. If I know there's something coming up and I'm going to Sams anyway, I try to call who ever is in charge and volunteer to pick up what's needed. I've also been called upon for emergency cake pickup and I'm happy to be able to serve in this way.

Guest's picture

There is no doubt my Costco membership saves me money.

We have a few staple things we get there like salmon, almond butter, san marzano region tomatoes (worth the price of membership), olives, capers, almonds and select toiletries.

The hardest part is avoiding the impulse buys. They have quite a few. (:

Guest's picture

I actually usually enjoy an impulse purchase or two, though I generally budget this into the cost of my trip. We also are farmers, and can buy supplies like batteries and oil for our implements, and break room supplies (coffee, cocoa, creamer, sodas) during harvest. Tractors are hard on batteries, so Costco's return system (prorated for the age of the battery) is great, since the giant batteries we need are frequently toast long before their warranties have expired.

We split the membership with my parents, so Mom and I just divide perishables, which works great. Since we have to go to the next town over, we go maybe every 4-6 weeks to stock up, stopping first to divide up what we need to. My husband thinks it's a bummer that he doesn't have a card, but it's hard to justify paying for a second membership for the 6 or 7 times he wants to go in by himself.

We've got a business membership, which pays cash back on a percentage basis of amount spent (can't remember exactly how much), and we usually recoup our membership plus some every year.

Guest's picture

If you live in California it is a state law that warehouse stores can't require membership when it comes to buying liquor. I don't know if any other states have a similar law, but it would be worth investigating.

Guest's picture

I find our local bump and dent store undercuts most places, even warehouse stores. The only way to know for sure is by keeping a price book. Many times the two local groceries carry loss leaders on produce and fresh meats, pricing under the bump and dent place, so a Sam's Club card doesn't make sense for the way we shop.

Guest's picture

We used to have a Sams membership but began having major issues with their quality and discontinued it. When we moved, there was a CostCo nearby and I'd heard good things about them. We waited until we needed new tires for our car before getting the membership. The money we saved on that one large purchase paid for about three years of membership fees. In the meantime, our rules for shopping are that we only buy things that a) won't go bad before we can use them and b) are exactly the items we would already use. Luckily our CostCo has tons of organic items at great prices.

Guest's picture

Good tips. If you are fan of Costco, I have some recommendation of my own on what to buy or avoid in Costco at

Guest's picture

My husband and I just quit our Costco membership (with one last giant shopping hurrah for paper products and toiletries) because we can't keep away from the impulse items! I keep careful track of our grocery budget, and we definitely spent way more this past year than in the year prior. We generally really like the quality of their food, but financially just doesn't make sense for the 2 of us.