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Do warehouse membership clubs really save you money?

Researchers say they do, as long as you can afford to buy in bulk

Photo (c) Virojt Changyencham - Getty Images
Warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s Wholesale Club encourage buying in large quantities at what seem like discount prices. But all three charge annual membership fees to shop.

Do you really save money this way? A recent report aired by the public radio program "Marketplace" suggests that consumers do save money by shopping at these clubs — overall, savings are well above the annual fee. 

In fact, "Marketplace" found that more affluent consumers shop at these warehouses because they can afford to buy in bulk while lower-income consumers end up paying more for smaller quantities at other retailers.

The report cited a study that showed low-income households pay 5.5% more per roll of toilet paper than if they had purchased in bulk at a warehouse store. The study found that not only do low-income households lack the money for an annual fee, but they generally don’t have the extra cash to buy in bulk, even though they would save money in the long run if they did.

What ConsumerAffairs reviewers say

An analysis of ConsumerAffairs reviews of the three major warehouse retailers shows all three are fairly popular. Costco and Sam’s Club have 4-star ratings overall from ConsumerAffairs reviewers. BJ’s Wholesale Club is rated 3.9 out of 5 stars.

Negative comments about all three generally pertain to customer service or a bad experience at a particular store. Most state that they're members because it saves them money.

“It’s clean, has products with warranty, low prices, cash back, really good quality,” Oran of Great Falls, Virginia, posted in a review of Costco. “The Costco store also has gasoline with the lowest prices for gasoline and products.”

Greg of Daytona Beach, Florida, told us he goes shopping at Sam’s Club about three days a week and that he’s noticed the savings.

“Ever since I've been introduced to Sam's my food costs have gone down so much in meat, chicken, laundry detergent, fruit, and produce,” Greg wrote in a review. 

Then there's Melissa of Greenfield, Massachusetts, who calls BJ’s one of her “absolute go-to stores” and likes the fact that she can stock up there.

“They sell almost everything in bulk and yes you need to be a member,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “However, they often have trial memberships that you can try out for 30-90 days or you are able to have one authorized user on your account. I find their prices very reasonable and the membership pays for itself in my opinion.”

Costco’s basic membership fee is $60 for 12 months. A Sam’s Club annual membership starts at $45, and BJ’s annual membership starts at $55.

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