Money-Savin’ Mama: Taking on Sam’s/Costco comparison

In today’s Money-Savin’ Mama column, I compare the two warehouse giants. I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below: Costco or Sam’s and why?

It’s a question being posed by the frugal all around Fargo: Costco or Sam’s Club?

Now with two membership warehouse clubs in town to choose from, I wondered myself if it was worth making a switch.

We’ve been members of Sam’s Club for years, and admittedly haven’t always used it enough to make the membership fee pay for itself. But we have found several bulk staples that save money per item or ounce.

It took some research. Not everything in bulk is a good buy.

That said, many of my friends rave about Costco. A quick Google search reveals many Sam’s Club vs. Costco comparisons with no decisive winner. So last weekend, with the new competition’s doors swung wide open, I decided to do my own mini comparison.

I grabbed my shopping list and headed to Sam’s, picking up nine items I needed. Then I drove to Costco to compare prices. I was welcome to wander around the store without a membership card but couldn’t buy anything.

Immediately, I was struck by how similar the two stores felt. There were the familiar fancy flat-screen TVs facing me when I walked in. Towering shelves lined the outside of the store while low tables piled high with clothing filled the center. Food samples were being handed out in several aisles and near the registers, a deli counter sold pizza by the slice.

The similarities extended to the prices.

A gallon of whole milk was $3.57 and skim $3.22 at both stores. The exact same 250-count box of dryer sheets was the exact same price ($7.88) at both stores, too.

A fresh pineapple was 6 cents more at Costco ($2.73 vs. $2.79). A 48-count package of string cheese was 19 cents cheaper at Costco than Sam’s ($8.98 vs. $8.79).

The rest of my comparisons had to be done on per item or per ounce basis. I’d bought a 20-count box of Fiber One bars at Sam’s for $6.22. A 36-count box of the same bars was $11.79 at Costco. Doing the math, the fiber bars were roughly 2 cents cheaper each at Sam’s, even though they came in a smaller box.

Comparing bags of chocolate Halloween candy, I found each store sold the bags for about 17 cents per ounce, but again, I was able to get that price on a smaller bag at Sam’s.

A 50-pound bag of Tidy Cat kitty litter was $8.68 at Sam’s compared to a 40-pound bag of Fresh Step for $10.69 at Costco.

I had the hardest time comparing the salsa. To get the medium spiciness we like, I had to buy an 8 pound, 10 ounce jug at Sam’s for $8.78. At Costco, I would have bought a two-pack of 38-ounce jars of organic salsa for $7.49. While the per ounce comparison favors Sam’s (6 cents vs. nearly 10 cents), I honestly would have preferred to buy two smaller jars, and I expect organic food to be more expensive.

I realized my comparison may not have been totally fair. After all, I was starting with items I knew to be a good price at Sam’s. So on Monday, I went back to Costco with my family, to see what treasures the store may have for us.

Costco has a far greater selection of toys than Sam’s. It also carries shoes and boots, including a pair of leather knee-highs I would have loved to take home. A mineral makeup kit for only $20 also caught my eye. On Sunday, I saw packages of gift cards at Costco priced 25 to 50 percent off face value.

My husband was tempted by a pack of sirloin steaks at a good price, and also pointed out bags of oranges and apples at just over a buck a pound. I noticed pop was cheaper at Costco than Sam’s.

So am I going to switch after touring the new store twice? No. There just wasn’t enough there to woo us, especially considering Costco’s annual membership is more expensive than Sam’s Club, $55 versus $40 for individuals.

Does that mean Sam’s is the right choice for you? Absolutely not. You have to look at what products you purchase and use to figure out whether Sam’s or Costco, or buying in bulk period, is a good value. Also consider the location and convenience of each store.

Some people may be wooed by Costco’s $110 executive membership, which rewards shoppers with a 2 percent return on purchases. Realize you’d need to spend $2,750 there each year to recoup the increased membership cost.

That’s a lotta bulk.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum.

3 thoughts on “Money-Savin’ Mama: Taking on Sam’s/Costco comparison

  1. We used to live in Anchorage, AK where we had memberships at both. Yes, they are similar but we preferred Costco. The Kirkland line of products, Costco’s house brand, is very good. Also, Costco’s return policy is generous. Seems to me anything you’ve bought in the past year can be returned with receipt if the product fails (non-grocery of course). Hard to put a finger on exactly why, but we preferred Costco. In Fargo when you look at the ease of access to Costco off I-29 vs. Sam’s buried on 13th Ave, it makes for an easy choice in my opinion.

  2. After some debate, we actually switched to Costco after doing some price comparisons as well. By the time you get everything you need, it’s really a wash… some things cost more and some things cost less. One of the primarily reasons for our switch was the location is much more convenient for us. SInce my husband owns a business, we opted to go with the $110 Business Executive membership even though that was not our intention when we walked in the door (we had a business membership with Sam’s as well). With the gift cards we received just for becoming a member, it was really no cheaper to go with the standard membership. We figured we’d give it a try for a year and if doesn’t make sense next year, we will downgrade. The only downside is that Sam’s has better hours for business members, e.g., 7AM Monday – Saturday. However, since we don’t take advantage of those hours very often, we figured we could deal with it. :)

  3. Thanks, Sherri, for your “Money-savin’ Mama” article in this morning’s Forum. I always enjoy reading your pieces. But as a former member of Sam’s Club and a long time member of Costco, I hope you’ll take a closer look at both companies. Costco has a stellar reputation for how it supports its employees, both part-time and full time: benefits, profit sharing, and more that deserves attention. You might remember a Forum article not long ago about some of these things. This isn’t true of Sam’s Club. Walmart is notorious for low wages, lack of benefits, no pensions. These things really matter and ought to be highlighted when comparing the two companies. Having shopped for several years at both, Costco is head and shoulders above Sam’s in the quality of prepared foods, quality of clothing, quality of meat/poultry/fish, and on down the line. Prices seem to be pretty comparable. But on all other fronts, Costco is the company I will support. Julie Aageson

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