Warehouse stores are a bit of a mystery to the uninitiated. For one thing, you have to be a member to shop there, or they might not even let you in the door. Sure, you’re always hearing about how cheap it is to buy a case of toilet paper at a time, but is it really true? And exactly how big is a jumbo jug of mayonnaise, anyway?
The big three warehouse options are BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s Club, but you may also have a local choice in your area. Warehouse stores are all about buying in bulk at rock-bottom prices, but you also have to pay a membership fee. These stores make their money off of the fee rather than the markup, so it’s important to make sure you’ll shop there enough to earn back your membership fee in savings. If you live near the store, have a big family or have plenty of room to store dry goods that don’t go bad, it could be a great choice for you.
Once you get inside the club, not everything is a great deal. Your mileage will vary depending on your current shopping habits and what kind of things you like to eat. Lots of warehouse stores focus on offering name brands at a discount, so you may not be as impressed by the savings if you’re used to buying generic items at the grocery store.
So how can you make that buying club membership worthwhile? Focus on the items that are practically guaranteed to be great deals, and skip the imposters. Here’s what to focus on at a warehouse store.
Buy Prescription Drugs, Not OTCs
File under “holy crap”: Prescription drugs at CVS are nearly 450 percent more expensive than at Costco if you have to pay out of pocket. Chain pharmacies — including those at big box stores like Target — all charge much more for prescriptions than they do at Costco. If you have to pay out of pocket for a drug you need — whether it’s because you haven’t met your deductible yet or you’re un- or under-insured — making a trip to the warehouse is definitely worth it. Best of all, warehouse pharmacies are legally required to open their doors to the general public, so you don’t have to be a member to get the deals.
On the other hand, over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or vitamins might not be a great deal. The price per pill of the jumbo bottle might indeed be lower, but you need to decide if you can actually work your way through all that medication before the expiration date. If you end up having to toss half the bottle in a year, you’ll just be throwing your money away. Use a coupon or go generic on a regular bottle at your local pharmacy instead.
Buy Gift Cards, Not Gadgets
Warehouse clubs like Costco often sell a wide range of gift cards for all kinds of national chain restaurants and retail stores. “So what?” you might be thinking, “I can get them anywhere.” Sure, but you can get them for less than face value at the warehouse store, which makes them a great deal to give as gifts or to invest in for your own needs, since buying them for cheap is like having a built-in coupon for your favorite shops.
Warehouse stores may be great for gift cards for the world’s easiest present, but they don’t always offer the best possible deals on electronics and other unusual gadgets or appliances. Laptops, TVs and other electronics with similar features can often be found for less online — especially is you shop for them at the right time of year, when retailers are looking to get rid of old models.
Buy Paper Products, Not Perishables
The classic savings example at warehouse stores? Paper towels and toilet paper. That’s because these goods can’t go bad, so you can buy in bulk without any worries — as long as you have a place to store 10 boxes of tissues at a time. People who will notice the biggest discounts when buying these items in bulk are those who have a favorite name brand they love.
Conversely, purchasing perishables in bulk is a riskier proposition. Do you have space in your fridge for a giant jug of ranch dressing? Will you ever be able to finish it before it goes bad? These are the burning questions you’ll need to answer for yourself before you invest in restaurant-worthy quantities of anything that can grow mold.
Buy Wine, Not Windex
Believe it or not, warehouse stores offer big discounts on alcohol, particularly on wine. Shopping clubs and warehouses often broker deals with wineries to carry their products at a discount, but lately they’re also going straight to the source: Both Costco and Sam’s Club have sourced grapes and winemaker expertise to create their own private label wines. That means you can get a pretty good bottle for under ten bucks.
Did you know that cleaning products lose effectiveness over time? Multi-surface cleaners like Windex and 409 last for about two years before they begin to lose their power; laundry detergent can poop out in just six months. The lesson? Make sure you only buy what you can use in that time period so you don’t end up paying for a product that’s not actually going to get things clean a year from now.
The Bottom Line
To make a warehouse membership work for you, you’ll need to calculate how much of a given item you’ll use each week or month to make sure you aren’t saddled with bulk that you can’t eat your way through. It’s still always a good idea to check unit prices and compare to your regular grocery store on the regular as well. If your local grocer is running a sale, you may get a good deal there — especially if you’re able to add good old-fashioned coupons into the mix. Stay vigilant, and you can shop smart when it comes to places like Costco and Sam’s Club.