BJ's. Costco. Sam's Club. Oh My!

Warehouse shopping clubs are great for purchasing bulk items at a discount. This used to just be food, but now you can find just about anything at a warehouse club, from fine jewelry and clothing to computer and current books at great prices. Many memberships offer other perks as well, including vision centers, discount gas stations, and more.

There are 3 main options for warehouse shopping: BJ's Wholesale Club, Costco, and Sam's Club. All three have their extra perks, but how do you know which one is best for you?

Each store carries different brands, so, for instance, if you need a certain brand of infant formula, make sure the club you choose sells it first. All three have their own brands, and each has items that have a cult following. Sam's Clubs cakes are hailed high and low for great prices and tasty frosting. Someone I know had their wedding cake made by Sam's Club. Costco has a cult following for its wide variety of organic products.

Warehouse stores are no longer just food…they offer everything from tires and toothpaste to hearing aids and legal help. Let's take a look at all 3 to find out what makes them unique.

BJ's Wholesale Club

BJ's Wholesale

Geography: East Coast, headquartered in Massachusetts. Locations include: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia

Number of Locations: 215

Membership Costs: $50-100

  • Non-members can become members within 7 days of a receipt and get the discount back
  • 100% satisfaction on membership, can be refunded at ANY time
  • 131 gas stations
  • Car rental deals
  • Home heating & propane
  • Not everything is bulk-sized, offer what they call "supermarket sized"
  • Accepts manufacturer's coupons
  • BJs Perks Mastercard available

Other benefits available include: mortgage services, travel services, photo services, tech services, check printing, great deals on tires, and party planning, among others.

The company prides itself on having "supermarket sized" items.


BJ's Wholesale Clubs are located primarily on the East Coast, with a few clubs in more Midwestern states. They are well-known for their discount gas stations for members and their deals on home heating oil and propane, something no older club offers. BJs also puts out flyers with their own coupons to add savings on top of their already low prices on everything from toothpaste to diamond necklaces. Members also love the fact that they accept manufacturer's coupons for even more savings, and they are the only club of the 3 to do so.

BJ's closed all of their pharmacies in 2007 but some locations do still have optical centers. Members say the savings on eye exams and glasses alone pays for the membership. Another bonus for BJ's? The company prides itself on having "supermarket sized" items. That is, not everything they carry is in a giant bulk package. That, coupled with the fact that BJs has the lowest-priced membership, make this warehouse club ideal for smaller families.

Verdict

BJ's is a local favorite and those who live near one tend to think it's the best of the warehouse clubs. You can find everything here from 1950s-style microwaves to refurbished Dyson vacuums. If you live near a BJs, a membership will probably pay for itself within a month or two, especially if you need an eye exam or glasses. Ideal for smaller families and those for whom pinching pennies is a must since they accept coupons on top of their own deals. Gas savings can add up quickly, too, if you're lucky enough to live near a location with a discount gas pump.

Become a BJ's Wholesale Club Member

Sam's Club

Sam's Club

Geography: Stores in most states, headquarters in Arkansas.

Number of Locations: 659

Membership Costs: $45-100

  • Part of the Wal-mart Brand
  • Sam's Club Mastercard available
  • Cash rewards with highest-level membership
  • Free generic prescriptions program at locations with pharmacies
  • Business printing
  • Optical/Hearing Aid Centers
  • Floral centers and bulk wedding flowers
  • 24/7 phone Tech Support for products purchased in-store
  • Discounts on legal services

Other benefits available include: Sam's Club Auctions, fuel centers for discounted gas, many clubs are built with sustainable features, business lending center, additional free year of warranty coverage when you purchase a protection plan on certain items

Sam's Club memberships are a DIY bride's best friend.

Sam's Club has the second-most number of locations. Because Sam's Club is part of the Walmart Brand, you'll find familiar quality and brands here. Sam's Club has a loyal following for those planning weddings and parties, and for good reasons. Their cakes are praised far and wide for being moist and flavorful with wonderful icing, and many brides order Sam's Club wedding cakes or cupcakes. Appetizers and drinks can be purchased in bulk at great prices for the reception, too, as can extra seating and decorations.

Add to that the fact that they offer bulk floral purchases at great discounts so brides can create their own bouquets and Sam's Club memberships are a DIY bride's best friend. Pharmacies and optical/hearing centers are another huge perk for Sam's Club members, and Plus-level members receive $50 off their first pair of glasses or contact lens order. Sam's Club also has a unique online site called Sam's Club Auctions, which is an eBay-of-sorts for new items that only members can use.

Verdict

If you wear glasses or contacts, opt for the Plus membership. It's twice the cost of the basic, but the extra $50 gets put right back in your pocket with $50 off their first glasses or contact lens purchase. There are lesser rewards for Savings-level members, $40 off when you purchase two pairs of glasses. If you're planning a wedding and plan to spend a lot of money at the Club, a Plus membership offers cash-back, $10 for every $500 spent. The Plus membership also affords you early shopping hours, with the store opening at 7 a.m. for Plus members. Overall, the Plus membership is the way to go when deciding which Sam's Club membership to get.

Become a Sam's Club Member

Costco

Costco

Geography: Just about every state

Number of Locations: 727


Membership Cost: $60-120

  • Optical, Pharmacy centers at many locations
  • Large selection of organic products
  • Business services (payroll, phone services, etc.)
  • Insurance services (vision, dental, life, and health)
  • Bottled water and snack delivery for businesses
  • Well-respected photo center
  • Travel services
  • Costco Visa
  • Mortgage lending options

Other benefits available include: Hosts author signings and special events, sells motorcycles and other power sports vehicles, identity theft protection, discount gas stations

Costco has the most locations of any warehouse club, making it a convenient choice for many shoppers. Costco is hailed as one-stop-shopping, and many make the majority of their purchases through the club. Costco is the only warehouse club whose branded credit card is a Visa, whereas the others are Mastercard. Most locations have pharmacies and optical centers. Additional discounts are not as prevalent as they are at, say, BJs, or even Sam's Club where rewards can stack. But Costco's motto is "Think Costco first" and it seems to work…they offer just about everything. Many locations also have discount gas pumps on-site.

Verdict

Costco has the highest basic membership cost of the three major warehouse clubs and offers few other monetary rewards or discounts. It is a favorite of many for their wide selection of goods, from stand-up paddle boards and outdoor sheds to organic produce and plenty of booze for your next party. They even sell motorcycles. The Costco photo center is well-respected and used by professionals and home photographers alike. They can transfer old home videos to DVD, too. Costco offers many services for their business center customers, such as bottled water and snack delivery, payroll services partnered with Quickbooks, and ordering by the pallet.

You might want to do a bit of math to see which, if any, Costco membership is worth it for you. Some will earn back their membership costs purchasing provisions for one party, and while the business services are certainly convenient, the cost of membership is on the higher side.

Become a Costco Member

Conclusion

When it comes to warehouse clubs, all three have their pros and cons. BJs members will miss out on discounted prescriptions. At Sam's Club, you have to pay more for the highest-level membership to get the best benefits. Costco is great if you spend a lot or own a business, but it does have the highest membership cost and doesn't have many value-added opportunities on each visit.

Our general recommendation is a Plus-level Sam's Club card if you have one of these warehouses nearby. For $100 you get access to just about all of the same services as the other clubs (excepting some of the business services Costco offers), plus most Sam's Clubs are conveniently located and the cash back feature is a nice added bonus. The savings on glasses make the upgrade worth it, and after you've had your eye exam and fill your gas tank for less, you can indulge in one of their low-cost, delicious cupcakes. Pharmacies in nearly every store are convenient and free or low-cost generic prescriptions are another way Sam's Club saves you money with every visit.