Updated on 12.14.06

Comparing Warehouse Shopping Chains… And How You Can Get In For Free!

Trent Hamm

As a regular patron of Sam’s Club (mostly due to proximity), I can emphatically say that I’m a fan of warehouse club stores. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit the other two major warehouse shopping chains in the United States, CostCo and BJ’s.

For those uninitiated, Wikipedia describes a warehouse club:

A warehouse club is a retail store, usually selling a limited variety of merchandise, in which customers pay annual membership fees in order to shop. The clubs are able to keep prices low due to the no-frills format of the stores.

In other words, a warehouse club is like a department store with limited selection but great prices. In general, my experience has shown that these stores feel cavernous and offer spectacular prices on bulk items and solid prices on everything else.

The biggest drawback of a warehouse club is that it’s a club, meaning you have to pay a membership fee to shop there regularly. Fortunately, each of the major chains makes it possible to at least peruse their offerings for free. How? Keep reading to find out.

Sam’s Club is a warehouse club affiliated with the Wal-Mart chain. In general, Sam’s Club seems to offer consistently strong prices on frozen foods and bulk toiletries. Their stores are clean, but feel very open, cavernous, and bare-bones. Like most other warehouse clubs, most of the goods at Sam’s Club are sold directly off of pallets, as items are often moved straight from the shipping truck onto the floor with minimal preparation. Annual membership at Sam’s Club is $40.

For a free day pass at Sam’s Club, go to the customer service desk and ask for one. They will give a single day pass to potential members, but they will record informtion about you so that you can’t get a second free pass. Sam’s also offers occasional day passes in newspapers, so keep an eye open for those, too.

CostCo is a warehouse club often found in more affluent shopping areas. They have the best selection of fresh produce among warehouse clubs and their higher-end items are generally of higher quality. If you prefer to pay a little more for higher quality items, CostCo is almost assuredly the warehouse club for you. Annual membership at CostCo is $50.

For a free day pass at CostCo, you should call your local store. Generally, CostCo doesn’t offer full privilege day passes; their passes just allow you to browse and look at the items and prices. However, you can occasionally catch promotions and membership drives by calling your local store, which includes a free short-term pass.

BJ’s is another warehouse club chain that focuses primarily on convenience for the customer. Unlike the other clubs, BJ’s accepts every major credit card and they also accept manufacturer’s coupons, which the others do not. Best of all, if you bring in multiple copies of a coupon and buy a multi-pack of an item, you can use as many coupons as are in the multi-pack. BJ’s tends to reward the coupon clipping people. Annual membership at BJ’s is $45.

For a free day pass at BJ’s, you can print out a one day pass from their website. When you enter, you’ll be sent to the customer service desk, where the process is similar to Sam’s: they make sure that you’re not double-dipping on the free day passes.

So, which is best? If you’re mostly interested in bulk toiletries and pure discounting, Sam’s Club is probably your best option. Their prices and selection on diapers and other toiletries is exceptional, and they also have a strong frozen food selection and pricing. CostCo is strong in terms of higher-end name brand items; if you’re looking for discounts on more expensive, upscale items, CostCo will be right up your alley. BJ’s exceeds in customer service; they offer nice little perks such as doubling up of coupons on multi-packs and acceptance of pretty much any form of payment within reason.

I use Sam’s Club because of the convenience of location. I think each chain offers significant benefits and drawbacks in comparison to the other. The best way to pick a chain is to try them all, but if there was a BJ’s locally, I would use that one because I am an avid coupon clipper.

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  1. There’s a Smart and Final near me. It’s like a Wholesale Club without the club fees. You pay a little more, but still save by buying in bulk.

    I was just in one for the first time this weekend, but it’s definitely a place I will go back to – even though I have a Costco membership.

  2. allergicmom says:

    Another way to get into Costco for “free” is to show a gift card. That gets you in without a membership, even if it’s only a $10 gift card and you end up spending hundreds of dollars on your purchase.

  3. ToothCutter says:

    Don’t forget that your employer may even offer discounts on memberships to those warehouse chains. Keep an eye out for those.

    Here in Michigan, the Costco is just closer to where we live. I don’t know about the other two, but Costco also sells gas a little cheaper than the nearby stations too.

    I took advantage of the day pass at Sam’s Club some time ago, and it just seemed ‘dirtier.’ It might just be for that one place we went to because it’s already closed down.

  4. Pam says:

    I’ve seen free day passes for Sam’s Club in Alaska, and it specifies that a surcharge will be added to the total purchase. 5 or 10% – I can’t remember.

    I use Costco’s executive membership. It costs $100 per year, but I get 2% of my purchases back each year, in the form of a Costco certificate. It usually pays for the membership.

  5. Patty says:

    Thank you for the inof. I will try to get in to Costco free. Wish me luck

  6. rodgerlvu says:

    thanks. you are the most intelligent person i ever met…

  7. A says:

    I’m wondering if you’ve thought about doing an update on this article… and if you’ve done any comparisons between this and a regular grocery store. i.e., will you save enough money on the bulk items to make the membership fee worthwhile? I ask because I’m expecting my first child and do not currently have a membership to any of these places and am wondering if it makes sense – especially since I’ll be spending a lot in diapers!

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