The common rule of thumb for consumers is that you ultimately pay less for goods that you buy in bulk. But does that necessarily make warehouse stores - and their paid memberships - a better deal than discount stores or supermarkets?
Walmart shocked dues-paying members of its Sam's Club stores earlier this year when it announced the closure of 63 locations across the United States. While there are still close to 600 stores, many of the closed locations will be turned into “fulfillment centers” that package and ship out orders for Walmart's online stores.
While this is an opportunity for Walmart to expand its online services and take on Amazon more directly, it's also ceding some ground to other competitors. Warehouse chain Costco has kept Sam's Club out of its native Washington state, as well as Alaska and Oregon. BJ's Wholesale Club, meanwhile, has driven Sam's Club out of its home state of Massachusetts and other New England markets including Vermont and Rhode Island.
But what is the effect on everyday shoppers? Sure, the average Sam's Club shopper has to pay a minimum of $45 a year just for the privilege of shopping at its hangar-sized stores, but do they make it up in savings? Are the costs of staple goods low enough to make it worthwhile? Did Walmart do Sam's Club customers wrong by shutting warehouse stores and sticking them with Walmart's discount and “neighborhood” stores?
We put together a shopping list of 10 warehouse-store staples and opted to compare their prices by volume to those at a standard Walmart. While everyone's shopping list will vary and sale prices can affect the final tally on some trips more than others, we figure that comparing Sam's Club to Walmart itself -- rather than another grocery store or discount chain -- was the best way to determine exactly what Walmart as a company sees as “value” and how it passes that along to you, the shopper.
- Sam's Club: Member's Mark Super Premium, 15 rolls for $17.48 (unit price $1.16 per roll)
- Walmart: Great Value, 12 rolls for $16.97 (unit price $1.41 per roll)
While Walmart does have a 15-roll pack of Scott paper towels for $17.52, their 102 sheets apiece pales next to Great Value's 168 sheets or even Member's Mark's 150. Still, considering Great Value's extra 18 sheets per roll -- making a 12-pack the equivalent of a 13.3 pack of Member's Mark towels ($1.27 a roll) -- this competition is much tighter than we thought it would be.
Still, even that more forgiving unit price would put Walmart's Great Value at $19.07 for a pack of 15 - $1.59 more total.
- Sam's Club: Cascade Total Clean Gel Detergent Pacs, 105 count for $14.98 (unit price 14 cents per pod)
- Walmart: Cascade Complete Dishwashing Detergent Actionpacs, 78 count for $16.97 (unit price 22 cents per pod)
Functionally the same item, the Walmart version does 27 fewer loads of dishes for nearly $2 more. To get up to the Sam's Club 105 count, the Walmart version would have to cost more than $23. That Makes the Sam's Club version nearly $8 cheaper overall.
- Sam's Club: Member's Mark Super Premium, 45 rolls for $21.23 (unit price 47 cents per roll)
- Walmart: Great Value, 18 rolls for $14.74 (unit price 82 cents per roll)
Walmart just hates to standardize the size of its generic paper products. Again, Great Value is more costly per roll, but has 308 sheets per roll, to Member's Mark's 275. That gives Great Value 20.16 Member's Mark-sized rolls per pack, but still adds up to 73 cents a roll.
At $32.85 for 45 rolls, that's a full $11.52 more than the Sam's Club equivalent. If you buy just two of these in a year, you're halfway to paying for a basic membership.
- Sam's Club: Folgers Classic Roast Ground Coffee, 48 ounces for $9.98 (unit price $3.33 a pound)
- Walmart: Folgers Classic Roast Ground Coffee, 48 ounces for $11.68 (unit price $3.89 a pound)
This is the best-selling coffee at both Walmart and Sam's Club, and it's sold in the exact same packaging. Yet Walmart charges nearly $1.70 more for it than Sam's Club for no apparent reason. We realize that Folgers may not be everyone's brand of choice, but it's the most direct comparison available and Sam's Club came out on top by almost 15%.
- Sam's Club: Land O Lakes Mini Moos, 192-count box for $8.72 (unit price 4 cents each)
- Walmart: Land O Lakes Mini Moos, 48-count box for $4.48 (unit price 9 cents each)
Congratulations, Walmart shoppers: You're paying more than double for those mini servings of half-and-half you get at diners and restaurants. At that unit price, the $8.72 box from Sam's Club would cost you nearly $18 at Walmart.
- Sam's Club: Domino Pure Cane Sugar, 25-pound bag for $11.93 (unit price 48 cents a pound)
- Walmart: Great Value Pure Cane Sugar, 25-pound bag for $11.26 (unit price 46 cents a pound)
You're seeing that correctly: That's a 67-cent win for Walmart. While Domino is the name brand in this equation, most bakers or cooks who use sugar in this amount during the year aren't going to scoff at the generic. This is a baking staple in the greatest quantity sold at either outlet, and the sugar companies just want to let you know that you won't see much of a cost reduction.
- Sam's Club: Softsoap Liquid Hand Soap Refill, two 64-ounce bottles for $7.48 (unit price 6 cents per ounce)
- Walmart: Softsoap Liquid Hand Soap Refill, 32-ounce bottle for $8.87 (unit price 28 cents an ounce)
Once you have working dispensers, there's no reason to buy hand soap in anything other than bulk. The price of Walmart's largest Softsoap refill is nearly five times more per ounce than the Sam's Club equivalent.
The fact that Sam's Club is giving you 128 ounces for less than Walmart charges for 32 should be motivation enough. However, if you want to see the gory details, that amount of Sam's Club Softsoap would cost $35.84 at Walmart prices. That $26.97 difference would put you more than halfway toward an annual Sam's Club membership.
- Sam's Club: Honey Nut Cheerios, 2-pack of 24-ounce boxes for $6.98 (unit price 14 cents an ounce)
- Walmart: Honey Nut Cheerios, 21.6-ounce box for $3.64 (unit price 17 cents an ounce)
Cereal always ends up being a better deal at a warehouse store. In this case, however, paying for a Sam's Club volume of cereal at the Walmart price would cost $8.16. That $1.18 uptick is a 17% difference in price and substantial if you go through enough cereal in a year.
- Sam's Club: Kleenex Ultra Soft Facial Tissue, 12 pack for $15.98 (unit price $1.33 a box)
- Walmart: Kleenex Ultra Soft Facial Tissue, 4 pack for $5.97 (unit price $1.49 a box)
Yep, we're dwelling on paper again, but only because the same amount of Kleenex you'd buy at Sam's Club costs $17.91 at Walmart. The extra $1.93 doesn't look like much on its own, but you're basically paying 12% more by avoiding the warehouse store.
Cold and Flu Medication
- Sam's Club: DayQuil/NyQuil LiquiCaps, 72 pack for $15.68 (unit price 22 cents a capsule)
- Walmart: DayQuil/NyQuil LiquiCaps, 24 pack for $23.21 (unit price 97 cents a capsule)
A warehouse store offers surprising deals on over-the-counter medications, but sometimes it can be frustrating to see the deal you're getting in bulk. Those 72 LiquiCaps from Sam's Club would cost you a whopping $69.84 if you bought the same amount at Walmart. That's a $54.24 difference that, alone, would pay for a basic Sam's Club membership with cash to spare.
Then again, if you're tearing through 72 doses of NyQuil in one season, you've probably got other things to worry about.