5 On Your Side

Warehouse clubs are a better bargain than grocery stores

Posted June 26, 2008 4:58 p.m. EDT
Updated June 27, 2008 9:18 a.m. EDT

— With high gas prices taking a mounting toll on budgets, some families have turned to warehouse clubs in a bid to save grocery money.

5 on Your Side’s Monica Laliberte went shopping to find out whether warehouse clubs really save money compared with grocery stores.

A special edition of WRAL’s Grocery Cart Tracker gives the results of the investigation.

Laliberte used the items in the normal Grocery Cart Tracker, including bread, beef and bananas, and compared their prices in Sam’s Club, BJ's and Costco clubs with the Harris Teeter, Lowes and Wal-Mart grocery stores.

The result: The savings at wholesale clubs can be significant.

Red delicious apples were 80 cents less per pound at the lowest-priced warehouse club than at the highest-priced grocery store. Boneless, skinless chicken came at a savings of $1.25 per pound. The difference per pound of salted butter sticks was $1.96 and of cheddar cheese, $2.00.

The biggest money-saver at warehouse clubs was sirloin steak, with a cost difference of $2.11 per pound.

All of the warehouse clubs beat the final bills at the grocery stores. The difference between the lowest-priced warehouse club and the highest-priced grocery store was $10.14 for 14 items.

Sam’s Club had the lowest total cost, but Costco was close to even with it, just 68 cents higher.

However, you have to buy in bulk to get those savings at warehouse clubs. Eggs were cheaper, but available only in 30- or 18-count packages. Bananas came only in 4-pound packages, bread in two-loaf packages, and ground beef in 5- to 6-pound packages.

Chicken, beef and bread can be frozen, but if you buy lots of perishable food that doesn’t get used quickly, you won’t be saving any money.

Another temptation of warehouse clubs is to buy a cart full of stuff you don’t need — or food you haven’t tried before. It’s not a bargain if no one eats it because they don’t like it.

Also, consider the cost of memberships. The least-expensive memberships cost between $40 and $50 a year, but all clubs also offer higher-level memberships that give 2 percent back on purchases. That perk can be useful for frequent, big-time shoppers.

If you decide a warehouse club is for you, look out for these super savings:

  • At Costco, prices that end in 97 cents indicate a discount, because they are either slow-moving or discontinued products.
  • At Sam’s Club, the letter 'C' at the end of an item number means it is a canceled item.

Individual items might be cheaper at grocery stores. That was the case with a loaf of bread at all the grocery stores. The biggest price difference was 84 cents – significant for a loaf of bread.

Grocery store’s loyalty clubs and weekly sales can also have a big impact on your bill total.

Note that the Grocery Cart comparison of soda price might be skewed because store-brand sodas were used for the Grocery Tracker, but those were not available at all warehouses. Laliberte substituted brand-name Coca-Cola.