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Strategy We went to Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's to see which store was the best — here's the verdict (COST, WMT)

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We went to Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's to see which membership-based warehouse store offers the best shopping experience. Here's what we found.

The BJ's Wholesale Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, was well-organized. play

The BJ's Wholesale Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, was well-organized.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)
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  • Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale are similar membership-based warehouse stores that offer a wide variety of products and services.
  • The only significant difference between Sam's Club and Costco is the cost of membership — Sam's Club costs $15 less annually.
  • BJ's differs from the other two stores in a few ways, including the presence of a self-checkout option and the lack of a food court. BJ's locations used to have food courts, but most are being replaced by Dunkin' Donuts kiosks.
  • I went to a Costco and Sam's Club in New York and a BJ's in New Jersey and found that the costs were comparable, but BJ's would rank lowest because it didn't have as much to offer.

Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale are membership-based warehouse stores selling groceries, clothing, furniture, and, well, lots of other stuff.

All three stores offer eye and ear exams, a pharmacy, one-hour photo services, and either a food court or kiosk at affordable prices. Even the return policies are similar, though BJ's stops accepting items after a year, while Costco and Sam's Club will do so for most items at any time.

After visiting all three stores, I found that aside from the cost of membership, Costco and Sam's Club were very similar, while BJ's seemed as if it was struggling to catch up.

Costco's yearly membership is $60, while BJ's comes in second at $55 and Sam's Club is the least expensive at $45. The annual cost of premium memberships ranked similarly, with Costco costing $120, BJ's $110, and Sam's Club $100.

According to a grocery-store ranking from Consumer Reports, the higher membership costs at Costco might be worth it — it ranked higher than Sam's Club and BJ's in cleanliness, meat and produce quality, customer service, store-brand quality, and prices of organic items.

BJ's ranked higher than Sam's Club in just two categories: healthy organic options and checkout speed.

To see for myself which store offered the best deal, I went to a BJ's Wholesale in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Costco and Sam's Club stores in Westchester County, New York. Here's what I found.

During my visit to the BJ's store in Jersey City, I found that a membership was $55 a year for the basic plan and $110 a year for premium, falling between Costco's and Sam's Club's prices. No one checked for my membership here — nonmembers can use a guest pass to shop, but they'll have to pay a 20% service fee at most locations.

I went to BJ's next. An annual membership costs $55 for the standard plan and $110 for the premium plan. No one checked my membership upon entry at BJ's, either. Like at Sam's Club, non-members can use a guest pass to shop, but they'll be charged a 20% service fee at most locations. play

I went to BJ's next. An annual membership costs $55 for the standard plan and $110 for the premium plan. No one checked my membership upon entry at BJ's, either. Like at Sam's Club, non-members can use a guest pass to shop, but they'll be charged a 20% service fee at most locations.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Tech items were at the front of the store, and prices ranged from $500 to $2,000 for things like TVs.

Like at Sam's Club, the tech department was at the front of the store, and most products cost under $2,000. BJ's advertised its tech advisor program that offers free help to customers. Sam's Club offers this as well, but it was not advertised as clearly in the store. play

Like at Sam's Club, the tech department was at the front of the store, and most products cost under $2,000. BJ's advertised its tech advisor program that offers free help to customers. Sam's Club offers this as well, but it was not advertised as clearly in the store.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


BJ's snacks were all sold in bulk, but the variety felt relatively small. There was more candy than snacks, and the produce selection was smaller than I would find at a Costco or Sam's Club.

Snacks were sold in bulk for around the same price as at Sam's Club, but there wasn't nearly as much variety. Prices on produce were comparable as well. play

Snacks were sold in bulk for around the same price as at Sam's Club, but there wasn't nearly as much variety. Prices on produce were comparable as well.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Making my way through the store, I noticed some shelves were nearly empty ...

Making my way through the store, I noticed a lot of empty shelves. play

Making my way through the store, I noticed a lot of empty shelves.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


... and the selection of gift cards and other items was noticeably smaller at BJ's than at a Costco or Sam's Club, though the company carries a comparable selection online. This location also said it does not sell any alcohol, but others do, depending on local regulations.

The selection of gift cards and other items was noticeably smaller at BJ's than at Sam's Club, though the company carries a comparable selection online. play

The selection of gift cards and other items was noticeably smaller at BJ's than at Sam's Club, though the company carries a comparable selection online.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


A five-pound box of clementines was $5.99 at BJ's.

The selection may not have been as good at BJ's, but the prices were nearly identical between the two stores. Like at Costco, a five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99. play

The selection may not have been as good at BJ's, but the prices were nearly identical between the two stores. Like at Costco, a five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


I was impressed with the organization of the store. Not only were the grocery aisles labeled, but the sections carrying toys, clothes, and home decor were as well, making it easy to navigate the store.

BJ's was certainly more organized than Costco was. All of the aisles were labeled, and there seemed to be some sense to where things were placed around the store. play

BJ's was certainly more organized than Costco was. All of the aisles were labeled, and there seemed to be some sense to where things were placed around the store.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Another highlight was the self-checkout, which could lead to shorter lines. BJ's has an app that allows customers to store coupons and receive notifications about promotions, but it does not have a payment functionality. BJ's allows customers to return items within a year.

BJ's, like Sam's Club, has optical, hearing, and photo centers, as well as a pharmacy. play

BJ's, like Sam's Club, has optical, hearing, and photo centers, as well as a pharmacy.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


There was a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk with a few tables set up near the exit — these kiosks have been replacing food courts in most BJ's locations. The prices are slightly higher than at the food court at a Costco or Sam's Club.

Rather than a full food court like Sam's Club had, BJ's had a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk with a few small tables set up next to it. Even though BJ's costs more to join annually, I found it didn't really offer any additional perks for the price. While the online selections may be comparable, Sam's Club had a better in-store experience and had more to offer. play

Rather than a full food court like Sam's Club had, BJ's had a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk with a few small tables set up next to it. Even though BJ's costs more to join annually, I found it didn't really offer any additional perks for the price. While the online selections may be comparable, Sam's Club had a better in-store experience and had more to offer.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)

Source: Boston Globe



Like at BJ's, no one was at the door checking for membership when I visited a Costco location in Westchester County. Costco's basic membership costs $60 annually, and its premium version costs $120.

Costco has 749 stores in total. play

Costco has 749 stores in total.

(Cassiohabib / Shutterstock.com)


And the electronics section was also at the front, with rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000.

And the electronics section was also at the front, with rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000. play

And the electronics section was also at the front, with rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


As I walked through the store, I was greeted by a seemingly endless selection of snacks in bulk.

We visited a Costco in Westchester County, New York, and found that it had a much bigger selection of everything than BJ's Wholesale club. play

We visited a Costco in Westchester County, New York, and found that it had a much bigger selection of everything than BJ's Wholesale club.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Just about everything in sight was sold in bulk. A four-pound box of Frosted Flakes was $7.49. At stores like Walmart and Target, a box half this size is only $2 less.

Just about everything in sight was sold in bulk. A four-pound box of Frosted Flakes was $7.49. At stores like Walmart and Target, a box half this size is only $2 less. play

Just about everything in sight was sold in bulk. A four-pound box of Frosted Flakes was $7.49. At stores like Walmart and Target, a box half this size is only $2 less.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Even produce was sold in bulk. A five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99, the same as at BJ's. But this Costco store had a wider variety of produce than BJ's did.

The same goes for produce — a five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99. play

The same goes for produce — a five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


The warehouse had a liquor store outside the main store. If you want wine or hard alcohol, you either have to go before or after shopping for groceries, meaning you have to wait in two lines and make two separate transactions — though the main store does have beer.

The warehouse had a liquor store outside the main store. If you want wine or hard alcohol, you either have to go before or after shopping for groceries, meaning you have to wait in two lines and make two separate transactions — though the main store does have beer. play

The warehouse had a liquor store outside the main store. If you want wine or hard alcohol, you either have to go before or after shopping for groceries, meaning you have to wait in two lines and make two separate transactions — though the main store does have beer.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Everything at the store seemed to be arranged randomly. Rugs were in the middle of the produce aisle, and golfing equipment was on the other side of this display. The middle of the store was cluttered with books and clothes ...

Shopping at Costco has fittingly been called a "treasure hunt." There's little order to how things are arranged, with area rugs and golfing equipment in the middle of the produce department. play

Shopping at Costco has fittingly been called a "treasure hunt." There's little order to how things are arranged, with area rugs and golfing equipment in the middle of the produce department.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


... and there were furniture displays throughout the store.

Furniture displays were scattered throughout the clothes and books. play

Furniture displays were scattered throughout the clothes and books.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Costco had an entire wall of discounted gift cards for things like restaurants and movie theaters. The selection even included discounted lift tickets for local ski resorts.

Not far from the center of the store was a wall of discounted gift cards for movie theaters, restaurants, ski trips, and everything in between. play

Not far from the center of the store was a wall of discounted gift cards for movie theaters, restaurants, ski trips, and everything in between.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


The front of the store was messy. I think this is where returns are processed, but it wasn't labeled anywhere. Costco has a generous return policy, allowing members to return most anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund, except for electronics and major appliances, which can be returned within 90 days with a receipt.

The front of the store was messy. I think this was where returns were processed, but it wasn't labeled anywhere. Costco has a liberal return policy, allowing members to return anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund. The exception is electronics and major appliances, which have a 90-day return policy with receipt. play

The front of the store was messy. I think this was where returns were processed, but it wasn't labeled anywhere. Costco has a liberal return policy, allowing members to return anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund. The exception is electronics and major appliances, which have a 90-day return policy with receipt.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Many registers were closed because it was early in the day, plus everyone had full shopping carts, so it was a long wait to check out. Costco's app lets you make a shopping list, access coupons, and create photo books, but you cannot pay for a purchase on it.

A lot of registers were closed because it was still early in the day. The lines were pretty long, and everyone had completely full shopping carts. play

A lot of registers were closed because it was still early in the day. The lines were pretty long, and everyone had completely full shopping carts.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Right near the exit was the insanely cheap food court. It was $1.50 for a hot dog and a soda, and giant churros were $1.

The food court by the exit was insanely cheap, selling hot dogs and a soda for $1.50 and giant churros for $1.00. People were already eating there at 10 a.m. play

The food court by the exit was insanely cheap, selling hot dogs and a soda for $1.50 and giant churros for $1.00. People were already eating there at 10 a.m.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


A yearly Sam's Club membership costs $45 for the basic plan and $100 for the premium plan. No one at Sam's Club checked my membership either — without one, you can use a guest pass to shop, but there is a 10% service fee at most locations.

A yearly Sam's Club membership costs $45 for the basic plan and $100 for the premium plan. No one at Sam's Club checked my membership either — without one, you can use a guest pass to shop, but there is a 10% service fee at most locations. play

A yearly Sam's Club membership costs $45 for the basic plan and $100 for the premium plan. No one at Sam's Club checked my membership either — without one, you can use a guest pass to shop, but there is a 10% service fee at most locations.

(Shutterstock)


The tech section mirrored Costco's, and the prices were comparable.

The tech department was right up front, with rows of TVs and computers for under $2,000. play

The tech department was right up front, with rows of TVs and computers for under $2,000.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Like at Costco, there seemed to be enough snacks in bulk to last a lifetime, and most boxes were under $10.

Aisles of snacks stretched wall to wall, and everything was sold in bulk. Most of what was sold in the snack aisle cost $10 or less. play

Aisles of snacks stretched wall to wall, and everything was sold in bulk. Most of what was sold in the snack aisle cost $10 or less.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Produce prices were also comparable — the same five-pound bag of clementines was only $0.50 more at Sam's Club than at Costco and BJ's.

Produce was also sold in bulk at a low price point. A five-pound bag of clementines was just over $6. play

Produce was also sold in bulk at a low price point. A five-pound bag of clementines was just over $6.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Unlike Costco, Sam's Club does not have a separate building that sells wine and hard liquor. Wine spritzers and beer are sold in the store, in keeping with New York law.

Unlike Costco, Sam's Club does not have a separate building that sells wine and hard liquor. Wine spritzers and beer are sold in the store, in keeping with New York law. play

Unlike Costco, Sam's Club does not have a separate building that sells wine and hard liquor. Wine spritzers and beer are sold in the store, in keeping with New York law.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Sam's Club was more organized than Costco, but it wasn't perfect. The aisles were more clearly labeled ...

Sam's Club was relatively organized. Aisles were labeled, and similar products were grouped together. play

Sam's Club was relatively organized. Aisles were labeled, and similar products were grouped together.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


... but the middle of the store was still a free-for-all, with books, clothing, and playground and furniture sets scattered around.

But it still had the "treasure hunt" element that warehouse clubs are known for. Random products were placed all over the store. play

But it still had the "treasure hunt" element that warehouse clubs are known for. Random products were placed all over the store.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Sam's Club had a similar wall of gift cards, all at discounted prices.

... and it had a huge wall of gift cards being sold at discounted prices. For example, $50 gift cards to restaurants were being sold for under $40. play

... and it had a huge wall of gift cards being sold at discounted prices. For example, $50 gift cards to restaurants were being sold for under $40.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


The front of the store looked identical to Costco, and the lines were just as long. Where Sam's Club stands out is in its app that allows customers to scan items as they go through the store and then pay through the app, skipping the long lines. Sam's Club also accepts returns for most items except for electronics and appliances, which have a 90-day limit.

Go with a member. play

Go with a member.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


Once again, the exit was preceded by a food court, matching Costco's low prices on items like pizza and the hot-dog-and-drink combo. Fountain drinks were slightly more expensive though.

Past the register was a food court selling $1.50 hot dogs, 89-cent sodas, and other unbelievably cheap meals. You don't need a membership to eat at the food court. play

Past the register was a food court selling $1.50 hot dogs, 89-cent sodas, and other unbelievably cheap meals. You don't need a membership to eat at the food court.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)


It was clear after visiting all three warehouse stores that prices were comparable and that each store had its perks: high quality at Costco, a checkout app at Sam's Club, and the self-checkout at BJ's.

A membership at BJ's cost $55 for the basic plan or $110 for the premium membership — just slightly less than Costco. BJ's may be less expensive, but Costco ranked higher than BJ's in terms of cleanliness, meat and produce quality, customer service, store-brand quality, and prices of organic items, according to Consumer Reports. play

A membership at BJ's cost $55 for the basic plan or $110 for the premium membership — just slightly less than Costco. BJ's may be less expensive, but Costco ranked higher than BJ's in terms of cleanliness, meat and produce quality, customer service, store-brand quality, and prices of organic items, according to Consumer Reports.

(Business Insider/Jessica Tyler)

But the location of BJ's Wholesale I visited didn't have as wide a selection as Costco or Sam's Club, and the empty shelves around the store were a big weakness, making it an inferior shopping experience.

Costco and Sam's Club offer almost identical services for members.

Even though it's least expensive to be a Sam's Club member, it ultimately may come down to which store is closer to you.