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The Shopping Cart Test

To compare Sam's Club and Costco prices, we shopped for a typical family of four, including an infant. We tried for a similar selection of products at each store and purchased store brands when possible; the Sam's Club store brand is Member's Mark and at Costco it's Kirkland.

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Just for fun, we also loaded up a cart with the same items at a local supermarket that's part of a regional chain to see how much you can save at the wholesale clubs.

Into our shopping cart went bottled water, pretzels, bread, cookies, steak, fresh peppers, yogurt, American cheese, shredded cheese, eggs, milk, orange juice, bananas, paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, frozen veggies, frozen chicken breasts, paper plates, Cheerios, oatmeal, jelly, peanut butter, applesauce, spaghetti and sauce, ranch dressing, mustard, ketchup, trash bags, disinfectant wipes, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, baby formula, diapers, baby wipes, and toothpaste. The grand total (without tax) came to $215.65 at Sam's Club and $227.08 at Costco -- a difference of $11.43. However, when we broke down the cost of each item by the amount/number of units in the package (see our price comparison chart), Costco was 3.6 percent cheaper overall. If this is your weekly haul, you might be able to spend almost $600 less over the course of a year by shopping at Sam's Club, but you'll get more for your money shopping at Costco.

Item for item we tried to pick the same brand in roughly the same quantity at each warehouse club. We noticed price differences most often on the in-house brands. Items with Costco's Kirkland label are a bit more expensive than similar items with Sam's Club's Member's Mark label, although digging a little deeper reveals that the pricier Kirkland packages often contain more. For example, Kirkland baby wipes cost $19.99 for a 900-count package at Costco compared with $13.48 for a 720-count package of Member's Mark baby wipes at Sam's Club. Similarly, Kirkland trash bags cost $13.79 for 200 and Member's Mark trash bags cost $9.98 for 150. On a per unit basis, Sam's Club is cheaper than Costco for both baby wipes (one baby wipe costs about 17 percent less) and trash bags (one trash bag costs 3.6 percent less), although the actual per-unit price differences amount to way less than a penny. Milk and frozen veggies, on the other hand, are 15.1 percent and 14.2 percent cheaper, respectively, on a per-ounce basis at Costco. As you can tell from the table, the price difference per unit can be as much as 40 percent-plus, depending on the product. For our particular shopping cart, if you care about total cost at checkout, Sam's Club is your best bet; if you care about price per unit, Costco is for you.

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Taking our shopping cart test one step farther, we found the unit cost is about 43 percent less at a warehouse club than at the local supermarket. We saw the biggest savings on spaghetti sauce, which cost less than half as much per ounce; Cheerios, which also cost about half as much per ounce; and orange juice, which cost nearly 135 percent less. At the wholesale clubs, American cheese cost 81 percent less, diapers cost 66 percent less, pasta cost 55 percent less, oatmeal cost 49 percent less, laundry detergent cost 40 percent less, and steak cost 38 percent less. For a full comparison, check out our chart. Remember, though, that packages at the market almost always contain less than packages of the same item at a wholesale club and buying in bulk is generally cheaper, which brings us to our next point.

The super-size packages of many items at wholesale clubs may deter some consumers, especially those with few family members or who lack lots of storage space. For example, at both stores apples come in bags of 40 -- can you eat or cook that many apples before they go bad? The same consideration holds for cheese -- why would a family of four want five pounds of cheese unless they're feeding some very hungry teenagers? Such large amounts are no doubt useful for parties, camps, daycare centers, group picnics, and big families. But our family of four found the Sam's and Costco memberships most valuable for stocking up on cleaning supplies, paper goods, condiments, baby supplies, and grocery items that won't spoil anytime soon.

Our shopping cart test didn't include any consumer durables, like kitchenware or electronics, but we did compare a few prices. A Canon PowerShot SD4500 IS digital camera sells for $259.88 at Sam's Club and $269.99 at Costco, and a Cuisinart Single Serve Brewing System carries a $169.98 price tag at Sam's and a $174.99 tag at Costco. Sam's has the edge for these two items, but that's not always the case. The price of an Alera Strada high-back chair, for example, is essentially equivalent -- $175.88 at Sam's and $175.99 at Costco.

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by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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