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Shopping Experience

The customer feedback we gathered indicates that Costco has engendered slightly more satisfaction than Sam's Club. When we looked at surveys conducted by other organizations, Costco bested Sam's Club more often than not.

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In 2014, Temkin Group, a research and consulting firm, asked 10,000 U.S. consumers to rate their customer service interactions with the two warehouse clubs and more than 200 other companies, from airlines to wireless carriers. Costco landed in the No. 10 spot overall. A survey of 26,000 Consumer Reports readers in 2012 found Costco to be the top-ranked store out of 10 major chains, including Sam's Club.

Both wholesale clubs claim fans and detractors. In Cheapism's online poll, responders posted numerous gripes about service at Sam's Club. For example, Jeff Rigg of Columbus, Ohio, wrote: "Costco employees actually seem interested in helping you and trying to get you checked out quickly. Sam's Club is more like going to the DMV." Although experiences like this may vary from location to location, Sam's Club is dogged by concerns about the employment practices of its parent company, Wal-Mart Stores. Lauren Wilson, also from Columbus, railed against Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, pointing to news reports about low wages -- still lower than the average at Costco despite a recently announced increase - limited benefits, and hiring preferences.

Product selection, availability, and quality also affect the customer experience. Costco fans enthuse about the quality of the in-house Kirkland Signature brand. Nora Wilkes Klee, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wrote that she typically prefers this label over others. A respondent with memberships at both warehouse clubs said the produce she buys at Costco always lasts longer than what she gets at Sam's Club. Others asserted that Costco seems to carry more upmarket inventory and a larger selection of healthy and organic products. One Sam's Club advocate stood firm against the tide in appreciating the steadiness of the store's offerings compared with a seemingly ever-changing assortment at Costco (a deliberate effort by the company to encourage impulse buys and frequent visits). Several other shoppers value the low-price policy and bulk deals at Sam's Club.

Broadly speaking, the range of departments at both stores is very similar, as is the assortment of inventory. In addition to groceries and household essentials, each superstore sells electronics and computers, apparel, home goods, pharmaceuticals, health and beauty products, toys and video games, sports and fitness equipment, automotive supplies, and photo printing. Some Sam's Club and Costco locations also operate gas stations, where prices generally undercut the local competition. Differences between the two are more apparent in the array of available services across departments.

Automotive.

In the auto departments at Sam's Club and Costco, a similar selection of tires and accessories carry largely equivalent prices, but the available services vary somewhat. Both stores offer free rotation, balancing, and flat repair for the life of the tires they sell; Sam's also repairs tires purchased elsewhere at no charge and provides free battery testing and wiper blade installation. Costco sells auto insurance and offers discounts on cars, automotive service, and parts purchased through preferred dealerships and service centers. Some members take solace in the Costco Auto Program's haggle-free vehicle pricing; others use it to negotiate an even better deal directly.

Electronics.

Both clubs offer a large variety of electronics at very similar prices. The cost of a 70-inch Vizio TV, for example, was $1,499.99 online at Costco (including a manufacturer's discount) and $1,498 for the same model at Sam's Club. That's a mere $2 difference on a $1,500 TV.

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A 32-inch Samsung smart LED HDTV was listed at a regular price of $349 online at Sam's Club and $339.99 at Costco. For this and many other models, though, a message on the Sam's Club website advises potential buyers of a sale price "too low to show." Clicking through the checkout process reveals a selling price of $328, which undercuts Costco but makes comparison shopping onerous.

Among other electronics, Sam's Club had a considerable pricing edge on a Nikon D5300 bundle (including two lenses, a case, and a 32GB SD card) that was the same at both stores. The cost: $1,149 vs. $1,299.99 at Costco. At any given time, however, a discount may tip the scale. Sam's was offering a $200 tech discount, for a sale price of $949, and Costco advertised a $300 manufacturer discount, which brought the final price down to $999.99 -- still $50 more than Sam's.

Sam's Club offers members free 24/7 tech support by phone to help with troubleshooting and setup for select electronics. Free tech support from Costco is available 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., excluding holidays. Costco also extends the manufacturer's warranty to two years for computers, TVs, and projectors. Both stores limit the return window to 90 days for most electronics. Cell phones, tablets, e-readers, and GPS navigation devices must be returned within 30 days for a refund from Sam's Club.

Financial and Business Services.

Most large retailers these days have their own credit cards, but these two superstores feature an array of other financial services, as well. Costco offers check printing and credit monitoring; home mortgages and refinancing; discounted insurance; and credit card processing, payroll services, and phone services for businesses. Sam's Club processes credit cards for businesses and arranges check printing and small business loans through partner banks. Sam's recently started offering small group health insurance, payroll, and legal services for business members. The average shopper probably won't join Sam's or Costco to take advantage of these services, but they're worth checking out.

Health Services and Pharmacy.

Costco shoppers at any membership level can get between 2 percent and 40 percent off medications when not using insurance coverage for prescription drugs. Sam's Club members must upgrade to Sam's Plus ($100 a year) to save 8 percent on select name-brand medications and 40 percent on generic medications. Both pharmacies provide flu shots for $14.99. (Costco extends this offer to non-members, too, while Sam's charges non-members $20 for the vaccine.)

Further research reinforces Costco's advantage. In 2013 Consumer Reports had "secret shoppers" call 200 pharmacies and price out five commonly prescribed generic medications. Costco came out the cheapest overall; Sam's Club's total was more than $200 higher. (The survey reflected the total retail prices of the drugs without insurance and without member discounts.)

Both retailers provide optical services at many of their stores. Sam's Club offers a relatively broad set of free health screenings (e.g., cholesterol, glucose, blood pressure) and hearing tests at select locations on a monthly basis while Costco focuses on periodic osteoporosis, heart, and lung screenings and free hearing tests at select stores. Costco goes a step further with its free hearing-aid testing, which includes a free cleaning and battery change.

Travel.

Many consumers look to Costco for travel planning and discounted booking of vacation packages online and over the phone. One shopper told Cheapism, "We've always been Sam's Club members, but then we discovered the car rental discount through Costco. The Costco membership is so much more valuable to us now because it makes renting a car so much cheaper on our yearly vacation." Although Sam's Club stopped providing travel services for a few years, the company launched Sam's Club Travel in 2014. A website, call center, weekly email, and mobile app now offer members discounts on hotels, car rental, flights, and cruises.

Payment Methods.

Paying for a full shopping cart can be tricky at a wholesale club. Cash, checks, and debit cards are often the only options in store. Sam's Club and Costco both issue their own credit cards, but the former stands out because it also accepts MasterCard and Discover credit cards. Costco takes only American Express, although the warehouse club announced that Visa will replace Amex on April 1, 2016. Both clubs allow members to bring in guest shoppers. At Sam's Club guests can pay for their purchases with any of the accepted methods; at Costco, the member must pay the non-member's tab. The relative flexibility of payment types at Sam's was the deciding factor for at least one respondent to our poll who chose Sam's Club over Costco.

Return Policies.

Neither store sets a deadline for returns of most merchandise (with the exception of electronics). At Costco a receipt is preferred but not required for returns. Shoppers must produce a receipt to return electronics to Sam's. Purchases of other items returned without a receipt are refunded in the form of a shopping card for the last selling price. Sam's Club features a 200 percent satisfaction guarantee for fresh produce, meat, and baked goods, promising double the purchase price back or a refund plus a replacement.

Both retailers accept returns of online purchases in-store. Refunds for online orders from Costco include shipping and handling fees. Sam's Club refunds the shipping cost only if the return is the result of an error.



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