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Costco vs. Sam's Club: A Wholesale Shopping Showdown

We were hoping for one clear winner, but the showdown between Costco and Sam's Club reveals that both are exceptional deals, particularly when compared with shopping at a traditional supermarket chain. If you're going to join just one, assess your needs against each store's strengths before making a choice.

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When pressed on the matter, we voted for Sam's Club by a very slim margin. The deciding factors included more in-store benefits, larger brand selection, and slightly smaller unit packaging, which is often a more manageable and less wasteful option.

Still, you can't go wrong with either Sam's Club or Costco. In our shopping cart test, the price difference at checkout was about $12 ($215.65 at Sam's vs. $227.08 at Costco). But because we got more of some items in the Costco cart, we needed to know the unit cost of each item (the price divided by the amount in, or weight of, each item). After totaling the unit costs of the items in each cart, we found that Costco was 3.6 percent cheaper. Our price check of the same items at a local supermarket revealed that buying groceries at the wholesale clubs saves you more than 40 percent on a unit-cost basis.

Costco and Sam's Club each hold the lead in distinct niches. For example, Sam's Club excels in the pharmacy department and in the delivery, installation, and technical support areas; it's the place to buy discounted electronics or furniture due to its 24/7 customer service. Costco offers little in the way of support services but compensates with its travel department, where you can book cheap vacations and rent cars at extremely low rates; Sam's Club quit the travel business.

While researching the Sam's Club vs. Costco dilemma, we also looked at factors such as membership prices and perks. The cost of joining Sam's Club is a bit lower, and a membership comes with more in-store benefits. Costco membership includes more out-of-store discounts and, at the priciest membership level, cash back on your purchases. Payment options are another consideration. Neither store stands out here, but Sam's Club accepts more credit cards than Costco. Costco supports a generous coupon program, while Sam's Club coupons are offered only at the highest membership level. In-store health and wellness services are about the same at each. Costco features more in the way of financial services and Sam's Club offers more automotive services. On the day we shopped, gasoline was 9 cents cheaper at Sam's Club than at Costco. Photo developing was slightly cheaper at Costco.

Both warehouse stores have a large following, and consumers seem to have their loyalties. Costco operates 426 locations in the U.S. and claims more than 60 million cardholders and Sam's boasts 609 sites in the U.S. and about 47 million members. We found few reviews of the stores themselves, and the reviews we did find focus mostly on a product or service. We considered user feedback in our evaluation of the two stores but relied primarily on our own shopping experience.

by Raechel Conover (Google+ Profile)

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