Sam's Club Review

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Sam's Club offers low-priced memberships starting at $45, which includes perks such as in-store pickup for online purchases; 24/7 technical support on electronics; free flat tire repair; and multiple payment options.

Sam's Club appeals to frugal consumers looking for low prices. Although our comparative review gives Costco the edge, Sam's Club makes a strong case for membership.

In an online poll conducted by Cheapism, shoppers tell of stocking up on paper products, frozen foods, and other items packaged in bulk and taking advantage of deals on home office supplies. Fans of the warehouse club consider location, shopping hours, and limited crowds as big bonuses. Sam's Club garners far fewer positive reviews than Costco for the quality of the merchandise it carries, including its in-house Member's Mark label. Still, one shopper reports a particular fondness for the beef tenderloin and baked goods, "especially their birthday cakes."

Sam's Club delivers substantial savings and perks in more than just groceries, automotive supplies, sporting equipment, eyewear, and apparel. Many of the superstores are adjacent to members-only gas stations, which dispense fuel at discounted prices. In-store pick-up is free for merchandise bought online, a convenience that Costco doesn't offer. Members also can call on 24/7 technical support for electronics bought at Sam's compared with limited hours at Costco. The array of lower-cost personal and business services includes free flat-tire repair -- no matter where the tires were purchased -- car battery testing, and wiper-blade installation; hearing tests and (monthly) health screenings at select locations; and travel deals. Check printing, protection plans for electronics and jewelry/watches, and small business loans, payment processing, and payroll are offered through third-party providers.

Consumers can join the club at any of three membership levels. Sam's Savings costs $45 a year and comes with one primary entry card plus one for someone in the household. Sam's Business, also $45 a year, offers early-bird shopping and lets business members add up to eight more cardholders for $45 apiece. Sam's Plus, at $100 a year, is open to individuals or businesses, and extends the most perks: additional discounts on hundreds of prescription medications (and five that are free) and special pricing in the absence of insurance for prescription drugs; $10 back for every $500 spent, up to $500 a year; savings on eyeglasses when bought with a year's supply of contacts without health insurance; and up to 16 affiliate cardholders for business members ($45 each annually). In addition, Sam's Club features a Collegiate Membership for college students that includes a $15 gift card when signing up or renewing; ditto for military personnel.

In a comparative shopping cart test, with Costco as the foil, we filled a cart with 30 items, mostly groceries and household supplies, including pretzels, bread, fresh peppers, bananas, yogurt, shredded cheese, orange juice, frozen veggies, frozen chicken breasts, mustard, ketchup, paper plates, paper towels, trash bags, laundry detergent, baby formula, diapers, toothpaste. We noted that unit sizes were slightly smaller at Sam's Club than at Costco, a factor that may encourage consumers with smaller families to choose Sam's. The bottom-line totals were very comparable, although the unit cost of 16 items, such as bottled water, chocolate chips, and instant oatmeal, was an average of 8 percent lower at Sam's Club. Costco posted lower unit prices on 14 products, for savings of 11 percent over Sam's Club. We also priced out two LED TVs, a DSLR camera, photo printing, and a flu shot. The price of a flu shot and photo printing are identical: respectively, $14.99 and 13 cents (for a 4x6 print).

Sam's Club is more flexible than Costco when it comes time to pay. Stores accept MasterCard or Discover in addition to a Sam's credit card, debit card, cash, or check. The return policy, however, is a bit more stringent. Although there's no deadline for returning most items, members have 30 days to bring back cell phones, tablets, e-readers, and GPS navigation devices; 90 days for other electronics. Without a receipt, Sam's issues a shopping card for the last selling price of the returned item.

We're big fans of wholesale shopping in general, and Sam's Club meets expectations. Our local store was clean and well-stocked, with a wide assortment of merchandise and brands. The option of multiple payment methods is a big draw, and Sam's boasts several services that its rival doesn't. Overall, Sam's Club membership is a good deal.

Raechel Conover

Raechel Conover is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Yahoo, blogs, and other websites. She's a self-confessed shopaholic and frugal mom, always scouring the sale and clearance racks for deals and taking full advantage of free community activities and events with her husband and young sons.

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