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How to Save Money at a Shopping Club

It takes a savvy shopper to make the most of a warehouse club membership. Here's how

How much does Mary Ellen Ham love warehouse clubs? Let her list the many ways.

There are the bulk items — the toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels she habitually stocks up on. The milk and half-and-half, "so much cheaper than at the grocery store," she says. Ditto her prescriptions. And rotisserie chickens. And gas. "It can be 5 to 10 cents a gallon cheaper than at nearby service stations."

See also: A cheapskate's guide to shopping clubs.

Family trying to drag home a pallet of cleaning supplies from a discount club

Shoppers can save money at warehouse clubs if they know a few tricks. — Darren Braun

Ham is such an avid warehouse-club shopper that at one time, she sheepishly admits, she belonged to all three major warehouse chains: BJ's Wholesale Club, Costco, and Sam's Club. Now she's down to "just two" (Sam's and Costco, because they are closest). She shops in at least one of them every other week.

The 77-year-old Orlando resident isn't your stereotypical warehouse-club fan. These no-frills megastores are famed for drawing big families with deals on bulk items — think 36 rolls of toilet paper and gallon jugs of soy sauce. Ham lives with only her husband. But she loves saving money, so she cheerfully makes room for the jumbo packaging. "If you have a place to store things — and I do — you never run out," says Ham.

The three warehouse chains sold more than 128 million memberships last year, up from 122 million in 2008, and sales have increased an average 5.5 percent a year for the past five years. Food buyers are increasingly shopping at warehouses, eating into the market share of supermarkets. And here's the surprise: About a quarter of club shoppers are 50-plus empty nesters like Mary Ellen Ham. Why do they line up with the minivan brigade? For the same reason everyone else does: cheaper stuff.

Next: Beware of the "Costco effect." >>

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