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Costco, Sam's Club or Amazon Prime: Which Retail Club Is Best for You?

Here's what shopping experts say about getting the most out of memberships

retail shopping clubs represented by a triptych prime member deal sign, hand with sam's club card and shopper with costco card

Getty Images (Archive Photos; LightRocket; AFP)

En español | Amazon may be the world's largest online retailer, but in many ways it's like a big warehouse club — only you can't stroll through the aisles.

If you join the e-commerce giant's membership club, Amazon Prime, you pay an annual fee, as you do to shop at major brick-and-mortar warehouse chains like Sam's Club and Costco (and for Walmart Plus, the new online-shopping service from Sam's Club's corporate parent). Each offers perks to members: free shipping and streaming entertainment with Prime, for example, or cash-back rewards with upgraded membership plans at the warehouses.

Choosing whether to join a retail club, and which one, means factoring in what you get for your annual fee, but also what products you shop for the most — and, at the moment, how much time you want to spend in physical stores. Here are some tips from shopping experts on comparing and contrasting Amazon, Costco and Sam's Club.

(BJ's Wholesale Club resembles Sam's Club and Costco in its membership fees and bulk product offerings, but we did not include BJ's because it has considerably less reach — 219 “clubs” in 17 mostly Eastern states compared to the other chains’ 500-plus locations from coast to coast — and, unlike its larger competitors, does not have in-store pharmacies.) 

First, the basics:

Cost

Amazon charges $12.99 a month or $119 a year for Prime membership. Costco weighs in at $60 annually for a standard membership, $120 for the Executive plan, which gets you 2 percent cash back on Costco purchases. Sam's Club is the cheapest, at $45 for a basic membership; a Plus plan with benefits like free shipping and 2 percent cash back on select purchases is $100.

Convenience

Costco and Sam's Club are similar enough in membership cost and product mix that choosing one or the other might be as simple as picking the one that's closest to you, says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping expert and blogger.

In the COVID-19 era, you might also be considering how economical and efficient that store is on pickup and delivery, or how much shopping you're doing online — Amazon's stock-in-trade, but something Sam's Club and Costco also offer.

Selection

With millions of products available, Amazon has the most “democratized” offerings, says Cynthia Cohen, the founder of strategic consulting firm Impact 2040. “Any brand can sell on it and virtually any person can buy using it,” she says.

Costco says it typically carries about 4,000 products in-store. Sam's Club declined to give a product number, but Cohen says it's probably more than Costco. Between the brick-and-mortar clubs, Costco — which can sell anything from cashmere sweaters to chandeliers — typically (but not always) appeals to a wealthier customer base, she says.

The warehouse clubs focus on large packages and bulk buying, so who, and how many, you're shopping for should play a part in sign-up decisions. “If you're an empty nester, I don't know why you'd want to join any warehouse club,” Bodge says. “But if you have college kids still at home, maybe it's still worth it."

The clubs are expert at inducing impulse purchases with savvy product placement and enticing signage, Cohen warns. “You will stay longer and buy more than you planned the majority of the time,” she says.


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The right store for the right stuff: 

Selection, of course, isn't just about total inventory. Here's what the experts say about how Sam's Club, Costco and Amazon fare in seven major shopping categories.

Clothing

Amazon has one big advantage here, says Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business: With its Prime Wardrobe program, you get a seven-day try-on period for up to eight items and free return shipping for items you don't want to keep.

Prime is also a good bet for name-brand fashion, kids clothing and sneakers, budgeting expert Andrea Woroch says. For office wear, she gives high marks to Costco's private label, Kirkland Signature, especially for men's button-down shirts (she says her husband is a big fan).

For blue-collar attire like work pants and flannel shirts, Sam's Club may have a slight edge in price and availability, according to Cohen.

Electronics

Amazon has always had terrific deals on laptops, printers and TVs, perhaps because of the vast variety it offers, says Woroch. It's also her go-to for tech accessories like charging cords and phone, tablet and laptop cases.

Costco and Sam's both offer great electronics deals, but rarely on the exact same models, so it can be very difficult for consumers to compare their prices, Cohen says.

For the best pricing on most electronics, it's hard to find better deals than on Amazon during super-competitive Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, Bodge says.

Entertainment

For sheer range, Amazon is hard to beat. Prime Video offers unlimited streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows. Prime members also get Amazon Music, with access to more than 2 million songs. (For an extra monthly fee you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited, which includes more than 60 million tracks.)

Reflecting Amazon's origins as a virtual bookstore, no one else compares for variety and selection of literary matter, Bodge says. But you'll often find better deals on individual titles at Costco or Sam's, which often slash prices on books recently off the best-seller list and carry special editions specifically published for warehouse club discounts, Cohen says.

Food

With their bulk deals, Sam's Club and Costco can offer better value for your money than Amazon on a wide range of groceries, especially nonperishable foods like tuna, beans, peanut butter, canned soup and boxed rice that you can buy in large quantities without worrying that they'll spoil, Woroch says.

Another plus: “Discovery is better at the wholesale clubs,” since you can walk in and see the products for yourself, says Bodge.

Both chains have house brands that shoppers really love, Cohen says — Kirkland Signature at Costco, Member's Mark at Sam's Club. She says Costco is also good at tailoring food inventory for local markets (great kosher selections at its store on New York's Upper East Side, for example). And, of course, its $4.99 rotisserie chicken is beloved nationwide.

That said, if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can get free Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in some areas with a minimum purchase that varies by region (often, but not always, above $35).

The Amazon Fresh selection can include products from Amazon-owned Whole Foods, but deliveries are sourced from warehouse locations. There's a distinct service for Whole Foods customers: Personal shoppers fulfill your order at the nearest store and deliver it for free in specific markets to Prime members who spend more than $35.

Health and beauty

For replenishing supplies of your day-in, day-out products, Costco and Sam's get the edge because of their value pricing for large quantities, Cohen says. Amazon may be better if you frequently try new things, she says: “I'm going to be able to buy it in a small amount so I don't have to buy a whole case."

And there's lots to try. “Amazon has enormous breadth and depth in this category,” says Howard, who says he's counted more than 90,000 cosmetics available on the site.

Bodge cautions that bulk-buying some health and beauty products at the warehouses can have hidden costs. Be sure you will use up those mega-bottles of vitamins or large sunscreen two-packs before their expiration dates, she warns, or what seemed like a great value in the aisle can end up being a waste.

Prescriptions

All three retailers offer prescription-drug services that are not tied to membership. Any consumer can purchase meds from Costco or Sam's Club, or from PillPack, an online pharmacy acquired by Amazon in 2018.

The warehouse clubs consistently charge less for prescriptions than big drugstore and grocery chains, according to Consumer Reports, and offer additional savings for members.

Sam's Club members can get select generics for as little as $4 (with a broader selection for Plus members) through a partnership with the America's Pharmacy network. The Costco Member Prescription Program offers savings of up to 40 percent for people who are uninsured or whose insurance doesn't cover all their meds, and it even offers some discounts on pet prescriptions.

Amazon's PillPack sorts your daily pills into one packet and, once the service is established, automatically takes care of refills. Customers are responsible for copays, but PillPack covers shipping. Prime membership is not required.

The warehouse clubs are often your best bet for prescription glasses, Howard says, not just because of the value pricing but because customers can meet directly with optometrists there.

Travel

You might not think of warehouse clubs when planning your next vacation, but they offer an array of members-only travel benefits. It's probably not worth joining just for those deals, Cohen says, but it does give Sam's Club and Costco an advantage over Amazon, which is not a shopping destination for discount travel.

Woroch says Costco Travel is the first place she goes when looking for deals on hotels, airfare and car rentals. Members can get discounts on everything from group trips to cruises to ski lifts, and special pricing on all-inclusive resorts.

Sam's Club Travel and Entertainment is generally focused on discounts on theme parks and attractions but also offers some international travel deals, Cohen says.

Theme parks are a major category for both warehouse travel sites, Howard says, with admissions discounts of 30 percent to 50 percent at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Legoland resorts and other major sites.

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