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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.
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.