The Great Debate: Sam's Club or Costco?

By Raechel Conover, Cheapism.com

Last year Cheapism sent a researcher to Sam's Club and Costco to determine which warehouse club gives frugal shoppers the best deal. Although you can't go wrong with either, we found that Sam's Club holds a slight edge over Costco because it offers more in-store benefits, a larger brand selection, and smaller unit packaging that's more manageable for people with smaller households and/or limited storage.

We returned to the top wholesale stores to review our findings.

We recently returned to both clubs to update our findings and found that Sam's still dominates, but still only slightly.

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Sam's Club vs Costco Membership. Sam's Club membership fees in 2012 remain at the 2011 level: a Business Membership costs $35, the individual Advantage Membership goes for $40, and the Business Plus or Advantage Plus memberships sit at $100. The Advantage plan offers the same array of benefits, including a primary card that covers an additional named cardholder of the same household, auto-related perks, and Click N' Pull, which lets members shop online and pick up at a store of their choice the next day.

Costco raised membership prices for 2012. The Gold Star and Business memberships each cost $55 (up $5) and the Executive level costs $110 (up $10). The Gold Star and Business memberships at Costco boast nearly the same services and perks as last year, such as discounts on auto and home insurance and car rental, check printing, online investing, low pharmacy prices, identity protection, small business 401(k) plans, merchant credit card processing, and payroll services. Members can earn a Costco gift card by refinancing boat or RV loans, but the ability to open a high-yield savings account or CD is no longer possible.

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Sam's Club's Plus Membership and Costco's Executive Membership come with additional discounts. At Costco, for example, Executive members get 2 percent back on all purchases, but if they don't spend enough to earn back the $110 membership fee by year's end, Costco makes up the difference.

Buying in bulk helps frugal shoppers save.

Sam's vs Costco Pharmacy and Health Services. Both Costco and Sam's Club offer numerous health and wellness services to members, such as on-site vision exams, discounted glasses and contacts, and free hearing tests. Costco also checks and cleans hearing aids for free and replaces the battery if necessary. Both clubs offer health screenings -- osteoporosis and heart screenings at Costco (flu shots, too); a different screening focus every month at Sam's Club. New this year at Sam's: a personalized prevention health plan developed by a health care professional worth $229 that costs members $99.

Pharmacy services are cheap at both clubs. For members without insurance, Sam's charges $4 for a 30-day supply on select medications or $10 for a 90-day prescription. Advantage Plus members at Sam's Club also receive 8 percent off name-brand medications and 40 percent off generic medications not included in the $4/$10 plan.

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Costco vs Sam's Coupons. Costco coupons still outshine Sam's Club coupons. Costco mails and emails coupons to all members. Sam's Club offers only eValue coupons that are loaded onto Advantage Plus and Business Plus members' cards and redeemed at checkout.

Costco vs Sam's Delivery and Warranty. Big ticket purchases are a big reason to join a warehouse store like Sam's Club or Costco. Sam's Club delivers and installs most relevant products for fees ranging from $59 to $159; electronics can be installed for $89 and technical experts are available 24/7 at no charge. Business Plus and Advantage Plus members at Sam's get an extra year warranty with the purchase of any warranty.

Costco does not deliver, although shoppers can arrange a television installation for $89.99. Free technical support is available to members and a second-year manufacturer's warranty is provided for televisions, computers, and projectors at no additional charge.

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Other discounted services both warehouse clubs offer members:

  • Tire and automotive services, such as free flat repairs, battery testing, and wiper blade installation at Sam's and discounted auto insurance and car purchases from select dealers and online defensive driving courses at Costco. Both warehouse clubs sell and install discounted tires.
  • Photo developing.
  • Online shopping.
  • Credit cards, financial and small business services.
  • Gasoline.

Both retailers offer a wide range of grocery items, clothes, baby items, and seasonal home decor. Products and prices differ slightly, but are comparable overall. Additionally, Costco offers travel discounts on vacation packages, car rentals, and amusement park tickets.

Do you prefer Sam's Club or Costco, and why?

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