Costco vs. Sam's Club: Warehouse Store Price Comparison

I've been a Costco member for many years. Their reputation is enviable, high-quality products at exceptionally low prices, and frankly, I've mostly taken their price superiority as a given.

Recently I visited Sam's Club for the first time and discovered that it was a virtual mirror image of a Costco warehouse store. The same concrete floors, same steel rack shelves and the same giant shopping carts. I wanted to know, who had lower prices?

Sam's Club came first. As I did in my Walmart vs. Target comparison, I prepared a list of items before I entered either store. This would help keep things fair by ensuring that I didn't choose items based on the price at Sam's.

The membership fee at Sam's Club is $40 per year, which I was determined to avoid buying. I wouldn't be able to purchase anything during my price-investigation, but non-members are welcome to enter and browse the merchandise. Based on the reaction of the gal at the door, I was the first person to ever walk in without a membership. She directed me to the member counter, where my presence in the store was approved.

Wow. Sam's club is exactly like Costco. I am tempted to proclaim it to be a rip-off of Costco, but both companies emerged in the same year (1983).

On to the price comparisons! I visited Sam's Club on Monday, May 17th and Costco on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010.

Both stores have a bunch of different liquors for sale, usually in the big bottle. Where I come from, Costco is kind of like the party store. So much so that I used Costco's prices for tuning the cocktail calculator last December. Wikipedia says that Costco has a reputation for really good wine prices, but I didn't check those. I checked Vodka.

Absolut Vodka (1.75 liter bottle)
Sam's Club
Costco advantage $1.29

Costco wins!

Next, I compared Mustard. Both stores had 2-packs of huge (30 oz.) mustard bottles.

French's Mustard (2-30 oz. bottles)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $0.13  

Sam's Club wins!

Costco's price was slightly higher, and their price included a rebate taken at the register.

Next I checked the fresh meat section for pork loin.

Fresh Pork Loin (per pound)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $0.01  

The prices and products were almost exactly the same. Sam's Club used "Prairie Fresh" and Costco had "Swift & Company".

I knew that I'd end up having to compare a few products that weren't exactly the same, and it started with vanilla ice cream. Sam's Club had giant containers of Breyer's Vanilla while Costco carried twin half-gallon packs of Kirkland Ice Cream. The price favored Sam's Club by $1.37.

Vanilla Ice Cream (gallon)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $1.37  

Sam's Club wins!

I could only find giant 36 packs of 7up at Costco, while Sam's Club had 12-packs, which are obviously more convenient for anyone who sn't stocking a fallout shelter. Sam's Club still beat them on price, by 45 cents.

7up (36 12 oz. cans)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $0.45  

Next, I looked for Ziplock Bags. Costco wins here, offering a 216-bag package for $9.69 while Sam's Club only has 208 bags for $10.98. Costco only offered freezer bags, which seem to be the most valuable variety. Getting the freezer bags would have been an even worse deal at Sam's Club, as they offered just 152 bags for $10.82.

Ziplock Bags (200)
Sam's Club
Costco advantage $1.58

Costco wins!

The next item on my list was a treadmill. Sadly, Sam's club was not offering a treadmill for sale in the sporting goods aisle. They did, however have a $219 trampoline for sale. Costco came through with a Freemotion club series treadmill for $849.99.

I knew I'd have trouble finding the same laptop at both stores, but worked out just fine. I found an HP 210-1000 series netbook at both locations, with exactly the same technical specifications. The Sam's Club model number warned me that Sam's Club model didn't have a built in webcam, but it did end up having one. Sam's club had it for $50.99 less.

Laptop (HP Netbook)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $50.99  

Next I checked blenders. Sam's club had a 40oz, 500 Watt Cuisinart for $49.87 where Costco had a 50 oz., 600 Watt Cuisinart for $54.99. I could break this down and compare the per-watt or per-ounce prices, (which Costco would win) but bigger isn't always better when it comes to household appliances. I declare this a draw.

Generally I found that Costco stocked a more high-end product with an appropriately high-end price.

Grapes were the same price. Costco had a 4-pound clamshell for $7.99 while Walmart had 3-pounders for $5.98.

Grapes (per pound)
Sam's Club
no advantage

In a few instances, one store had a lower per pound price, but only with a larger quantity. This was the case with dog food. Sam's Club offered a 50 lb. bag for $18.98 and Costco offered a 60 lb. bag for $19.99. You don't always want the larger bag, but in this case Costco clearly beats Sam's Club by offering 10 more pounds for just $1 more.

The table below shows "per 50 lbs." price for a direct comparison.

Dog Food (50 pound bag)
Sam's Club
Costco advantage $2.33

Comparing two warehouse stores takes some math, and comparing the two above ground pools also took some geometry. Sam's club had a round INTEX pool, 18' across and 4 feet deep for $378. Costco offered a rectangular INTEX pool, (20-feet long and 10 feet wide, 54" deep) for $599.99. At first glance, I thought the Costco pool was much larger, but upon further study I calculated the round Sam's pool to hold 1,018 cubic feet of water and the rectangular Costco pool to hold 867 cubic feet.

Plus, whirlpools!

Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $221.99  

Sam's Club wins!

The next item in my list was "Tool Assortment". Costco is known for its unneccessarily large tool kits. For example they were selling an 83-piece household tool set for $14.97. Unfortunately, Sam's Club didn't have anything like that. The closest thing I could find was a screwdriver tip set for $19.87.

Next I wanted chicken nuggets. Sam's Club had a 4.2 lb. bag of Tyson nuggets for $9.98 while Costco had a five pound bag of Foster Farms nuggets priced at $12.99.

Chicken Nuggets (5 pound bag)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $1.11  

Sam's Club wins!

Next I tried to compare the price of brown sugar. Sam's Club had big four pound bags for $3.47, and Costco had bakery-sized 25 lb. bags for $14.49. Costco would have won that head-to-head price matchup, but 25 lbs of brown sugar?

The next item on my list was mashed potatoes. Sam's club had instant potatoes in a one gallon carton for $5.48, but I couldn't find any equivalent at Costco.

Next I compared juice boxes. Sam's club had 40 packs of Capri Sun for $7.48, and Costco had them for $7.69, so Sam's club squeeks by on that comparison. Also, Sam's had Kool Aid Jammers for $6.98, so you can save even more if you aren't loyal to Capri Suns.

Juice Boxes (40)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $0.21  

Only upon seeing the carbon copy of Costco's bakery did I decide to include sheet cake in the comparison. Sam's club had them for $16.64 and Costco's sell for $16.99. Have you ever been to a birthday party which didn't have leftover cake? I don't think I have.

Birthday Cake (half sheet)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $0.34  

Sam's Club wins!

And finally I compared Resse's Peanut Butter Cups. Sam's Club had a special sign notifying retail resellers of the potential profits they'd find in reselling the peanut butter cups. Sam's Club sold a box of 36 packets for $16.04 while Costco had the same box for $17.49.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (36 ct.)
Sam's Club
Sam's Club advantage $1.45  

Sam's Club wins!

There you have it. Costco won on Dog Food, Ziplock Bags and Vodka, Sam's Club won on the price of Mustard, Pork, Ice Cream, 7up, a laptop, pool, chicken nuggets, juice boxes, birthday cake and peanut butter cups. In many cases, the Sam's Club advantage was just a few cents, but in the case of the laptop and pool, the savings was significant.

Costco is a nice place to shop. The prices are very good, they just aren't as good as you will find at Sam's Club.


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