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Sam's Club vs. Costco vs. BJ's: Which Membership is Best for You in 2024?

Sam's Club vs. Costco vs. BJ's: Which Membership is Best for You in 2024?

    For home cooks, warehouse clubs are a great way to save money, reduce your number of trips to the grocery store, and, in many cases, cut down on packaging waste. Three wholesale stores dominate the warehouse-club scene in the US: Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club. But if you only want to join one club, which one is right for you? There are significant differences you need to be aware of among all three companies to make the right call for you. In this article, we’ll compare membership dues, store locations, store brands, return policies and more for the Big 3 warehouse clubs.

Cover Photo:drobotdean on freepik.com

How Warehouse Stores Work

Warehouse stores work on a different model from other retail stores. Regular retailers, such as Walmart, make their money from the markup they charge – the difference between the wholesale price they pay for goods from their suppliers and the retail price they charge to customers. Kiplinger reports that the markup at a typical retail store is somewhere between 25% and 50%.

By contrast, warehouse stores charge a much lower markup – about 14% – and make up for the lost profits by charging a fixed yearly fee to each customer. That’s why these stores sometimes refer to themselves as buying clubs: You pay up front to become a member, and in return, you get to buy products at rock-bottom prices. In addition, you gain access to various other special deals on everything from healthcare to travel.

There are three major warehouse chains in the United States:

1. Costco

The Costco chain started in Seattle in 1983. 10 years later, it merged with another club store, called Price Club, which had been catering to business owners since 1976. Today, Costco has hundreds of stores stretching across the entire United States and beyond. The chain sets itself apart from other warehouse stores with its focus on high-end goods, such as organic food and designer jeans.

2. Sam’s Club

Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, started Sam’s Club in 1983. It’s now a nationwide chain with more than 600 stores and 47 million members. Its products range from groceries and office supplies, to big-ticket items such as jewelry and furniture.

3. BJ’s Wholesale Club

BJ’s is a smaller chain than its competitors, with 200-plus stores spread across 15 states. However, like Sam’s Club and Costco, it offers a wide range of goods and services, from groceries to vacation packages.

Overview: Similarities and Differences

The decision to join either Costco Wholesale, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale Club can be a vexing one. Here’s an overview so you can familiarize yourself with these three leading warehouse club chains.

SimilaritiesDifferences
Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s all sell in bulkMembership for Sam’s Club starts at $45, BJ’s starts at $55 and Costco starts at $60
All three require a membershipBJ’s has less than half of the number of stores vs. Costco and Sam’s Club
All three will refund the price of your membership if you’re ever dissatisfiedOnly BJ’s accepts manufacturer coupons
Costco and Sam’s Club have a roughly equal store count in the U.S. and Puerto Rico

Location

Costco has, by far, the most locations compared to Sam’s Club and BJ’s. There are approximately 803 Costco locations, 600 Sam’s Club locations, and 219 BJ’s locations. Costco shops are worldwide with locations in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Japan, among others, statista.com reports. Meanwhile, Sam’s Club locations can be found coast-to-coast in the United States, according to allstays.com. Significantly smaller by comparison, all of BJ’s 219 locations can be found in only 16 states, most of which are on the East Coast and in Ohio.

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Membership Costs

Warehouse Club
Basic MembershipPremium Membership
CostcoGold Star/Business for $60Gold Star Executive/Business Executive for $120 
Sam’s ClubClub for $45Plus for $100
BJ’sInner Circle – $55Perks Rewards – $110

Costco Membership Cost

$60 for the basic “Gold Star” or “Business” memberships, and $120 for the upgraded “Executive” version of each, which offer enhanced perks, including cash back rewards of 2% (up to $1,000 cash back) on qualified Costco purchases. 

Though each Costco membership can have only one primary member, a secondary cardholder can be added for free. Both memberships come with one household card, valid at all of Costco’s 750-plus locations across the US. They also offer access to Costco gas stations and other member-only perks.

Gold Star Executive members get additional benefits, including an annual 2% reward (up to $1,000) on qualifying Costco, Costco.com, and Costco Travel purchases. The ability to book rental cars and hotel stays for less via Costco Travel likely makes the Executive membership worth the extra $60, provided you use the perk. To make back your $120 membership fee with the annual 2% reward, you have to spend $6,000 throughout the year. And if you’re unsure which one works best for you, know that you’d need to spend at least $3,000 a year to make up the difference between the Gold Star and the Gold Star Executive memberships.

Costco also offers student and military memberships, both of which cost the same as the Gold Star membership ($60). But each one comes with a sign-up bonus of sorts: College students get a free Google Nest Mini and a $20 Costco gift card (valued at $45), while military members and veterans receive coupons for free products and other savings (valued at more than $60).

Other Costco Membership Perks:

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Sam's Club Membership Cost

$45 for the basic “Club” and $100 for “Plus” memberships, which offers enhanced perks, including cash back rewards of 2% on qualifying purchases (up to $500 annually). Both memberships come with one card (plus one complimentary household membership to share), as well as the opportunity to add on extra memberships for $40 a year. Both memberships also include other member-only benefits, like access to the Tire & Battery Center and Sam’s Club gas stations.

The higher-tier Sam’s Club Plus members have access to additional perks, including the opportunity to earn 2% in cash rewards (up to $500 a year) on qualifying purchases. Cash rewards are loaded onto your Sam’s Club member account and can be applied to purchases made online, in store, or through the Sam’s Club mobile app. You also have the option to redeem them for actual cash in hand, too. To make back your $100 membership fee, you have to spend at least $5,000 throughout the year—and to make up the difference between the standard Sam’s Club membership and the Plus option, you’d have to spend at least $2,750 a year. Plus members enjoy benefits like free shipping on online orders and discounted eyeglass frames and lenses, too.

Sam’s Club also offers memberships for military members and students, but like Costco, both cost the same as the standard membership ($45 a year) and come with gift cards at sign-up.

And Sam’s Club members are eligible to apply for the Sam’s Club Mastercard, which stands out for its amazing 5% cash back rate on gas.

The Sam's Club Membership Price includes these perks:

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BI's Membership Cost

The Inner Circle is BJ’s basic membership, and it’ll run you $55 annually; the Perks Reward membership is $110 a year. Both grant shoppers access to in-store and online club pricing, along with a complimentary household membership and the option to add three extra members for $30 each per year.

BJ’s is also unique in that it’s the only warehouse club to offer an online-only membership. As the name implies, the Online Access membership lets you shop member-only prices online or in the BJ’s mobile app for a $10 annual fee. But you won’t have access to same-day delivery or other BJ’s member benefits, like the optical department or exclusive deals on wireless AT&T services.

BJ’s Perks Reward membership is similar to the second-tier memberships offered at Costco and Sam’s Club. Shoppers can earn 2% cash back (up to $500 a year) on most BJ’s purchases. The rewards are issued electronically in increments of $20 and can be redeemed at checkout (they expire after six months, though). Members can also request cash back in the form of a check prior to the award’s expiration date.

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Cash Back Rewards

  • Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club all reward their premium members with cash back on most purchases.

  • Costco: Executive members receive an annual 2% Reward on qualified Costco purchases up to $1,000 annually. Full terms and conditions here.

  • Sam’s Club: Plus members earn 2% back on most purchases, up to $500 annually. Full terms and conditions here.

  • BJ’s Wholesale Club: Perks Rewards members receive 2% back on most purchases. Full terms and conditions here.

Sam’s Clubs caps your earnings at $500.

Costco, meanwhile, allows you to earn twice as much in cash back — $1,000 —  each year. In order to max that out, you’d have to spend $4,170 monthly or just more than $50,000 annually, according to warehouse club’s own numbers.

However, it’s BJ’s Wholesale Club that really stands out in this category. Team Clark has confirmed with BJ’s that there’s no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn.

Cash back at BJ’s is issued as electronic awards in increments of $20. They’re valid for six months from the date of issue and can be used at checkout. You also have the option to get a check by calling Member Care at 800-BJS-CLUB (800-257-2582).

Prices

There are countless price comparison reports for Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s. According to one comparison, BJ’s just barely topped Costco for the best pricing, followed by Sam’s Club. In another comparison, Costco products were cheaper than that at Sam’s Club—but the cost of membership was also taken into account, making Costco’s cost more for the first visit. Yet, another review found that BJ’s has the best prices followed by Sam’s Club, and then Costco. Note, cost is all relative to the types of products you purchase—like organic or non-organic produce, for example—as well as the level membership you purchase, and your location. Costco and Sam’s Club even offer services like eye exams. 

Store Brands


All three warehouse clubs sell a mix of name brands and their own private label goods.

1. Costco has the Kirkland Signature label. This beloved brand encompasses everything from clothing to food to sundries.

2. Sam’s Club has its Member’s Mark private label. “Member’s Mark products are exclusive designs that use top-of-the-line materials and the highest quality ingredients to make sure you get the best quality and value at members-only prices,” according to Sam’s Club.

3. BJ’s Wholesale Club actually has two private labels: Berkley Jensen and Wellsley Farms.

  • Berkley Jensen focuses on product categories like office, furniture, lawn & garden, home, appliances, baby & kids, apparel and health & beauty, among others.

  • Wellsley Farms, meanwhile, has a narrower focus on fresh & refrigerated food, canned & packaged food, frozen food, beverages and more.

Credit Cards

Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale all have co-branded credit cards with cash back rewards designed to appeal to their loyal customer base.

Warehouse Clubs Credit Card Comparison

Card Name
RewardsAnnual Fee


Costco Anywhere Visa Card by Citi

  • 4% cash back on gas

  • 3% at restaurants and travel

  • 2% at Costco

  • 1% elsewhere


None


Sam’s Club Mastercard

  • 5% cash back on gas

  • 3% on travel and dining

  • 1% elsewhere


None



BJ’s Perks Elite Mastercard

  • 5% cash back on most BJ’s purchases

  • 10¢ off/gal. at BJ’s Gas

  • 2% cash back at non-BJ’s gas stations

  • 2% cash back on restaurants

  • 1% elsewhere



None



BJ’s Perks Plus Mastercard

  • 3% cash back on most BJ’s purchases

  • 10¢ off/gal. at BJ’s Gas

  • 2% cash back at non-BJ’s gas stations

  • 2% cash back on restaurants

  • 1% elsewhere



None

Unlike Costco and Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale Club has two co-branded credit cards targeted to its two tiers of membership. The one you apply for depends on what kind of membership you have.

If you have an Inner Circle (basic) membership, you apply for the BJ’s Perks Plus Mastercard. If you have a Perks Rewards (premium) membership, then you can apply for the BJ’s Perk Elite Mastercard.

Meanwhile, none of the cards offered by any of the warehouse clubs has an annual fee, which is a big plus.

So which one is right for you? Our in-house credit card expert, Jason Steele, says it’s really a toss-up.

“These cards are so similar that your decision will likely depend on which store you prefer,” he writes. “In the extremely competitive fields of both credit cards and warehouse stores, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this race is too close to call.”

Return Policies

Warehouse clubs are generally known to have consumer-friendly return policies. Let’s take a closer look at some of the finer points of each warehouse club’s return policy.

Costco

Costco’s deal with its near-legendary return policy is that you can return anything, at any time, no questions asked and no receipt necessary — with some limited exceptions.

1. Electronics – Must return within 90 days
2. Appliances – Must return within 90 days
3. Cell phones – Must return within 90 days
4. Tires and batteries – Sold with a “product-specific limited warranty”
5. Custom-made products – Can’t be returned

You can read more about Costco’s return policy here

Sam’s Club

Sam’s Club says that having your receipt is recommended for returns, but not mandatory. “We prefer that you provide your original receipt or printed order, but if it is not available, we will do our best to process your return without it,” the store notes online.

However, you only have a limited amount of time to return some items:

1. Cell phones/Connected Devices – Must return within 14 days
2. Electronics – Must return within 90 days
3. Games and software – Must return within 90 days
4. Gift cards – No returns “except due to manufacturer defects or as required by law.”
5. Golf carts – Must return within 30 days
6. TVs – Must return within 90 days
7. Tickets – No returns
8. Vending machines – Must return within 30 days

Read more about the Sam’s Club return policy here.

BJ’s Wholesale Club

As a general rule, you can return any piece of non-grocery merchandise up to one year after purchase “in new condition [with] accessories intact.”

Several product categories have more limited return periods:

1. Televisions, home theater displays, laptops and tablets – Must return within 14 days
2. Computers, electronics and patio sets – Must return within 90 days
3. Major appliances – Must return within 30 days

Several kinds of items can’t be returned:

1. Gift cards
2. Clearance apparel
3. Opened media (CDs, DVDs, video games)
4. In-store jewelry purchases (online purchases can, however, be returned)
5. Items containing fuel, gas or oil

For full details, see the BJ’s Wholesale Club Return Policy.

In-Store Returns Are Easiest at Costco, then Sam’s Club, then BJ’s

If you need to return something to a store, there are big differences as well.

Costco is the easiest. They have a record of everything you purchased in the past. So, even if you can’t find the receipt, the store can scan your card, find the purchase on its computer system and give you a refund.

Costco also has no time limit. So, you can return something whenever you need to. This is something customers like.

Sam’s Club's return period is more confusing. It used to be three months. Then the company extended that to unlimited like Costco. Now when I ask someone over there, however, I get a different answer. So, I don’t know what their official return policy is today. This needs clarification.

Sam’s Club does let the shopper have a record of all receipts on their app, however it is more difficult to find the right receipt while standing at the customer service desk flipping between the receipts section and the membership card section.

BJ’s has a 30-day return policy. This is the shortest. Also, you need to keep your BJ’s receipt. Even though you have a member number and they scan it on purchase, they don’t seem to be able to pull the information up at the return counter. So, no receipt, no return.

BJ’s, Costco, Sam’s Club In-Store vs. Online Shopping Experience

When it comes to the check-out experience, Sam’s Club is the best. They let the shopper use an app to pay and walk out rather than having to get in the long check-out line at the cashier. I am very surprised neither Costco or BJ’s has this.

Sam’s Club also lets shoppers use all the major credit cards making their check-out experience easier.

So, based on experience, I would say the shopping and checking out experience is better at Sam’s Club than competitors.

Costco checkout only lets shoppers use one credit card, Visa. That means you cannot shop with a MasterCard, American Express or anything else. You can do this with Sam’s Club and BJ’s.

In addition, the shopper cannot scan and pay over an app and miss the long lines. There is no excuse for not having this app and service to the customer.

BJ’s let shoppers us a variety of credit cards, but its system seems older and antiquated. No app like with Sam’s Club.

So, Which One is Right for You?

Joining a warehouse club is a great way to save money, particularly if you have a family or live in a household with more than just one person. But which one is the best? There isn’t a definitive answer. Ultimately, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each membership and decide what works best for you and your shopping habits.

But even though Clark Howard shops at all three, he has a clear favorite — Costco Wholesale.

When you’re considering which warehouse club to join, you might want to make location one of the prime deciding factors. Because Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s are all so similar, the one that’s nearest to you or easiest to get to is the one you should probably consider joining.

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2021-04-24 01:099306