Many a shopper has walked out of warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club with a receipt containing at least a few extra zeros. And while you may feel like everything you bought was worth it (half off!), sometimes, despite their reputation for low prices, these warehouse clubs aren’t the best places to be spending your hard-earned loot, experts say.
“Sometimes you can get better deals at other places or you should skip buying some items,” says Matthew Ong, the retail analyst for NerdWallet.com. However, “what you should buy is a longer list — their reputation holds,” he adds.
Ong says that meats, such as bacon and chicken breasts, are often great buys at warehouse clubs (freeze whatever you don’t use), as are some kitchen appliances like toasters and microwaves.
Erin Konrad, a spokesperson for CouponPal.com, says that car parts like batteries and tires can be had for a very low price. “You can find the same brand tires as automotive stores, but for less, and get them installed while you shop,” explains Jon Lal, CEO and founder of BeFrugal.com.
Drugs also tend to be a good warehouse-club buy: A 2013 survey by Consumer Reports found that Costo was the cheapest place to buy drugs, while drugstores like CVS and Rite Aid were the priciest. Other to-buy items include alcohol and beach gear like beach chairs, says Lal.
Still, experts say, you may want to avoid — or at the very least do a thorough price comparison on the warehouse club vs. other area stores — on some of the items sold at warehouse clubs. Here are five.
Books, CDs and DVDs
“It might be tempting to buy books or DVDs at these stores, but you’ll find much lower prices online (like on Amazon),” says Konrad. Warehouse clubs sometimes put items like books, CDs and DVDs out near the register hoping consumers will pick them up, even though the prices aren’t the best, Ong explains. And because Amazon offers these products so cheaply (sometimes for a few cents) — even with shipping, it’s still sometimes cheaper to buy online.
Condiments, sunscreen and other surprising perishables
There are probably only a handful of shoppers who haven’t, at least once, bought something perishable at Costco or Sam’s Club, only to see it go to waste. In general, Lal says that you shouldn’t buy the food perishables — “as they will likely be in bulk and there is too great a risk that you won’t consume it in time” — with the exception of items that can be frozen. That, you probably already knew.
But Ong points out that some perishable items might surprise you, including condiments, sunscreen and beauty products. “Many condiments go bad after about six months,” he says. That means unless you have a big family or lots of parties, that six-pack of mustard, ketchup or another condiment might go to waste. You should also watch out for buying things like sunscreen, which may suffer from a similar problem, as well as some beauty products.
Konrad says that sometimes diapers are cheaper at Target or Wal-Mart (she’s found them a few cents cheaper per diaper in some cases, which she notes “adds up”) than at warehouse clubs (though this is far from always true). Another option that may be cheaper is Amazon, which allows you to buy in bulk and save through its Amazon Mom (free with a Prime membership) program, which gives 20% off diaper subscriptions that are delivered to your doorstep.
While buying laundry detergent in bulk may seem like a good idea (and the prices at warehouse clubs make it tempting), Ong points out that it may not be smart for some consumers because it can lose some of its efficacy fairly quickly, at least compared with some other cleaning products like disinfectant sprays and surface cleaners, which can last for a couple of years. The rough rule of thumb is that detergent may begin to lose some of its effectiveness after about six months to a year on the shelf, though it’s typically still safe to use. Of course, if you have a big family and do a ton of laundry, this may not be a problem (and then, by all means, hit up Costco and Sam’s), but for many people, it may be better not to buy this in bulk.
Paper goods — everything from toilet paper to facial tissues — can sometimes be found cheaper at Target or Wal-Mart, says Konrad; Ong adds that sometimes paper items (even paper plates and napkins) can even be found cheaper at the grocery store, that is, if you look out for the coupons that the stores put into the weekly circulars and combine them with sales.
By Catey Hill at Markey Watch