Club Stores are NOT Always Cheaper

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In an effort to take advantage of our 2% cash back perk of our executive membership, I’ve been trying to get in the habit of making bulk buying run to Costco once a month. By purchasing products that we always need and use in bulk once a month I figured I’d save time and money. One thing consumers have to be very careful about is whether what we’re buying is actually cheaper at a club store. The perception many consumers have is that if you buy gigantic packages at a club store, it MUST be a good deal. But I wasn’t so sure that was always true.

One item in particular that I questioned recently is paper towels.

I’m not afraid to profess my love for paper towels. I use them in countless situations including:

  • Soaking up excess bacon grease from my favorite breakfast meat
  • Drying off dishes after remembering that even after 23 minutes of scrubbing and rinsing the frying pan used to make taco meat I STILL stained my kitchen towel orange from left over taco seasoning. The struggle is real.
  • Cleaning up cat hurl that I may or may not have stepped in at 5am while walking down the hallway.
  • Spot cleaning the kitchen floor  because according to my wife if I use a dish cloth, I need to throw it in the next load of laundry and get out a clean one.
  • Used as a snack plate when I just started the dishwasher and don’t want to put a dirty plate into an empty sink.

I love my paper towels, but I don’t love them enough to overpay for them. I decided to do a cost comparison between a package of Bounty paper towels at Costco vs Walmart, where I do the bulk of my grocery shopping.

Costco:

  • Package of 12 Rolls (that are supposed to equal 23 “normal” rolls)
  • Total of 806 square feet of product
  • Regularly priced at $19.99

2.5 cents per square foot

Walmart:

  • Package of 12 Rolls (that are supposed to equal 16 “normal” rolls)
  • Total of 561 square feet of product
  • Regularly priced at $12.97

2.3 cents per square foot

At regular price, the package at Walmart is actually a better buy. However, at the time I was comparing prices Costco was offering a $4 instant manufacturer’s rebate, bringing the price down to $15.99. That makes the Costco package a miserly 2 cents per square foot.

One may think this is the end of the story, but it’s not.

Bounty is not my favorite brand of paper towel. I prefer Walmart’s Great Value paper towel over Bounty, or any other brand of paper towel. I decided to see how my preferred brand stacked up against Bounty.

  • Package of 4 rolls (that are supposed to be equal to 8 “normal” rolls)
  • Total of 308 square feet of product
  • Regular priced at $6.44

2.1 cents per square foot

The Walmart store brand paper towels are, in my opinion, softer and just as absorbent, but is cheaper than Bounty both at Walmart AND Costco baring a sale.

This comparison illustrates several important things when doing price comparisons:

  • There are almost endless different product package comparisons that can be done. I tried to pick two Bounty packages that were similar in size, but there were many others to choose from. Pick the size of package you are most likely to buy.
  • Make sure that you also include the product and size of package you already use. If it’s cheaper, OR if there isn’t a significant price difference it may not be worth switching to a new brand.
  • Always use a standard of measurement that is consistent. In my comparison I used square feet of product as it was listed on each package. Using something like a “roll” isn’t a good idea because the definition of a roll can differ between manufacturers.

Products are not always cheaper just because they came from a club store in a ginormous package. Before switching your purchasing routine, do the work to find out which really is the best buy for your money. You just might be surprised.

Have you ever found that a product you purchase often is actually MORE expensive at a club store?

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26 Responses to “Club Stores are NOT Always Cheaper”

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  1. Yup, you have to do the math! Now with the manufacturer’s rebate, can you pick up more than one pack of paper towels to stockpile at the cheapest price? Of course you need a place to store these and paper towels are quite bulky.

    • What I forgot to mention, is that we go through a lot of paper towels, unfortunately, because my daughter has OCD with germaphobic tendencies (among other things). We sort of charge her for her paper towel use (difficult to manage this though), because it’s so high and hoping she will stem her use herself. We always joke that we need stock in Scott paper!

    • Travis says:

      Fortunately for us, storage of bulk products is not an issue…if we see a great deal in bulk, the thing that would hold us back is the overall price of multiple huge packages. 🙂

  2. Never really compared prices at this level, but made I should. My rule of them has been not wanted to drive to multiple stores to shop if I don’t have too. We typically hit Costco and a local grocery store.

    • Travis says:

      I understand not wanting to drive to multiple stores…your gas cost and time are worth something too. In my case, I drive by Walmart on my way to Costco – which are both on my way to work. So, stopping at both doesn’t really hit me that hard timewise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brian!

  3. It’s been my experience that club stores may have good everyday prices, but that they often don’t beat the supermarket sales. Costco and BJ’s both recently opened up nearby, and when my wife found a promo code for the BJ’s membership, we decided to use a day pass to check out the prices first. On the mix of products we use and the way we shop (based on supermarket promotions), it was not going to be worthwhile for us to join, even with a reduced membership cost. It’s important to know your prices (and when dealing with bulk versus regular, that means unit prices) to judge for yourself.

    • Travis says:

      Good point, Gary….things at Club stores don’t go on sale all that often – unless there’s a manufacturer’s rebate like I ran across this time. it’s always good to do the price comparison with the current prices and sales at the time you’re going shopping. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I know someone who brings a calculator to the grocery store. She’s fierce in her determination to get the best deals, and she calculates the comparative cost of bulk items on a regular basis. She too has discovered that bulk items are not necessarily less expensive. It takes a lot of focus to get into that kind of detailed shopping, but it certainly sounds worth it. My phone has a calculator function. Hmmmm . . .

    • Travis says:

      I use the calculator on my phone all the time grocery shopping….in fact, that’s how I know exactly what my total will be (give or take a few dollars for tax) before I head into the checkout lane, Prudence. I also use it to store prices for products (usually by taking a picture for future comparison). Document prices, compare them, then buy what’s cheapest!

  5. JD says:

    We tossed the idea of Costco, Walmart a long time ago. I am very price focused and check prices, I have found local stores ( a form of Kroger, depending on where you are in the country) and Amazon prime to beat them the majority of time.

    • Travis says:

      My local stores never beat Costco or Walmart…it’s not even close, JD. But I’m happy to hear you’ve found cheaper alternatives – obviously you’ve done the comparison and doing what makes your shopping the cheapest where you live – kudos!

  6. LOL, the cat hurl story reminds me of the time Rick thought he narrowly avoided cat hurl in the hallway, but after he turned on the light, he realized it was a dead bat. Ah, the joys of living in the country. 🙂

  7. Kathy says:

    Buying in bulk is not always efficient unless you have a large family and can use up the product before it goes bad. Of course, with non-perishables like paper towels and toilet paper, this is not a problem. We typically get our toilet paper at Target who often has a deal if you get two packages on sale, they give you a $5-$10 gift card. If you combine that with a coupon and use the gift card from the last time you can score a pretty sweet deal.

    • Travis says:

      I think you (or maybe someone else) has mentioned this before….good reminder to check that out – $5-$10 gift card could make a HUGE difference in the price of such a product! Thanks for the tip, Kathy!

  8. Jefferson says:

    We used to use Costco heavily a few years ago, but had to stop when we had a few allergies creep up in the family (they aren’t the best for allergy friendly foods).

    All and all.. I’m not sure that we saved a ton of money there. We tended to overbuy, just because it was a good deal.

    • Travis says:

      It always seems like a “good deal,” right Jefferson? Stick to the list, and stick to the budget. It’s hard, especially in a place like Costco or Sam’s Club….but it is possible. Thanks for reading, Jefferson!

  9. Oh, I agree with you 100%! I used to buy bulk supplies at my old job when we had events and I almost always found better deals at the regular grocery store. There were a few exceptions, but it is definitely true that big club stores are not always cheaper-even when you buy a huge amount of whatever it is.

    • Travis says:

      Bigger does NOT always equal cheaper – and although many retailers now have those little stickers giving you the “price per unit,” sometimes it’s hard to determine what a “unit” is. It’s always best to do your own comparison in order to make the best decision for your own family. Thanks for sharing, Holly!

  10. I haven’t been to a club store in years (used to go to Sam’s Club), but I can see why they’d try to sell certain products at a higher price. I mean, some of that stuff has to be impulsive. I remember when I went with my parents growing up I always saw things that I wanted to throw in the cart.

    • Travis says:

      Talk to anyone that shops at a club store and they say the same thing, “It’s hard to get out of here without spending a couple hundred bucks.” Imagine if the price is a little higher per “unit,” and then because it’s a club store you buy a massive package of them. They just increased their profit by forcing you to buy a crap ton of it!

  11. Great post! Love the math you used here to dispell the rumours/ideas that club stores are always cheaper. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Michael Libby says:

    One BIG difference between CostCo and Walmart though. CostCo’s workers get paid a living wage and are treated with dignity.

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