Warehouse stores are a terrific place to save money buying in bulk, given the right circumstances. Costco and Sam’s Club are the two dominant retailers in the space. But, which one is best?
We have been members of both retailers, and each one offers a lot of perks.
In this post we compare membership fees, store locations, return policies, member benefits, and more to help you determine which wholesale club is best for you.
Costco vs. Sam’s Club: Membership Fees
Before you join a membership warehouse it is essential to determine the cost. Neither store is free to join and you must decide if the cost provides enough benefits.
Both stores let you shop with a friend who is a member. Additionally, you can have them purchase gift cards for you to use at the store, but neither avails all member perks to you.
Costco Membership Fees
You can join Costco with one of its three plans. Here are the available membership levels to join the warehouse club.
For the purposes of our guide we will only be discussing the Gold Star and Executive plans. Each of these plans gives you access to the store and the online shop.
The Executive plan includes everything in the Gold Star plan. You also receive an annual two percent cashback return on eligible purchases.
Additionally, Executive members receive exclusive offers and discounts.
The Business Membership gives similar perks like the ability to resell items you purchase.
Sam’s Club Membership
You can join Sam’s Club with one of two plans. Here are the possible membership levels to join.
Either plan lets you access the store and shop from its website.
The Plus plan includes everything in the Club plan. Like the higher-tier Costco plan, Plus gets you two percent cashback on purchases annually.
You also get exclusive savings on pharmacy and optical services. Sam’s Club also offers free shipping with no minimum order amount to Plus members.
Winner: Tie. For price alone, Sam’s Club wins for membership costs. However, you may find that it doesn’t entirely come down to cost for your situation.
However, if the annual rebate on the more expensive plans are important Costco is the winner. You can earn up to $1,000 a year vs. $500 with Sam’s Club.
In our household shopping we usually earn approximately $300 a year from our current Costco membership. This comes in the form of a check to use at the store.
Our Sam’s Club membership often returned a lower rebate check.
Sam’s Club vs. Costco: Locations
If you’re considering joining either membership store you need to select one that has a store near you. Both are nationwide, but one has more locations.
Costco is currently located in 47 States in the U.S. There are currently 574 locations, in 482 cities throughout the country as of March 2022.
Here is where you won’t find a Costco:
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
California is home to the most locations – 132. This is due to the Price Club, which was located throughout the state, merging with Costco in 1993.
The combined company kept many of the Price Club locations.
Costco also has an international bent, with another 255 stores worldwide as of March 2022.
Sam’s Club Locations
Sam’s Club is currently located in 44 States in the U.S. There are currently 600 locations in 488 cities throughout the country as of March 2022.
Here is where you won’t find a Sam’s Club:
- Rhode Island
You also won’t find a Sam’s Club in the District of Columbia. Sam’s Club is owned by Walmart so it’s common to see the two stores located next to each other.
Sam’s Club doesn’t have the same international reach as Costco. You can only find stores in China or Mexico.
Winner: Sam’s Club wins by a slight margin as it currently has 26 more stores. But, not all cities have both retailers so it really comes down to which is nearest to you.
Pricing and selection is important when choosing an annual membership to a warehouse club. Both stores let you shop with a gift card before joining.
If in doubt, use that to determine which store has more of the products you purchase.
Costco carries roughly 4,000 SKUs (stock keeping units) at any one time, according to its website. These range from bulk items like paper products to food staples.
This is considerably less than what you will find at a major grocery store, as most carry up to 30,000 SKUs according to the Costco website.
The retailer puts focus on value and quality of products sold over quantity.
You will find many nationally-recognized brands in the store. Costco also showcases its private label products under the Kirkland Signature label.
Generic products often get a bad rap, but Kirkland items are usually high quality. In many cases the product is made at the same location as the name brand counterpart.
We often purchase Kirkland products and are typically pleased with the quality and value for your money.
Furthermore, if organic products are important in your grocery shopping you will be pleased with Costco. Just look for the green price tag on the shelf to find organic products.
We often buy organic items at Costco and find they’re cheaper in price vs. buying at the grocery store.
Sam’s Club Products
Sam’s Club usually sells more items than Costco, with the former carrying 6,000 – 7,000 SKUs. Like Costco, you can find virtually anything in bulk from food items to household goods.
You will find a broader swath of large, name brand products at Sam’s Club. A big component of this is commonly sharing lots with Walmart locations so they can bring in more SKUs.
But, Sam’s Club doesn’t put the same weight on offering higher-end items without sacrificing value.
Member’s Mark is the private label of Sam’s Club. There is less focus on this brand when compared to Costco and its Kirkland Signature line.
While Sam’s Club does sell organic food and produce it doesn’t promote as much as Costco does.
Winner: Costco. Sam’s Club carries more SKUs, but Costco has higher quality items that still offer considerable value.
If store brands and organic items are essential to you, Costco is the hands down winner.
Is Costco Less Expensive than Sam’s Club?
It is challenging to do a 1:1 comparison on pricing when looking at Costco vs. Sam’s Club. The latter carries more SKUs, and the former specializes in private labels products.
But, in our shopping, Costco is slightly cheaper when you look at a price per ounce emphasis. You can also save money shopping at Sam’s Club.
It all comes down to your shopping strategy and what you purchase.
Both stores use secret codes in their price tags to help shoppers identify potential savings. Costco uses three key indicators to reflect potential savings.
First, anything with an asterisk on the upper right of the price tag reflects the item will not be restocked. That may result in a discounted price tag.
Second, items with an ending of $0.97 are close-out deals. Regularly priced items usually end in $0.79, $.049, and so forth.
Third, items with an ending of $0.88 or $0.00 are Manager Markdowns. These are special deals made by the local store manager.
Sam’s Club is a little less straightforward with their secret codes. Price tags include one of five letters, as indicated below.
- N = Never out
- A = Active
- C = Clearance
- S = Seasonal
- O = One time buy
Price tags marked with C or O typically reflect deals. Tags with N, A, or S are clear, you can usually find them in the store or are a seasonal item that will be in stock for the near term.
Winner: It’s tough to give a clear winner, but we’re giving it to Costco. Aside from the higher membership cost, it offers more deals and more reports indicate prices are better at Costco.
Paying at the end of your shopping trip is a simple process, but it’s essential to know what you need in your wallet. Here’s what you need to know about the accepted payment methods at either store.
Costco Payment Options
Costco is hawkish about extending value to its members. They actively look for deals on products to help them provide low prices or other savings.
That plays out even in what credit cards Costco accepts. As you will see in our list, the retailer only accepts Visa if you want to use a credit card.
That’s due to a lower processing fee it has secured from Visa. Here are the acceptable payment options at Costco.
- All Visa cards
- Business checks from current Business members
- Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi
- Costco cash cards
- Debit cards (PIN-based)
- EBT cards
- Mobile Payment (Apple, Google, or Samsung Pay)
- Personal checks from members
- Traveler’s checks
There is plenty of variety to pay, but if you want to use a credit card it can only be a Visa.
Sam’s Club Payment Options
Sam’s Club is a little more flexible in what forms of payment they will accept. Here are the currently available payment options at Sam’s Club.
- American Express cards
- Debit cards
- Discover cards
- EBT cards
- MasterCard cards
- Personal check
- Sam’s Club gift cards
- Sam’s Club Credit (PLCC)
- Visa cards
- Walmart Credit (PLCC)
- Walmart gift cards
Regardless of the issuer, if you have a major credit card in your wallet it’s likely you can use it at Sam’s Club.
Winner: Sam’s Club is the winner due to the flexibility on credit card acceptance.
Costco vs. Sam’s Club: Return Policy
If you buy something that is defective or you don’t like you may want to return it. Both stores have a generous return policy for cash or exchange.
Costco Return Policies
Costco is incredibly flexible on accepting returns. You can return many items, regardless of when you bought it.
If you don’t have a receipt, they may issue you store credit. If you have a receipt they will return the funds via the payment method used at purchase.
Here are variations in the Costco return policy.
- Alcohol and cigarettes – Costco doesn’t accept returns
- Diamonds – anything over 1.00 carat must include all original paperwork and members will receive a credit memo and a Costco gemologist will inspect for authenticity within 48 hours
- Electronics and major appliances- Costco will accept returns within 90 days of purchase
Special orders and items with a limited life expectancy often come with a product-specific limited warranty.
Aside from the above, you can return purchased items without limit at Costco.
Sam’s Club Return Policies
Returns are handled similarly at Sam’s Club. You can return most items without restriction.
Here is where you will find exception.
- Cell phones – Sam’s Club will accept within 14 days of purchase
- Commercial heavy equipment – Sam’s Club will accept within 30 days of purchase
- Electronics and major appliances – Sam’s Club will accept within 90 days of purchase
Unless above, you can often return anything for refund or exchange.
Winner: Tie. Both stores are generous with their return policy. It’s best to consult the store if you have questions on a return.
Additionally, you can typically return items you purchase items bought online to the respective retailer.
Costco vs. Sam’s Club: Travel Discounts
Finding deals on travel is a fantastic way to save money. It’s also one of the member benefits of both warehouse stores. Here are some of the discounts you can expect.
Costco Travel Programs
Costco offers a wide variety of deals on travel for members to use. We’ve used Costco travel on a number of occasions in our home to save on rental cars and other vacation packages.
Here are some of the ways you can save on travel with a Costco membership.
- Guided vacations
- Hotel stays
- Rental cars
- Theme park visits
You can purchase any of the above separately or as a package. We’ve found rental cars to be 25 percent cheaper than what you get directly from a rental agency.
You can expect similar discounts on other travel packages. If you’re an Executive Member, you also receive the two percent rewards rebate.
Sam’s Club Travel Programs
Sam’s Club Travel and Entertainment offerings are a little broader than what you can get at Costco. But, you may not receive a similar discount.
Here are some of the ways you can cut travel and entertainment costs with Sam’s Club.
- Destination packages
- Hotel stays
- Movie tickets
- Rental cars
- Preferred Access to select concerts and sporting events
- Theme park visits
- Water parks
Discounts aren’t as significant as what you will find with Costco Travel. But, you can also earn rewards rebates on purchases.
Winner: Costco. Costco offers greater rebates and discounts.
Both Costco and Sam’s Club are terrific for grocery shopping and purchasing other items for your home. However, that’s a drop in the bucket when compared with other services and discounts they offer.
Additional Costco Services
Costco sells more than products for your home and has more than its popular food court. Here are some additional benefits to joining Costco.
- Business delivery
- Discounted eyeglasses, contacts, and optometry services
- Mail order and product pick up for prescriptions (including pet medications)
- Automative services, such as a car buying service
- Home services (including HVAC, flooring, and garage doors)
- Photo taking and printing (including printing passport photos)
- Identity protection
- Insurance options (including life, auto, and home)
- Home loans
- Business services like phone services and payment solutions
- Gas stations
You must be a member to take advantage of any of these perks. We’ve used several of them and have usually found it cheaper than finding a service independently.
Additional Sam’s Club Services
Sam’s Club does more than let you buy in bulk. Here are some of the added perks of a membership.
- Home improvement services
- Business services like POS solutions and check printing
- Automotive services
- Same-day grocery delivery
- Optical discounts
- Discounted prescriptions
- Photo services
Sam’s Club does offer a lot of additional discounts, but it lacks in scale vs. Costco.
Winner: Costco is the clear winner. Sam’s Club offers a lot of extra services, but the breadth and discounts from Costco are unmatched.
Pros and Cons
When comparing Costco vs. Sam’s Club you need to take a side-by-side look at how they compare. Here is how the two retailers stack up.
Costco Pros and Cons
There is a lot to like about Costco, but it’s not perfect. Here’s what to consider when looking at joining.
- Discounted prices for many items
- Access to many services, including vision care, banking services, a pharmacy, and more
- Great deals on travel, prescriptions, dining out, and more
- It’s excellent for big families
- Awesome return policy
- They offer delivery
- You can access coupons to save extra money
- Gas is much cheaper when you purchase it through Costco
- An awesome food selection, including organic, non-GMO, and frozen foods
- Store layouts aren’t great
- They only accept Visa cards
- The membership options are more expensive
Sam’s Club Pros and Cons
Similarly, there is a lot to like about Sam’s Club. Here’s what to keep in mind when comparing them to Costco.
- Staples like household goods and frozen foods are easy to find and inexpensive
- Super cheap fuel options that can save you money, especially if you drive a lot
- Additional shopping hours for small business owners
- Discount options on items including movie tickets, theme park tickets, travel, and pharmacy items
- A great return policy
- Added flexibility in payment options because they accept more credit cards.
- They have a Scan & Go app so you can shop, scan your items, and pay via the app
- A cheaper membership fee
- The quality of items is hit or miss
- Their prices are slightly higher
- They don’t accept coupons
- Fewer organic options compared to Costco
Which one you choose will likely come down to preference. If possible, join a friend at each before choosing which one to join.
Who is Better Sam’s Club or Costco?
Although Costco is more expensive to join, it provides a lot of value when compared to Sam’s Club. Base memberships are $15 more at Costco, but you can earn extra rebates vs. Sam’s Club.
Costco offers more services than Sam’s Club. They also tend to have slightly lower prices than Sam’s Club.
Neither store is bad, so it really comes down to your preference.
Both Sam’s Club and Costco are terrific warehouse clubs that help you cut costs and have similar hours of operation. They also offer additional services that make the cost of membership more valuable.
If you have a large family and enjoy organic or private label products, Costco is the winner. If you’re shopping for fewer people, you may find Sam’s Club preferable.
But, if a wide variety of savings options is what you’re looking for, you’ll likely be happier with Costco.
What do you look for when choosing a warehouse store?