There are a lot of reasons to consider getting a Costco or Sam’s Club membership. For one thing, getting foods at a discount can make budgeting a lot easier, especially if you do have the storage space for bulk foods. But those are the only benefits. 

Both of these stores offer other benefits for membership and offer a wide range of goods and even services that help people stretch their budgets and get more bang for their buck. 

Of course, the two stores aren’t the same, and there are a lot of pros and cons that come with membership to each store. 

If you’re thinking about getting a bulk discount store membership, here’s what you need to know to choose which store is right for you. But don’t forget that having a membership to both stores is an option. A lot of bulk shopping enthusiasts have both memberships, and we’ll talk about why at the end. 

Shelves of products at Costco
Photo Credit: Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock
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Costco: What Is This Store, And What Are They Good At? 

Costco is widely known as the original bulk retailer, though they’re still a relatively recent addition to the retail market. They were originally founded in 1976, but they’ve since expanded into a globally recognized store. 

There are 815 Costco stores worldwide. The bulk of those locations are in the United States and Puerto Rico (a US territory). 

Costco also innovated the membership-based shopping model for bulk stores, and currently offer two membership levels. Both memberships give you access to all stores, while the higher membership tier also gives buyers a 2% cash-back reward, capped at $1,000, which is also auto-applied to membership renewal fees each year. 

They also have business memberships, though we aren’t going to discuss those here since they aren’t available to or helpful for retail customers. 

In addition to offering discounted prices in bulk, and some regular-size goods, Costco members also have access to a range of different services. 

Everyone can use Costco pharmacies, and get the discounted prices. You don’t need a membership to use those services. But you can get additional access to things like discounted gas at Costco gas stations with a membership. They also offer car rentals, optical centers for appointments and buying glasses and contacts, and other benefits. 

You can also apply for a Costco Credit Card, which offers some advantageous cash-back rewards programs on certain purchases. The card is also a Citi Card and can be used anywhere that accepts Citi, not just Costco stores. 

Memberships at Costco are good at any Costco location. So you can still use your US membership overseas if you happen to travel to another location that also has Costco stores. You might even be able to find a lot of the same products at those overseas locations!

Sam’s Club: What Is This Store And What Are They Good At?

Sam’s Club is Walmart’s answer to Costco. Walmart opened the first Sam’s Club store in 1983, in Oklahoma, and they also use basically the same business model. They offer discounted prices on goods in exchange for requiring a membership for shoppers. 

Right now, Sam’s Club isn’t an international store, all 599 stores are located in the United States and Puerto Rico, and they’ve had about the same number of stores for a long time now. That’s important because Sam’s Club isn’t expanding much, while Costco is in the middle of an aggressive expansion stage and is opening a lot of new stores. 

Sam’s Club also offers two levels of membership. The basic membership, Club, offers access to all stores, and the option to add additional cards if you want to. Their higher tier membership also offers cashback perks, like Costco, but they are limited to just $500 a year cashback, and the list of purchases that qualify for the benefit is a little more limited. 

They also offer additional perks and services, like more affordable optical services, gas, travel benefits, and discounts on name-brand drugs. That’s important to note since Costco supports both branded and generic drugs. 

The Differences: How The Stores Operate, The Costs, The Benefits

There are a few differences that are worth talking about here. 

One of the most important differences is that the memberships for these stores are at different price points. Costco’s current membership cost is $60 a year for the basic level of membership. Sam’s Club’s basic membership costs $45 a year. 

However, the cost of the goods in the store is also different. Costco tends to offer slightly better prices on their goods compared with Sam’s Club. So you’re likely to make up the differences in membership cost in the differences in products pretty quickly. Especially if you shop there regularly. 

Costco stores also have a footprint advantage. Their stores tend to be almost 10% bigger on average, which means more space for goods and services and a little bit more selection. 

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your local Costco is going to be bigger than your local Sam’s Club, just that they are bigger on average. 

That said, one of the reasons for the price per item differences is that Sam’s Club stocks more name-brand products than Costco, while Costco often stocks a generic version or a Kirkland brand alternative. 

At the same time, one of the secrets savvy shoppers know about Costco is that the Kirkland brand is often the exact same product as the name-brand alternatives. Costco works with brands to get Kirkland packaging on the same products, so if you think that your Kirkland product is really a different brand in disguise, that’s probably exactly what happened. 

The nice thing about that arrangement is that Kirkland brand offerings are usually more affordable, or offer a larger package for the same price. 

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Sam’s Club tends to offer bigger package sizes than Costco, while Costco has smaller package sizes, and even offers some products in regular-sized packages rather than the extra-large bulk packages. In some cases, you may have several sizes of the same product available, which can make it easier to get the amount of product that you need, rather than a larger amount that will take forever to use. 

However, that’s not necessarily an advantage. 

Sam’s Club sizes are great for larger families, businesses, and people who are buying in bulk to donate to charities, shelters, churches, and other causes. Their larger sizes can also be helpful for event planning. 

Both stores are a combination of commercial goods, things like TVs, other electronics, blankets, clothing, household appliances, and other items, and groceries, over-the-counter medications and supplements, pharmacy sections, and other services. 

Both stores also have variable stock. Some items may only be available in both stores once, and managers have broad discretion to change the regular stock of the stores based on what is popular and what customers are actually buying. 

No two Costco or Sam’s Club stores are going to have exactly the same stock. That can be frustrating if you move and the new store isn’t stocking some of your favorites, but it also means that shoppers in both of these stores are going to have access to one-time-only deals and discounts you can’t get anywhere else. 

If you do miss a product that isn’t stocked at a particular store, you can always let their customer service department know and they might start stocking that product on a trial basis, or even let you order a certain amount for yourself. 

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Costco Vs. Sam’s Club, Shopper Experience

One of the bigger differences between these stores is down to the shopping experience. There are, again, a lot of similarities. There are a lot of employees in a lot of different departments at both of these stores. Both stores have days where there are people offering samples of different foods. 

The similarities continue, with both stores offering an in-store café where you can get a snack or even a full meal while you shop. However, non-members can visit Sam’s Club cafes, while the Costco food court, known for both better food and more variety, does require a membership. 

That said, Costco’s food court has vastly discounted foods as well. 

Costco is also a little more diligent about greeting people on the way into the store, and asking for your membership, or directing you to non-member services, depending on why you’re there. Both Costco and Sam’s Club will check your receipt on the way out the door. 

However, when it comes to pure shopper experience, Costco tends to have a bit of an edge. Their employees are significantly better paid and offered better benefits, which shows up in their attitudes at work. 

Both of these stores use a warehouse business model, which means that there aren’t a lot of decorations or attention paid to store ambiance, but Costco stores do manage to feel a little more professional, a little cleaner, and a little nicer than Sam’s Club. 

Not to say that Sam’s Club employees are rude or that their stores are ugly, neither is true. We’d just rate the customer service and appearance of Costco slightly higher overall. 

That said when it comes to consistency of what the store stocks, Sam’s Club is going to come out on top. Costco gets a ton of one-time or occasional deals on goods, but they also tend to cycle through their grocery and other stock options more often than Sam’s Club. 

So if you’re someone who really wants to count on getting the same products, month after month, Sam’s Club might be a slightly better option for you.

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Kate founded DrizzleMeSkinny in 2014. Since then she has shared nearly 1000 weight watchers friendly recipes with DrizzleMeSkinny's over 500,000 social media followers.

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