Price Check Experiment: Is Costco really worth it?

It’s a fair question to ask, and I’ve often wondered if shopping at Costco — or any of the other big wholesale clubs — is worthwhile after paying membership fees, driving the distance to the store, and standing in long lineups with pallets of peanut butter.

So I decided to do a little experiment to see if shopping at Costco was cheaper when compared to my local grocery chain, Superstore.

I tend to do this little price comparison check every few months to make sure I’m getting the best value for my food dollar. If you’ve been checking out of your grocery store without checking in with the prices lately, it’s a good idea to run your own food bill price check — a better dinner deal may found elsewhere.

Price Check, please!

Now comparing Costco Wholesale Club prices to those at a regular grocery chain is akin to associating apples with oranges, and the variables are many. For starters, Costco offers fewer brands and sells their wares in much larger quantities than your average supermarket. Costco also supplies items generally not available in your grocer’s food aisle, such as diamond rings, flat screen TVs, and winter tires. Tasty!

So to do a fair price check, I had to do a little mathy math with some quasi-scientific rules.

Price Check Rules:

  1. Compare unit prices to calculate the best price per quantity.
  2. Use unit prices to scale items to meaningful quantities.
  3. Compare the same, or very similar brands.
  4. Only compare regularly priced items for a baseline.
  5. Don’t get caught snapping price photos in either store. 🙂

Sticking to these rules was pretty simple, but trying to photograph price stickers in Costco was a huge pain. So if you run your own ‘price check’ experiment, do yourself a solid by sticking to pen and paper. 🙂

Sample Shopping List

I’m not a very exciting food shopper. I don’t buy a lot of packaged products and my grocery list generally contains real food — you’ll never find a ramen noodle thingy in my cart. But I wanted to get a good sampling of fresh, frozen, and packaged food to determine (based on unit price) if Costco really offers a better deal to consumers. I even added diapers to my list ’cause I can’t escape Costco without seeing someone with a package of Huggies in tow.

Sample List: Comparing Costco to Superstore

Bottom Line: Follow the green cells to see the product winner in each category. Surprised? Based on my sample food bill, I would have saved $25.68 — that’s almost 21% on a near hundred dollar food bill — by shopping at Costco and skipping my local supermarket. But after studying my receipts, I came to some interesting conclusions.

10 Tactics for saving money at Costco

Not everything is a better deal at Costco. And depending on the size of your family, type of membership, and buying habits you may be better off shopping elsewhere. Here’s how to win the war on warehouse ‘deals’ at Costco:

1. Skip the fresh foods.

Costco’s fresh produce tends to be more expensive than Superstore, based on unit price. For example, Costco’s gala apples sell for $2.13/kg while Superstore offers the deal at $1.28/kg. I also found Costco to be more pricey for fresh vegetables, chicken breasts, milk, cheese, and coffee.

I’ll stick to buying local fresh veggies and organic chicken to stretch my food dollar. See 1 Organic Chicken, 22 Healthy Meals, $49 Bucks for the details.

Bottom Line: Your local grocery store may sell fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat for far less.

2. Frozen foods are a steal.

Consumers of frozen foods can save a bundle at Costco — especially on Costco’s Kirkland Signature Products. I was gobsmacked by the price and quality, of Costco’s Kirkland vegetables when compared to a similar mix at Superstore.

Costco Kirkland Brand: Frozen broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower are as advertised.

Superstore No Name Brand: Not only is the packaging misleading, but I hope you like a lot of lumber with your carrots. I see no broccoli and few cauliflower ‘trees’ in my bag.

Veggie Showdown: Don’t serve your chicken with a side of sad — Costco’s frozen veggies win for quality and price.

Any Californians out there? Please assure me that Superstore’s interpretation of ‘California-style’ mixed vegetables is bunk. I can’t fathom such a beautiful state serving these sad sad veggies to a bunch of hungry Canadians.

Bottom Line: Take a spin down Costco’s freezer section to save big on frozen chicken breasts, vegetables, and fish.

3. The more ‘packaged’ a product, the better the deal.

Stocking up on canned tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, and sandwich bread could save you up to 50% over similar brand name products sold at regular supermarkets.

Bottom Line: Three loaves of sandwich bread costs $6.99 at Costco, while breaking that same bread at Superstore costs $14.07. Products sold in cans, jars, and tubes all ring up the savings at Costco.

4. Don’t like the brand on Costco’s shelves? Don’t buy it!

Costco doesn’t offer a lot of brand variety in their warehouse, any many items are seasonal or sold sporadically. Buying a brand you don’t love is simply a waste of money, even if it’s cheaper or on sale. So, if you love swaddling your kid in Pampers, you’d better shop elsewhere ’cause, as the Canadian Capitalist Blog notes, Costco only sells Huggies.

Bottom Line: At $0.18 per Huggies diaper, you’ll save $0.07 on each crappy change by shopping at Costco.

5. Make a grocery shopping list.

Costco is a big place and it’s easy to get distracted by free food samples, live demonstrations, and seasonal stuff on display. To keep your budget in check, be sure to shop with a grocery shopping list and stick to it!

Bottom Line: Buying in bulk once a month and planning your trip with a shopping list could prevent impulse spending and save you hundreds of dollars each year.

6. Share the membership.

A Costco Gold Star Membership will run you $55 per year, including a spouse card. Based on my sample shopping list, it would take over two months just to break even on this hefty fee. If you’re a low volume shopper like me, it could pay to split this fee with a friend (or family member) and shop together.

Bottom Line: Break even on your Gold Star Membership sooner by splitting the fee with a friend.

7. Skip Costco’s Executive Membership. Maybe.

Whenever I check out at Costco, the cashier always tries to upgrade me to the $100 Executive Membership — it earns you 2% cash back on most purchases, after all. Last trip I asked my honest cashier why they give me the hard sell every visit. “We have quotas to meet,” she said. “And the Executive Membership builds stronger loyalty — customers try their best to get their fees back by spending more.”

Awesome! So before buying into that membership upgrade, do the math on your past purchases and make sure that the so-called ‘cash back reward’ pays out in your favor.

Bottom Line: You’ll have to spend $5,000 at Costco per year to break even on a $100 membership fee with a 2% cash back reward.

8. Go early in the morning.

Waiting to shop in the afternoon almost guarantees you’ll wait in a long Costco line up with the other late-rising fools.

Bottom Line: Save yourself time and a little sanity by shopping early — you’ll get outta there faster and have more weekend time to enjoy with your family.

9. Don’t get ‘pre-scanned’.

In an effort to ‘speed up’ those heinous lineups, Costco now offers to pre-scan your items right in the cart while you wait in line. In my experience, I’ve found this takes longer, especially when the cashier needs to count, and recount, your items to ensure you’re paying the right amount.

Bottom Line: If you prefer to watch your items scan and verify the prices, skip the pre-scan services. I find the whole process takes longer, and creates greater opportunity for mistakes since numberous cashiers are now scanning my items and taking payment.

10. Use the return policy. Order online.

Costco’s return policy is generous. Over the years I’ve heard friends boast about retuning wares MONTHS after the purchase without a problem. And don’t forget to check out Costco’s online offerings — over the years I’ve purchased kitchen appliances and consumer electronics for less, and shipping is always free!

Bottom Line: Don’t see your dream item in store? Go online for big discounts and free shipping — returning your wares (if you change your mind) is generally hassle free.

Final Thoughts

Just because something is billed as a ‘No Name’, ‘family sized’, or a ‘value club product’ doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. Over the years I’ve learned to question product packaging, ignore fancy marketing, and rely on unit price comparisons to determine if an item truly is a superior product sold for a better price. Go ahead and do a unit price comparison on a few of your grocery bills, and then shop the store(s) that suit your family budget.

Your Turn: Is shopping at Costco worth it for you?

Your two cents:

  1. Harry Balzac June 1st, 2016

    Costco is great

  2. t June 20th, 2016

    it takes only 2500 to break even with the 2% cash back vs regular membership. executive membership is 100 vs regular at 50.

    so if you spend more than 2500 a year it’s a better deal, esp. if you buy any big ticket items.

  3. Mrs. Picky Pincher June 21st, 2016

    I’ve found that Costco is worth it, but only if you can make up the annual membership fee. It takes us about six months to accrue enough savings to cancel out the cost of membership. Then for the other half of the year we reap the benefits of bulk buying. I don’t think Costco is worth it if you don’t shop there regularly enough to make back your money.

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