What's the best warehouse club membership?

Comparing Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's

A photo of a person outside Sam's Club with a shopping cart full of goods
Costco is cracking down on membership sharing
(Image credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Netflix isn't the only company cracking down on sharing.

Costco, which is the "largest wholesale club in the U.S. by location" and that requires an annual membership to shop at, "is now asking to see photo identification along with customers' membership cards at its self-checkout registers," The Wall Street Journal reported.

Costco said in a statement that it's noticed an uptick in non-members using other members' cards at self-checkout, and it doesn't "feel it's right that nonmembers receive the same benefits and pricing as our members." But what exactly are those perks, and are they worth paying an annual fee for?

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Of course, Costco isn't the only warehouse club in the game. We take a look at the three big warehouse club memberships to see where it makes the most sense to pay to shop.

How they compare: Costco vs. Sam's Club vs. BJ's

If you're interested in buying your groceries and household products in bulk, there are three main warehouse clubs you can turn to: Costco, BJ's, and Sam's Club. We dive into how the three compare when it comes to membership costs, accessibility, and store offerings.

Membership cost

  • Costco: Costco has two different tiers of membership for household shoppers. There's the Gold Star Membership, which runs $60 a year and gives you two membership cards per household, though it doesn't offer any annual rewards. For $120 per year, you can get the Gold Star Executive Membership, which includes the two membership cards plus a discount on Costco services, a subscription to the Costco Connection Magazine, and 2% back on annual spending.
  • Sam's Club: Sam's Club also has two tiers — both at lower prices than Costco or BJ's. The Club tier is $50 a year, while the Plus tier is $110 a year. Similarly to Costco, the Club membership offers access to the store and select benefits, whereas the Club membership gets you "2% back on qualifying purchases (up to $500 a year), free shipping for online orders, plus pharmacy and optical savings," said CNBC Select.
  • BJ's: BJ's, meanwhile, is in between Costco and Sam's Club when it comes to cost. The Inner Circle membership, for $55 a year, gets you access to the store and membership services. The Perks Rewards membership, which is $110 annually, also includes "2% cash back, double and/or triple cashback events and travel benefits," per CNBC Select.

Store locations

What's on offer

Of course, a plethora of stores and an affordable membership only go so far if you can't get what you want from the warehouse club. Here's an overview of what the three stores offer:

  • Costco: Even though you might pay a little more to become a member of Costco, its prices "tend to be slightly lower overall" compared to Sam's Club, U.S. News & World Report contended.. Further, Costco carries more private label items and has a wide selection of organic products. Another thing about Costco is its return policy, which is "exceedingly shopper friendly — you can return most items for any reason at any time for a full refund, save for a few exceptions," said CNBC Select.
  • Sam's Club: If you're looking for brand-name products, Sam's Club is more likely to carry them, according U.S. News & World Report. However, on the flipside, "its prices are slightly higher." Another differentiator is that Sam's Club "has an established curbside pickup program at no extra cost to members," said Insider.
  • BJ's: When it comes to BJ's compared to the prior two warehouse clubs, Insider said that the "main difference is that there is less of everything," though that might also make shopping there more manageable."Fewer items seemed to be made in-house" and rather "were from name brands," Insider said. The prepared and frozen foods sections were also much less extensive, and there's no food court. And while "BJ's price and benefits are comparable to Costco," said CNBC Select, it has a "more restrictive return policy."

So, is Costco, Sam's Club, or BJ's better?

Ultimately, it depends on what you're looking for.

BJ's clearly "doesn't offer all the benefits of Costco or Sam's Club," Insider said, but it could still "be a happy medium for most people, selling food in quantities that can be easily stored without taking over your entire home."

When it comes to Costco vs. Sam's Club, Sam's Club has the less costly annual membership fee, but Costco has the edge when it comes to "better prices on more grocery staples," according to an Insider price comparison. Meanwhile, "Sam's Club carries more brand-name products," U.S. News & World Report noted, whereas Costco stands out for its Top Tier gas and its "impressive selection of organic products."

But at the end of the day, "all three wholesalers are likely to offer you solid value for your money," CNBC Select said.

Becca Stanek has worked as an editor and writer in the personal finance space since 2017. She has previously served as the managing editor for investing and savings content at LendingTree, an editor at SmartAsset and a staff writer for The Week.

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Becca Stanek

Becca Stanek has worked as an editor and writer in the personal finance space since 2017. She previously served as the managing editor for investing and savings content at LendingTree and an editor at SmartAsset. Prior to that, she was a staff writer at The Week. She's freelanced for publications including SoFi, Forbes, LendingTree, Finance of America Mortgage, and Policygenius while she earns her MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte. She currently lives in Valatie, New York.