Costco vs. Sam’s Club: Which Wholesaler Does It Better?
There’s a reason why everyone at The Kitchn refers to me as the “Costco Queen.” I’ve been a huge fan and loyal member of the warehouse club for 12 years, visiting one of my neighborhood warehouses at least once a week. (Fun fact: I live within a 30-minute drive of five Costcos.) What you probably don’t know is that before I devoted myself to Costco, I was a card-carrying Sam’s Club member.
My membership to Sam’s Club was short — just a year or two — especially compared to my long-term commitment to Costco. Recently, between noticing friends mentioning their favorite Sam’s Club buys and my own interest in eye-catching news from the store, my curiosity about the bulk competitor was piqued. I decided to find out for myself how the two stack up against each other.
It may seem dramatic, but I actually had to give myself a mental pep rally before embarking on my mission. I felt like I needed to go in prepared — knowing the ins and outs of shopping at Sam’s Club — before I stepped through the comically oversized doors. So I researched online, scoured the website (and app), and even interrogated friends.
The result of all that legwork is this comprehensive breakdown between Costco and Sam’s Club, including membership fees, return policies, store brands, prices, and food courts. Plus, I crownd a winner for each category. Here we go.
Membership Fees and Benefits
- Costco has two tiers of membership: The basic or Gold Star level costs $60 per year. Executive level memberships cost $120 per year, and those members earn a 2% annual reward up to $1,000, plus additional benefits.
- Sam’s Club also has two membership tiers: The basic, Club, membership costs $50 per year. The Plus membership costs $110 per year and those members can earn 2% annually up to $500 per year, plus additional benefits.
Sam’s offers a Guest Membership to try out the online shopping experience for free. One catch: You will pay a 10% surcharge on that purchase. There are no free passes for in-person shopping or order pickup. I was lucky enough to snag a Sam’s Club membership for half-price — just $25. While that deal has come and gone, this is proof that you can score a deal on Sam’s Club’s membership fees.
Both clubs provide two complimentary cards per household. You can start shopping at Sam’s Club as soon as you join (even if you do so online) with your virtual membership card. Costco membership cards include a photograph, so you have to step up to the membership counter to get your picture taken to complete the process. Costco employees have been cracking down on membership sharing by verifying those photographs upon entrance and at the register.
Takeaway: While Costco costs slightly more to join upfront, the potential to earn up to $500 more through annual rewards than Sam’s Club offers tips the scales in Costco’s favor.
Guarantees and Return Policies
Both clubs offer 100% satisfaction guarantee on their memberships and merchandise, which means you can cancel your membership and receive a full refund anytime.
Both Sam’s Club and Costco will replace or refund merchandise purchased in the clubs or online. At Costco all you need is your membership card and most products can be returned — no questions asked. Electronics, diamonds over 1.00 carat, cigarettes, and alcohol purchases are among the few limitations to the policy. Sam’s Club prefers to have the original receipt and notes that it has the right to limit the number of items returned. The time period for returns is a vague “reasonable time period,” with the decision left up to the discretion of your local Sam’s Club.
Takeaway: While the policies are similar, I’m giving Costco the edge on this one for the ease of receipt-free and no-questions-asked returns.
Members-Only Credit Card Offers
Both warehouse clubs offer co-branded credit cards, not unlike the airline and hotel cards you might also have in your wallet. These cards allow cardholders to earn back a percentage of what they spend both in the warehouse and elsewhere.
- Costco Anywhere Visa® Card cardholders can earn 4% on eligible gas and electric vehicle charging purchases up to $7,000 per year (which breaks down to roughly $135 per week), then 1% on anything over $7,000. Plus, earn 3% at restaurants and travel, 2% on items purchased at Costco or Costco.com, and 1% on everything else you buy.
- Sam’s Club Mastercard cardholders can earn up to 5% back on gas for the first $6,000, then 1% after, 3% on dining, and 1% on everything else. Club members earn 1% back on purchases made at Sam’s Club, while Plus members earn 3% on warehouse purchases.
Takeaway: With comparable rewards from these two branded credit cards, Costco and Sam’s Club are tied in this category.
Both Costco’s in-house brand, Kirkland Signature, and Sam’s Club’s Member’s Mark line have earned a reputation for quality and affordability. Many of my favorite Costco buys are Kirkland Signature. There are Kirkland-branded products in every aisle of the warehouse, including maple syrup, baby wipes, trash bags, and vitamins.
While Sam’s Club’s Member’s Mark products are also shelved throughout the store, the emphasis is clearly more on national name brands than it is at Costco. Although I expect the balance to shift in the near future: The Member’s Mark line, according to the website, is undergoing an overhaul to focus on sustainability, responsibly packaging, and eliminating certain ingredients including high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors in the coming years.
No matter where your store-brand loyalties lie, show your warehouse spirit with Kirkland Signature clothing and Sam’s Club T-shirts available on their respective websites.
Takeaway: A tie. I’m still testing out the Member’s Mark versions of the Kirkland Signature products I love, but so far I’m happy with both store brands.
Despite their oversized footprint, warehouse clubs carry a fraction of the products (referred to as SKUs or stock-keeping units) that standard grocery stores do. Costco curates its shelves to a tidy 4,000 SKUs and your standard grocery store stocks an average of 30,000 SKUs. Sam’s Club currently doesn’t share the number of SKUs in its warehouses, but when reached for a comment, they confirmed it is less than the typical grocery store.
Sam’s Club and Costco stock similar products, including TVs, cleaning supplies, snack packs, and headache medicine. But there are some themes among the groceries that set the two clubs apart.
- Variety: Sam’s Club and Costco approach offering variety in different ways, and whether that matters to you depends on your grocery list. For me, the assortment of prepackaged snacks and beverages at Sam’s Club is a winner but wasted on spices and K-cups (I prefer to buy whole-bean coffee in bulk, which was nowhere to be found at my warehouse). While Costco’s aisles appear leaner and more curated, they offer more options in departments including gourmet cheeses, deli items, and dips.
- Brand quality: Among the national brands stocked, Costco carries more premium brands than Sam’s Club. The Kitchn Grocery Essentials winner for best brownie mix (and my personal favorite), Ghirardelli, is available at Costco but absent from Sam’s Club aisles. The same goes for my go-to brand of preserves (another winner of this year’s The Kitchn Grocery Essentials) — Bonne Maman is at Costco, but not Sam’s Club.
- Small and niche brands: If you follow a specific diet, like Keto or gluten-free; are interested in trying smaller, emerging brands; or want to pick up specialty ingredients, like sprouted organic pumpkin seeds, Costco should be your warehouse of choice.
- Organic items: Costco comes out on top for greater visibility of organic items, especially in its Kirkland Signature branded products. Sam’s Club is making a push towards offering more organic and sustainable products. While I’ll keep an eye out for that in the future, Costco is what I rely on for organic chicken, organic canned tomatoes, organic milk, and more.
Takeaway: Despite carrying fewer overall products, Costco gets a win in this category, thanks to careful curation, well-priced organic products, and big-box boutique vibes.
I randomly chose 10 products from The Kitchn’s list of the best products to buy at Costco and compared prices between Costco and Sam’s Club. Of the eight products selected, Sam’s Club had the cheapest price per ounce for five of them.
Takeaway: Sam’s Club is the winner here, although only by a few cents.
Online and In-App Shopping Features
Both Sam’s Club and Costco have shoppable websites and apps where you can order online for same- or two-day delivery for a fee and/or by paying slightly higher prices. Sam’s Club offers curbside pickup for orders placed online — a feature that Costco does not offer.
Sam’s Club takes the online experience over the top (in a good way!) with Scan & Go. As you add items to the cart, simply scan the barcode. When you have finished shopping, check out through the app and skip the check-out line completely. There are even some deals scattered throughout the store, designated with a yellow sign, solely for Scan & Go users. Upon exiting the warehouse, a Sam’s Club associate checks your phone’s receipt against your cart’s contents.
Takeaway: Costco is notorious for its long check-out lines, especially on the weekends. With Scan & Go capability, Sam’s Club runs away with this category.
How do you lure shoppers into a warehouse with the hope that they’ll open their wallets? Feed them a $1.50 hot dog combo, of course. At least that’s been the leading philosophy behind Costco’s biggest food court draw. Sam’s Club follows suit with a similar deal, although priced slightly lower at $1.38.
Both clubs also offer ice cream sundaes, pizzas, churros, Caesar salads, and drinks. Sam’s Club sells ICEE’s, fruit parfait, and a pizza pretzel in its cafe. Costco’s menu is more expansive and varies by location, so you may or may not find its famous chicken bake, sandwiches like the new roast beef sandwich, acai bowls, mango smoothies, and more, at your local warehouse
Costco has transitioned to a kiosk ordering system; at Sam’s Club you can order via the app while you shop or in-person at the counter. In my experience, the food courts at Costco are generally well-staffed with orders completed promptly. While over at Sam’s Club, it took our pizza reviewer multiple attempts to even order a whole cheese pizza; I’ve also watched a single associate juggling to take orders and prepare food on their own.
Takeaway: Costco wins this one on account of efficiency, variety, and quality.
Are you a member of Costco or Sam’s Club (or both!)? Tell us about it in the comments.