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The Costco Debate – Thoughts and Tips





There’s a discussion on Canadian Money Forum on the merits and downfalls of Costco membership.  The thread caught my interest as I am a big fan of the wholesale retailer.  There’s something about the shiny electronics when walking in the entrance, nibbling on free food samples while perusing, and the low prices that keep me coming back for more.

Costco carries high quality products at very competitive prices, what more can you ask for from a retailer?  I could even go as far as saying that it’s my favorite store.  As I’m sure you all have opinions on Costco, here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of shopping at Costco.

The Upside

  • Quality for a Good Price – This is, in my opinion, what gives Costco an edge over other big box stores.  That is, they offer high quality products at very competitive prices.  Electronics can sometimes be found cheaper elsewhere, but their price point for other items, like brand name clothing, is hard to beat.  On bulk packaged items, the price per unit is typically lower than other discount stores.
  • Free Samples – This is a big feature for us as we enjoy snacking on free samples while we shop (who doesn’t?).  If you’re a sampler as well, even though it’s busier, try going on a Saturday afternoon when their sample people are out in full force.
  • Convenient – They offer groceries, tech toys, music, household goods, books, clothing, prescription filling, baked goods, oil changes, and photos all under one roof.  All of which at a very competitive price.
  • Return Policy – Costco has one of the best return policies around with no questions asked.  It builds consumer confidence knowing that the retailer stands behind their products.

The Downside

  • Excessive – Buying products in bulk, like food, can sometimes result in either eating or wasting more.  This can mean spending more if we’re not careful.  If we buy meat in bulk, we typically separate into portions and freeze.
  • Membership Cost – I’m not a big fan of annual membership fees to shop, but Costco is one of those stores where I can justify the cost due to the savings throughout the year.  When the annual fee is due, I usually surf around for the newest Costco membership coupon code which gives anywhere from $10 – $25 off in the form of a gift card.
  • Long Lines – As most big box stores are busy, Costco is particularly so, especially on the weekends.  One way around this is to go during off peak hours such as during the week right after work.
  • No Visa/Mastercard – Costco only accepts cash/debit or American Express as payment.  Unfortunately, Visa/Mastercard or any other credit card isn’t accepted.  This is a bit disappointing as I’m a credit card points collector.  There is a way around this though, see below for details.

Some Tips:

  • Get those Credit Card Points -  Do you use a credit card for your consumer purchases to collect the points?  If so, there’s a way to get around the Costco limited payment choices.  Simply purchase a gift card online (costco.ca) using your favorite points credit card.
  • Shop in Store Without a Membership – If you don’t like the annual fee, you can shop in store without a membership if you have a Costco gift card.  Of course, you’ll have to get a friend with a membership to get you one first.  There is no surcharge, and if the gift card is insufficient to cover the purchase, the remainder can be paid via debit/cash/AMEX.
  • Membership Discount – As mentioned above, before renewing your membership, do a search for the newest Costco membership code.  I’ve used a code 2 years in a row and have saved $25 each time.  I believe the latest round of coupons are for $10 Costco gift cards for renewals/new members.

Other Opinions on Costco:

What do you think about Costco?





47 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. 1. lindahfx

    I am a Costco member and thoroughly enjoy the store. They have the best fresh meats around. We buy our meat, chicken, and other foods from there and just break them in to smaller portions and freeze them. The price per serving is less than buying from a grocery store and the quality is unmatchable. I was talked in to buying a Executive membership a couple of years ago which hasn’t paid off so I will be cancelling that this year. The other thing that I find is that because of the “convenience” factor that FT mentions, that it’s easy to spend unplanned money on books, DVDs, etc. But overall, I am definitely a fan of Costco.

  2. I like the store and shop there regularly.

    However, there is one thing that I never buy at costco: fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s too scary to see all of the green beans (for example) in a package that are exactly the same size and color. Looks completely unnatural. Plus, most of it seems to be imported.

    Another annoying thing is that they keep changing the selection. You buy something (like one of those buckets of dishwasher detergent). Then, when it’s empty and you need another, they no longer carry them. Makes it hard to plan your purchases. But of course, that’s what the company wants, since they like to encourage impulsive shopping! ;oP

  3. 3. guinness416

    We didn’t renew our membership when it expired last year. What we found is that if there’s only a handful of things we wanted there, we’d pick up a load of junk we didn’t need just to justify the trip – and not everything is cheaper in costco. Our local costco in NYC stocked a lot of stuff we used all the time, but the one nearby us now just doesn’t have the same selection. We found ourselves going less and less or sort of sighing and saying “we should probably go to costco”. That said, we are only now running low on the ziploc bags and tinfoil we bought there on our last visit, which must have been almost a year ago now.

    I also hate, hate, hate the bring-the-whole-family! vibe, all the screaming kids and dawdling adults inside the stores, but that’s hardly costco’s fault.

  4. 4. personne

    Costo is pretty much the opposite of thoughtful purchasing. Try to influence the world with every dollar spent, not a bulk lifestyle with bulk food and end of year bulk charity purchases.

  5. 5. Mark

    I completely understand and respect those who don’t see anything good at Costco but to be fair, they only represent what the buyers are asking for… nothing more, nothing less…

    For our part, my wife & I appreciate their meats & vegetables, we’ve never had any problems like Frog of Finance states; they do look natural. :)

    On the other hand I also like the fact that I can get a cash rebate with my AMEX card. A friend told me that I still need to spend a hell of a lot of money there to receive a fair sized check (last year was for 52$) and I agreed but at least I was getting something back…

    In regards to “buying too much” hey everyone, we are linked to a website that encourages budgeting and saving; well therein lies the solution; my wife & I budget our expenses and yes, also put in a few dollars so that we can spend it as we wish…

    Happy savings to all!

  6. Thanks for the mention. I still shop enough at Costco to justify the annual membership. But those who point out that shopping at Costco encourages impulse spending more so than other stores do have a valid point. Shoppers might think, “hey, I want that widget; the price is great and I better grab one because Costco might not carry it regularly”. That isn’t true of other places like Best Buy or Wal-Mart.

  7. 7. Sampson

    re: free samples

    I’ve seen a link online justifying the annual membership fee – a fella has broken down how often you have to go, and how much you have to eat in free samples to make the membership worthwhile.

    Its a pretty funny read and goes to show the extent to which members will go to justify shopping at Costco.

    Here’s an additional upside: the treasure hunt syndrome.
    Even their website has a treasure hunt link, the fact that items turnover quickly – you never know if they’ll stock something awesome – it happens from time to time.

  8. 8. cannon_fodder

    It is a challenge to leave Costco without a significant portion of unplanned purchases.

    Their warranty/return service is incredible and makes it one of the most important reasons to shop there. I know that it is open to abuse, but I believe they track members’ habits and try to incent people not to buy and return once the product has served its purpose.

    Great point about using a points card to buy GC’s online in order to get around the Amex limitation – sheer genius!

    There are some things which are never the lowest price (Coke for example) but we adjust our purchase accordingly and buy what is the best value and ignore what isn’t.

  9. Bulk buying is not worth it for me since I live alone and sometimes have another person around…for two people (max situation) these large items tend to spoil before I finish them and am not only wasting money, but resources are being wasted and filling landfills.

    I have been able to find better deals just by scanning local grocery store flyers on the weekend and making purchases this way.

    When I did have a Costco membership (recently expired), the only way I was able to truly get the value from my membership fee was to take my friend into the store and let them shop and utilize the bulk purchasing idea.

  10. I agree with lindahfx with regards to purchasing meats at Costco. It’s great to pick up larger packages of nice looking steaks, ground beef, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin (etc.) at good prices. My wife and I separate all of these into small packages and freeze them. We usually only have to buy meat once a month.

    Their dairy is nice, eggs are priced excellently compared to other stores, and I love the Kirkland coffee in the green bag.

    One of the other things I really like about Costco is the pricing labels. All of the prices specify the unit cost of whatever you’re buying (e.g. price per 100 grams). This is great for comparison shopping, or even just for getting a better understanding of food costs.

    As far as tips – my wife and I try to only go to Costco when we have a list of specific things we’re buying. I find that helps cut down on purchasing New Shiny Stuff™ that’s not on the list – except for when we go down the candy aisle and decide we really need a box of watermelon gummies.

  11. 11. Kathryn

    Reasons why I don’t have a membership and don’t shop at Costco. anymore.

    1) Temptation. In my extended family they call it “The $300 club” because most times they find it’s hard to walk out of there without paying $300. As cannon_fodder mentioned it’s hard to get out of Costco “without a significant portion of unplanned purchases.”

    2) We buy local as much as possible which is difficult shopping at Costco.

    3) I have a personal policy not to pay a company to shop in a store. Yes, I could technically ‘save’ enough money on my regular purchases to make up for the $50 a year but from my calculations I’d be breaking even if I only bought planned purchases. It’s the unplanned purchases that sink the budget.

    4) I simply spend more when I shop at Costco. I track everything we spend at http://www.wesabe.com. Once we quit Costco our grocery purchases went down approx $125 a month and our ‘miscellaneous’ (giving in to temptation) purchases including unplanned clothing, household items, books, toys, etc, went down by over $100 a month. Quitting Costco, according to my calculations has saved us over $2700 a year not even counting the membership fee.

    Hey if you love it, great. All the power to you. But for us, we found we spent more when we shopped there.

  12. Thanks for the mention FT.

    Executive membership with an AMEX card has many benefits that are not mentioned in this post or on the forum. We basically pay no membership fee plus still get additional rebates and get up to 2% cash back on the AMEX. Also returns can be made with no receipt when purchases are made on the card.

    Most reasons why people don’t like Costco are in fact strengths of the retailer. Obviously they want you to spend more $. The trick is to be smart about it.

  13. 13. Qubikal

    I’m another advocate of Costco. It’s a great one stop & shop for good pricing. We do end up wasting some stuff, so we are trying to be careful to ensure we will consume what we buy.

    - lindahfx
    You mentioned that the Executive membership isn’t paying off.
    When they market the Exec Mem. to you, they tell you that if at the end of the year and you haven’t purchased enough to justify the exec membership, they will refund that exec. membership fee to you.

    Imagine that – even the membership fees are returnable.

  14. 14. Bonnie

    I am not sure if the policy has changed, but a few years ago my local Costco stopped allowing people who weren’t members but had gift cards to shop there. I used to have a membership, and I would pick up gift cards for a friend who didn’t want to pay for the Costco membership – this way she could go in whenever and buy the few things she wanted. Then they stopped allowing that – you had to have a membership or come in with a member to use the cards.

  15. 15. ethan

    I am one of those fortunate few who live walking distance to a superstore, t&t and costco. From shopping at each one, and remembering the price of items we buy, we find that 50% of the items are cheaper or equal in price at superstore, while meats and vegetable are for the most part cheaper at T&T. so we have a list of items that we buy at costco, superstore and T&T since we know those items are cheaper at that store.
    Some items on Costco are not that high quality though, one time we bought cooked chicken wings which we later found out was not properly de-feathered. yummy feather stubble :(

  16. It’s interesting to see the wide range of opinions on Costco. I just figured that everyone loved the store. :)

    Bonnie, it might be a local thing, but our costco definitely allows the use of gift cards without a membership. I confirmed last last week via phone.

  17. 17. fern

    Most supermarkets offer free food samples these days, and the unit pricing is also widespread and may even be the law.

    I like costco, but rarely buy veggies there since they don’t carry organics.

    that being said, p aying $6.99 for a 44 lb. box of cat litter pretty much pays for my $50 membership fee pretty quickly. The bets deals are on eggs, milk and bananas, in my opinion.

  18. I chose not to renew my membership in March. Why? I wasn’t getting the mileage out of it. I am a single guy and don’t necessarily buy in bulk. I just used the membership to eat there and get some samples. There’s nothing really there that you can’t get anywhere else, just in bulk. I imagine that these memberships are ideally suited towards businesses where they are to buy in bulk.

    Having said that, I sure miss eating there :)

  19. 19. Sampson

    I find it very interesting that so many people are comparing the grocery side of things.

    Some of the people not in favor of Costco seem to say they don’t need ‘bulk’. But bulk is not what they are all about.

    Personally, I buy meat, sometimes some pickled items, but no typical groceries. I spend more time on the other side of the store. We’ve picked up excellent deals on some minor electronics, an espresso machine, a canister vacuum, bed, and some small furniture items.

  20. 20. Greg

    We tend to go to Costco about once per month. We take a list and generally only purchase what is on the list. Sometimes we make an impulse buy, but that can happen anywhere.

    I love the Costco AMEX card, I use it for everything including groceries at other stores, utility bills, etc. AMEX is not accepted everywhere, so you still need another credit card. Last year we received $360 back which more than covers the membership fee.

  21. The executive membership is only worth it if you spend more than $2.5k there a year. The amount that you get back (2%) makes up the difference. If you’re spending less than that, it’s just not worth it.

    As for the regular membership, well, it depends on how you use Costco.

    For appliances and whatnot, the prices and quality just can’t be beat. Sure, it might not have the largest variety of toasters, but that’s because the people who purchase for Costco do market research, find the best two toasters on the market, and sell those for cheaper than anybody else, AND include a lifetime guarantee/warranty.

    For food, it can be hit and miss, but that’s the same at any retail store. Some things are worth purchasing in bulk, some things aren’t. Depends on what you eat. Milk, eggs, cheese, pickles, peanut butter, I don’t get anywhere else. Saves me time and money.

    For everything else (clothes, seasonal), it is the “treasure hunt”. If you see something and you like it – buy it. They want you to. They encourage it. They even say that if you’re not sure, just buy it now and if you change your mind a few weeks later, just return it! Of course they’re banking that a) you will like it, or b) that you won’t be willing to return it (guilt, laziness, etc).

    For me, Costco is definitely worth the membership.

  22. 22. MGD

    My Costco strategy for not buying/spending too much is simple. I never take a cart in with my…I only buy what I can carry. If I bring a cart I”m tempted to add one more item..

  23. 23. Kasm

    I typically buy stuff when on sale. In addition to the coupons they hand out at the front, Executive memberships get a coupon book in the mail every quarter.

    With the Executive membership, you get 2% back as a credit each year, plus I use an AMEX gold card that has another 2% (tiered) cash back.

    Costco is great for Meats, DVD’s, Books, and Photos – they will regularly have 10 cents a photo coupons pop up for 4×6′s and you can do them on line, then pick then up the next day.

    I do find that sometimes I buy things I don’t really need, but I think the pros outweigh the cons.

  24. I think I’ll finally break down and get a Costco Amex card. My executive rebate was just $2 short of the total membership price. Having the card would have put me over and then some!

  25. The way I guarantee my membership pays for itself is through oil changes. I save almost $30 per change compared to other places – if you use synthetic oil in your car, it`s the best place to go.

    For the rest of the store, I may spend a few hundred dollars a year – not worth it.

  26. 26. Rusty

    I agree with Ethan on Superstore being just as or more competitive than Costco (for food anyway, I don’t know about electronics.)

    We chose not to renew our membership and now only go to Costco to buy their superior meat when the parents visit (or somebody who has a membership). We’re big fans of the PC Mastercard for all spending and PC Points which equal about $500 per year in redeemed (not free) groceries.

  27. Broken down by department, most things can be found cheaper elsewhere. For example, meats can be cheaper at M&M or your local mom and pop deli, electronics can be cheaper at Best Buy or Wal Mart, and candies or grains can be cheaper at the Bulk Barn. I really don’t see the point of Costco outside of bulk buying, other than the free samples and Costco food in the food area =)

  28. 28. Andy

    Be carefull shopping with Cash Cards without membership . There is a 5% fee for these types of purchases.

  29. Andy, there is only a 5% surcharge when shopping online without a membership. There is no surcharge instore.

  30. 30. Sarlock

    Wow, thanks for the tip for purchasing cash cards with your credit card to get the points (never even crossed my mind)… this was my only complaint about shopping at Costco… now I get the extra discount through point accretion! I purchase for both business and personal at Costco, so it more than makes sense (and now I’ll accrue even more Aeromiles!).

  31. 31. James

    I very much like the idea of gift card use (and not paying for a membership). I’m sure there are deals there to be had, even once every three – four months..

    Does M&Ms really have cheaper (priced) meats? I’ve never taken the time. I only shop at No Frills/Price Choppers and look for deals.

    Also, for those single people, buy buy and freeze! I freeze everything from bread to meat to fruits.. I hate to discard food, because if you’re truly about saving money, learn to make meals with anything/everything!

  32. Great place to shop if you have a large family, or are feeding an army. Freezing meat and buying canned food & other such items with a long shelf life are great for the savings. Samples are fun, and customer service is definitely fantastic. The membership fee is the biggest downside. If you know somebody with a membership, you can usually go in with them as “family” with no problems.

    InvestAssetWealth

  33. I like shopping at Costco or Sam’s club just for the free samples.

  34. 34. dalmanca

    The best thing about costco is price protection. I bought a leather sofa last year at costco for 999. After one month, the price dropped to 899 and we go back to get the 100 dollars back. After 2 months, they are clearing the sofa out and the price dropped to 499. So we went and get 400 dollars back!

    I did notice that you could buy a lot unused stuff there as well. I am more careful now how much I spend and what I buy. As long as you keep control, it is still worth it. They carry a lot things that no body else carry.

  35. dalmanca,

    I didn’t realize they were so good with price protection… I’ll have to start keeping an eye on items I’ve already bought!

  36. 36. Phinance

    Costco is the best. They’re always professional, and the store is very clean with lots of space in the aisles. You also can’t beat their electronics return process, which could save you a few hundred or thousand depending on how big of an item you’re purchasing.

    I’d rather go here than a “neighborhood” chain-store.

  37. 37. Lori Fish

    Costco in my area no longer let’s non-members use a costco gift card for anything other than gas. That area being southern california.

  38. 38. Floral Giraffe

    As a former retail buyer, for over 150 stores, and 20 years experience, I respectfully disagree with most of the above posts. I am a big Costco fan. Prices are great ( I ONLY shop from a list, ever!) and they work on a cost plus expense mark up. Their profit comes from the membership fees. Great service, return policy, good selection. I’m only suprised Warren Buffet doesn’t own the company. Very well run, IMHO.

  39. 39. Anonymous

    @ #8: Costco does not track members’ purchases for marketing purposes.

    @ #14: Costco has only used gift cards for about 3 years, so I don’t know if your timeline is entirely accurate. It is still Costco’s policy to allow non-members to use gift cards. However, despite what the article states, it is also Costco’s policy that any amount due past what is on a gift card can only be paid in cash.

    @ #27: Meat is most certainly NOT cheaper at M&M than at Costco. Either that, or the M&M shops I’ve gone to are on a completely different price scale as the one you go to. Or, perhaps you’re comparing different grades/cuts of meat.

    @ #34: Price protection at Costco is only 30 days, so I don’t know how you got the markdown the second time unless you argued A LOT (I’ve found that if you argue enough with the managers, you’ll eventually get your way).

    For those who say that they buy too much at Costco, that’s certainly not the company’s fault.

    As for the membership fee, Floral Giraffe hit the nail on the head: that is how Costco makes its profit. By buying in bulk, the company can purchase for a lot less than a typical retail store. Since that retail store doesn’t charge a membership fee, it needs to make its profit solely on markup. Costco’s markup is at most 10-15%. For those who don’t like the membership fee, consider the following:

    (a) Great return policy
    (b) Low markup
    (c) The membership fee is refundable
    (d) Good deals on outside services (car rentals, credit card processing, AAA, etc.)
    (e) “Exclusivity” of membership

    Even if you only shop a few times a year, $50 is a steal.

  40. 40. dalmanca

    Anonymous, I only heard one customer service rep mentioned that price protection is for 30 days. And I have done it a lot times. The point is that I can return my purchase and buy the new one with lowered price. Since I can almost return anything within a year or even longer, why costco bother to argue with customers for the price protection? Even I never threat to return my purchase or talk to a manager, I got all my credit back when I see a lower price.

  41. 41. Michael

    I have used the price protection numerous times at Costco. No employee has ever mentioned the 30 day policy nor have I ever had to argue with them for it. I once bought a lawnmower at the beginning of the season for full price predicting they would drop the price at the end of the summer. Sure enough I got $150 in price protection when they were clearing them out (just keep those receipts!). My friend tells me that they flag your account and you lose privileges if you ‘abuse’ their return policy (e.g. returning your old TV to upgrade when the new model comes out) – any truth to this? (not that I disagree if Costco did this)

  42. @Anon

    RE:#34 Costco’s price protection is not 30 days. It is for the life of the return policy as dalmanca explained above. This is why Costco now has 90 day limits on electronic items. They were getting robbed for years, particularly on laptops. People would buy/return/buy/return and effectively forever maintain a current spec laptop while only paying once. The return policy forced Costco to eat the depreciation.

    I won’t add more of the same old as much rehashing is done already but I will add this: it seems not one person who posted so far understands the ‘Treasure Hunt’ component of the Costco retail model:
    http://www.virginiamiracle.com/2008/01/12/how-costco-creates-fans/

    Regular items do not ‘disappear’ nor have they ever done so. Some people are so easily confused it’s not even funny, sometimes I’m not even sure why I bother trying to set the record straight.

  43. 43. James

    michael stated “My friend tells me that they flag your account and you lose privileges if you ‘abuse’ their return policy” What privleges could they take away outside of cancelling your account? I know of a few people who returned TV’s to Costco to upgrade to the newer model several times. I could never do it myself as it is a bit too close to theft for my taste. Having said that, Costco’s own policy permits this (or permitted it until the 90 day electronics return policy was brought in) so they were asking for abuse in my mind.

  44. 44. bella

    Really? You listed snacking on the samples as a big ol’ Costco benifit … whatever! I got a free membership and was glad it was free! I checked it out and tried to keep an open mind but honey, I save way more at Food 4 Less. Plus no membership fees and no temptation to buy some dumb gizmo I don’t need and hey, on the weekends, they sometimes have … free samples.

  45. 45. Vince De Lay

    Corporate America has killed the American economy. They now manufature where there are NO environmental,labor, or safety regulations. The result is acellerating global warming and an unemployed under class in theUS. Plus increased global warming from shipping the manufactured goods we have to have from around the globe. High American wages is entirely a smoke and mirror excuse for corporate greed and irresponcibility.

  46. 46. Ed Rempel

    Hi Vince,

    Here’s another perspective. Corporate America drives the economy. Manufacturing is moving back to the U.S. because of lower natural gas and reduced labour costs. However, moving manufacturing to emerging markets is one of the best developments in recent history. One billion people have moved off the world hunger lists mainly because of globalization and free trade. These 2 have done more to reduce human hunger than all charities, governments and churches combined.

    Emerging countries are going through the same process we went through. It took us about 200 years to develop manufacturing and emerging countries are going through that process in 10 or 20 years. As more people become middle class, measures are implemented naturally to reduce pollution and setup safety and other standards. Standards in emerging countries are similar to our standards in the past.

    Pollution is actually down more than 90% from 50 years ago in western developed countries. Emerging countries are moving up the ladder to get to our standards eventually, which will be great for everyone. Higher trade benefits everyone by having goods made at the most efficient/effective place and letting other countries do other things they are good at. We can all have a higher standard of living (after some upheaval) from the trend to global free trade.

    Stores like Costco and Walmart contribute a lot to humans as a species by promoting free trade.

    Ed

  47. 47. Ed Rempel

    The Costco Rule.

    Good article, FT. In our office we have the Costco Rule. We have been through the cash flow with thousands of families. If they seem to spend too much on groceries, we immediately ask: “Do you shop at Costco?” Our experience is that Costco shoppers spend on average about $200/month more than people that buy groceries anywhere else.

    Why? They buy non-grocery items. Sometimes, it is because they fill freezers full of food they are not eating, but mostly it is non-grocery items.

    You buy a lot of things there that add to your life, but our experience is that hardly anyone saves money.

    If your cash flow is very tight, you may want to consider shopping anywhere else to save money!

    Ed

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