We shopped at Costco and Sam’s Club to see which is better — and there’s a clear reason why you should join one over the other

A Sam's Club store in Westchester County, New York.

caption
A Sam’s Club store in Westchester County, New York.
source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

  • Costco and Sam’s Club are similar membership-based warehouse stores that offer a wide variety of products and services, from eye exams to photo printing.
  • The only significant difference between the stores is the cost of membership, with Sam’s Club costing $15 less annually than Costco.
  • I went to a Costco and Sam’s Club in New York and found that the cost and quality were comparable enough that the deciding factor between the two stores might just be how close you live to each one.

Costco and Sam’s Club are membership-based warehouse stores selling groceries, clothing, furniture, and, well, lots of other stuff. Both stores offer eye and ear exams, a pharmacy, one-hour photo services, and a food court at affordable prices. Even the return policies are similar, with both stores accepting most items with or without a receipt.

After visiting both stores in succession, I found there was really only one major difference between them: the cost of membership. Costco charges $60 annually for a basic membership and $120 for an executive membership, while Sam’s Club charges $45 annually for a basic membership and $100 for a premium membership.

According to a grocery-store ranking from Consumer Reports, the higher membership costs at Costco might be worth it – it ranked higher than Sam’s Club in cleanliness, meat and produce quality, customer service, store-brand quality, and prices of organic items.

To see for myself which store offers a better deal, I went to Costco and Sam’s Club stores in Westchester County, New York. This is what I found:


First, I went to Costco. I got there about five minutes after it opened, and I was surprised by how many people were there so early. Even though it’s a members-only store, no one was at the door checking for memberships.

source
Flickr/ Mike Mozart

At the front of the store was a one-hour photo station.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

There were rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

There was a pretty big tech selection with a variety of products and brands.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

It didn’t sell Apple computers, but it did have the latest Apple Watch.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Near the technology department there was a huge selection of jewelry, from diamond necklaces to engagement rings. Everything was locked up behind glass cases.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

As I walked further through the store, I was greeted by a seemingly endless selection of bulk-sized snacks.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Bulk-sized products were stacked from floor to ceiling throughout the entire store.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

You could buy a month’s worth of just about any snack for under $10.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The same went for most things that were in the store — a four-pound box of Frosted Flakes was $7.49. At stores like Walmart and Target, a box half this size is only $2 less.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

A five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99 …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… and you could get almost two gallons of orange juice for $10.99.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The warehouse had its own liquor store that was outside of the main store.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

If you want wine or hard alcohol, you either have to go before or after shopping at Costco, meaning you have to wait in two lines and make two separate transactions. The store itself does have beer, however.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Everything at the store seemed to be randomly arranged. Rugs were in the middle of the produce aisle, and on the other side of this display there was golfing equipment. It’s definitely a challenge to shop here if you’ve never been.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

In the middle of the store, there were a ton of books and magazines stacked on tables …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… piles of clothes all over the place …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… and furniture displays in the middle of it all.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

There was a wall of discounted gift cards for everything from restaurants to movie theaters. It even had discounted lift tickets for local ski mountains.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The front of the store was a complete mess. I think this was where returns are processed, but it wasn’t labeled anywhere. Costco has a pretty liberal return policy, allowing members to return anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The exception is electronics and major appliances, which have a 90-day return policy with receipt.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Because of how early in the day it was, most of the registers were closed. The lines were pretty long, and everyone had completely full shopping carts. Costco has an app that allows you to make a shopping list, access coupons, and create photo books, but you cannot pay for a purchase on the app.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The food court by the exit was insanely cheap, selling hot dogs and a soda for $1.50 and giant churros for $1.00. People were already eating in the food court at 10 a.m.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

See our review of the Costco food court »


The last thing I saw before leaving the store was the membership desk. The standard price is an annual fee of $60, and there’s an executive plan that costs double that. Even though the store was a mess, it carried just about everything and accepted returns on anything, making it a convenient place to shop.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Next, I went to Sam’s Club. No one checked my membership here, either.

source
Shutterstock

When I walked in, it looked almost identical to Costco, and the layout was essentially the same.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

As with Costco, the TVs and computers were at the front of the store, and the prices were in the $500 to $2,000 range.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

In addition to the TVs and computers, Sam’s Club had a mobile center selling iPhones and Androids.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

As was the case at Costco, walls of bulk-sized snacks for under $10 lined the store.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Cases of food and other bulk-sized products were stacked up to the ceiling throughout the store.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The same five-pound bag of clementines was only 50 cents more at Sam’s Club than at Costco.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Unlike Costco, Sam’s Club does not have a separate building that sells wine and hard liquor. Beer and wine spritzers are sold in the store itself, in keeping with New York state law.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Sam’s Club was the more organized of the two stores, but it wasn’t perfect. The aisles were more clearly labeled …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… but the middle of the store was still a free-for-all. There was clothing …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… jewelry …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… books and magazines …

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

… and a random selection of playground sets and outdoor toys. Again, I can imagine it’s a challenge to shop here if you don’t already know exactly where everything is.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The front of the store looked identical to Costco, and the lines were just as long. However, Sam’s Club has an app that allows customers to scan items as they shop and pay on the app to avoid the lines.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

The food court was very similar, too, matching Costco’s low prices on items like the hot dog and drink combo and pizza, though fountain drinks were slightly more expensive.

source
Business Inside/Jessica Tyler

Next to the exit there was the member-services desk. The returns at Sam’s Club are similar to Costco, accepting returns on any items with a 90-day limit on electronics and appliances. After shopping at both stores, I found that they offer almost identical services for members. Even though Sam’s Club is less expensive to become a member, ultimately, it may come down to which store is closer to you.

source
Business Insider/Jessica Tyler