We went to Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's to see which store was the best - here's the verdict

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BJsWholesale 7001Business Insider/Jessica TylerThe BJ's Wholesale Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, was well-organized.

  • Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale are similar membership-based warehouse stores that offer a wide variety of products and services.
  • The only significant difference between Sam's Club and Costco is the cost of membership, with Sam's Club costing $15 less annually than Costco.
  • BJ's differs from the other two stores in a few ways, including the presence of a self-checkout option and the lack of a food court. BJ's used to have a food court, but most of them are being replaced by Dunkin' Donuts kiosks.
  • I went to a Costco and Sam's Club in New York and a BJ's in New Jersey and found that the costs were comparable, but BJ's ultimately would rank lowest because it didn't have as much to offer.

Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale are membership-based warehouse stores selling groceries, clothing, furniture, and, well, lots of other stuff.

All three stores offer eye and ear exams, a pharmacy, one-hour photo services, and either a food court or kiosk at affordable prices. Even the return policies are similar, though BJ's stops accepting items back after a year, while Costco and Sam's Club will accept most returns at any time.

After visiting all three stores, I found that aside from the cost of membership, Costco and Sam's Club were very similar, while BJ's seemed like it was struggling to catch up. Costco's yearly membership costs $60, while BJ's comes in second at $55 and Sam's Club is the least expensive at $45 annually. The premium memberships ranked similarly, with Costco costing $120, BJ's costing $110, and Sam's Club costing $100 annually.

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 and BJ's in cleanliness, meat and produce quality, customer service, store-brand quality, and prices of organic items.

BJ's ranked higher than Sam's Club in just two categories: healthy, organic options and checkout speed.

To see for myself which store offers the best deal, I went to a BJ's Wholesale in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Costco and Sam's Club stores in Westchester County, New York. This is what I found:

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During my visit to the BJ's store in Jersey City, New Jersey, I found a membership was $55 a year for the basic plan and $110 a year for premium, falling in the middle of Costco and Sam's Club prices. No one checked for my membership here — non-members can use a guest pass to shop, but they'll have to pay a 20% service fee at most locations.

During my visit to the BJ's store in Jersey City, New Jersey, I found a membership was $55 a year for the basic plan and $110 a year for premium, falling in the middle of Costco and Sam's Club prices. No one checked for my membership here — non-members can use a guest pass to shop, but they'll have to pay a 20% service fee at most locations.

Tech was at the front of the store, and prices were in the $500 to $2,000 range for items like TVs.

Tech was at the front of the store, and prices were in the $500 to $2,000 range for items like TVs.

BJ's snacks were all sold in bulk, but the variety felt relatively small. There was more candy than there were snacks, and the produce selection was definitely smaller than I would find at Costco and Sam's Club.

BJ's snacks were all sold in bulk, but the variety felt relatively small. There was more candy than there were snacks, and the produce selection was definitely smaller than I would find at Costco and Sam's Club.

Making my way through the store, I noticed some shelves were nearly empty ...

Making my way through the store, I noticed some shelves were nearly empty ...

... and the selection of gift cards and other items was noticeably smaller at BJ's than I would find at Costco or Sam's Club. The company carries a comparable selection online, but the store selection was limited. This location confirmed that it does not sell any alcohol, but other locations do, depending on local regulations.

... and the selection of gift cards and other items was noticeably smaller at BJ's than I would find at Costco or Sam's Club. The company carries a comparable selection online, but the store selection was limited. This location confirmed that it does not sell any alcohol, but other locations do, depending on local regulations.

A five-pound box of clementines was $5.99 at BJ's.

A five-pound box of clementines was $5.99 at BJ's.

I was impressed with the organization of the store. Not only were the aisles labeled, but the sections carrying toys, clothes, and home decor were as well. It was easy to navigate the store because of that.

I was impressed with the organization of the store. Not only were the aisles labeled, but the sections carrying toys, clothes, and home decor were as well. It was easy to navigate the store because of that.

Another highlight was the self-checkout process, which could potentially lead to shorter lines. BJ's has an app that allows customers to store coupons and receive notifications about upcoming promotions, but it does not have a payment functionality. BJ's allows customers to return items for up to a year.

Another highlight was the self-checkout process, which could potentially lead to shorter lines. BJ's has an app that allows customers to store coupons and receive notifications about upcoming promotions, but it does not have a payment functionality. BJ's allows customers to return items for up to a year.

There was a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk with a few tables set up near the exit. Dunkin' Donuts have been replacing traditional food courts in most BJ's locations. The menu is the same as a typical Dunkin' Donuts location, with prices that are slightly higher than the food courts at Costco and Sam's Club.

There was a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk with a few tables set up near the exit. Dunkin' Donuts have been replacing traditional food courts in most BJ's locations. The menu is the same as a typical Dunkin' Donuts location, with prices that are slightly higher than the food courts at Costco and Sam's Club.

Source: Boston Globe

Similar to BJ's, no one was at the door checking for memberships when I visited a Costco location in Westchester County, New York. Costco's basic membership costs $60 annually, and its premium version costs $120.

Similar to BJ's, no one was at the door checking for memberships when I visited a Costco location in Westchester County, New York. Costco's basic membership costs $60 annually, and its premium version costs $120.

Also like at BJ's, the electronics section was at the front, with rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000.

Also like at BJ's, the electronics section was at the front, with rows of TVs ranging in price from $500 to $2,000.

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

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

Just about everything in sight was bulk-sized. 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.

Just about everything in sight was bulk-sized. 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.

Even produce was sold in bulk. A five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99, the same as at BJ's. In general, however, this Costco store had a wider variety of produce than BJ's did.

Even produce was sold in bulk. A five-pound bag of clementines was only $5.99, the same as at BJ's. In general, however, this Costco store had a wider variety of produce than BJ's did.

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

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

Everything at the store seemed to be randomly arranged. Rugs were in the middle of the produce aisle, and there was golfing equipment on the other side of this display. The middle of the store was cluttered with books and clothes ...

Everything at the store seemed to be randomly arranged. Rugs were in the middle of the produce aisle, and there was golfing equipment on the other side of this display. The middle of the store was cluttered with books and clothes ...

... and random furniture displays were placed throughout the store.

... and random furniture displays were placed throughout the store.

Costco had an entire wall of discounted gift cards ranging from restaurants to movie theaters. The selection even included discounted lift tickets for local ski mountains.

Costco had an entire wall of discounted gift cards ranging from restaurants to movie theaters. The selection even included discounted lift tickets for local ski mountains.

The front of the store was messy. I think this was where returns are processed, but it wasn't labeled anywhere. Costco has a generous return policy, allowing members to return anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund. The exception is electronics and major appliances, which have a 90-day return policy with receipt.

The front of the store was messy. I think this was where returns are processed, but it wasn't labeled anywhere. Costco has a generous return policy, allowing members to return anything (including a membership) at any time for a full refund. The exception is electronics and major appliances, which have a 90-day return policy with receipt.

Many of the registers were closed because it was early in the day, plus everyone had completely full shopping carts, so it was a long wait to check out. 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.

Many of the registers were closed because it was early in the day, plus everyone had completely full shopping carts, so it was a long wait to check out. 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.

Just before the exit was the insanely cheap food court. A hot dog and a soda were only $1.50 and giant churros were $1.00.

Just before the exit was the insanely cheap food court. A hot dog and a soda were only $1.50 and giant churros were $1.00.

A yearly Sam's Club membership costs $45 for the basic plan and $100 for the premium plan. No one at Sam's Club checked my membership, either. Without a membership, you can use a guest pass to shop, but there is a 10% service fee at most locations.

A yearly Sam's Club membership costs $45 for the basic plan and $100 for the premium plan. No one at Sam's Club checked my membership, either. Without a membership, you can use a guest pass to shop, but there is a 10% service fee at most locations.

The tech section mirrored Costco's, and the prices were comparable.

The tech section mirrored Costco's, and the prices were comparable.

Like at Costco, there seemed to be enough bulk-sized snacks to last a lifetime, and most were under $10 a box.

Like at Costco, there seemed to be enough bulk-sized snacks to last a lifetime, and most were under $10 a box.

Produce prices were also comparable, with the same five-pound bag of clementines only 50 cents more at Sam's Club than at Costco and BJ's.

Produce prices were also comparable, with the same five-pound bag of clementines only 50 cents more at Sam's Club than at Costco and BJ's.

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.

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.

Sam's Club was more organized than Costco, but it wasn't perfect. The aisles were more clearly labeled ...

Sam's Club was more organized than Costco, but it wasn't perfect. The aisles were more clearly labeled ...

... but the middle of the store was still a free-for-all with books, clothing, and random playground and furniture sets scattered around.

... but the middle of the store was still a free-for-all with books, clothing, and random playground and furniture sets scattered around.

Sam's Club had a similar wall of gift cards to Costco, all at discounted prices.

Sam's Club had a similar wall of gift cards to Costco, all at discounted prices.

The front of the store looked identical to Costco, and the lines were just as long. Where Sam's Club stands out is its app — the Scan-and-Go app allows customers to scan items as they go through the store and then pay through the app, skipping the long lines. The returns at Sam's Club are similar to Costco, accepting returns on any items except electronics and appliances, which have a 90-day limit.

The front of the store looked identical to Costco, and the lines were just as long. Where Sam's Club stands out is its app — the Scan-and-Go app allows customers to scan items as they go through the store and then pay through the app, skipping the long lines. The returns at Sam's Club are similar to Costco, accepting returns on any items except electronics and appliances, which have a 90-day limit.

The exit once again was preceded by a food court, matching Costco's low prices on items like the hot dog and drink combo and pizza. Fountain drinks were slightly more expensive here.

The exit once again was preceded by a food court, matching Costco's low prices on items like the hot dog and drink combo and pizza. Fountain drinks were slightly more expensive here.

After visiting all three warehouse clubs, it was clear that prices were comparable and each store had its own perks: high quality at Costco, a checkout app at Sam's Club, and the self-checkout at BJs.

After visiting all three warehouse clubs, it was clear that prices were comparable and each store had its own perks: high quality at Costco, a checkout app at Sam's Club, and the self-checkout at BJs.

But the location of BJ's Wholesale I visited didn't have as wide of a selection as Costco or Sam's Club, and the empty shelves around the store were a big weakness, making it an inferior shopping experience.

Costco and Sam's Club offer almost identical services for members. Even though it's less expensive to become a member at Sam's Club, ultimately, it may come down to which store is closer to you.

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