Costco and Sam's Club are among the two most popular wholesale retail chains in the country.
There are obvious similarities between the two retailers, including their general layouts, their notoriously generous return policies, and their similar opening hours. But there are also key differences between the two.
Perhaps the most significant point in Sam's Club's favor is its membership pricing. Sam's Club membership is significantly cheaper than Costco's, with a basic membership running $45 per year and a "Plus" membership (offering cash rewards and free shipping) costing $100 annually.
Meanwhile, Costco's memberships are $60 for a basic "Gold Star" membership and $120 for a "Gold Star Executive" membership.
Having only ever shopped at Costco (or occasionally at BJ's Wholesale Club), I wondered whether Sam's Club's lower annual fee might make it worth the jump.
I decided to check out the nearest Sam's Club while visiting family in south New Jersey to find out. By the end, I knew which store I would continue to shop at.
There were two Sam's Club locations equidistant from my dad's house in New Jersey. We opted to travel to the one in Pleasantville, which was around 30 miles south and took around 40 minutes to get to — not exactly convenient.
The warehouse was all one level, as are many Costco locations (except for my local one in Brooklyn, which has two floors). The first thing I noticed as we drove up is how sprawling it was, which makes sense — each store averages around 136,000 square feet, according to the Sam's Club website.
We visited the store on a weekday late afternoon, at around 5:30 p.m. I was surprised to see how empty the store was when we pulled into the parking lot — there were tons of available spaces. My frequented Costcos are typically far more crowded.
Like Costco, this Sam's Club had a gas station right out front, near the parking lot.
The gas prices were definitely on the cheaper end too, averaging several cents lower per gallon than at other stations we passed on the way down.
Interestingly, this Sam’s Club location had a 24/7 self-serve propane exchange station (payable by credit card), which isn't something I've seen at any of the Costcos I've been to. It was right outside the store exit.
Also outside the store exit: A twine dispenser.
This club's hours were generally pretty comparable to the local Costco's, except it opens a bit earlier and stays open a bit later on Saturdays.
One thing that was interesting was the existence of special hours for those who hold a Sam's Club Plus Membership, which is the equivalent of a Costco Executive Membership (but $20 less annually). Apparently, Plus Members get an extra three hours in the store each morning.
After passing the greeter, who didn't ask to see our non-existent membership card, the liquor section is the first thing you see just past the entrance.
It was extremely well-stocked, with a decently wide variety of wine, liquor, and beer. They even had my favorite riesling!
They also had offerings from a local New Jersey brewery, alongside information about its location and tasting room and tour hours. It was nice to see the national chain supporting a local business.
On the other side of the entrance was the Member Services department, where you can inquire about membership and initiate returns.
Much like at Costco, there wasn't much of a rhyme or reason to how the store was organized. Like, here are some bikes next to patio furniture and flat-screen televisions.
Sam's Club had plenty of specialty services and sub-departments within the warehouse, again much like Costco. There was a section for tires …
… a self-service photo station allowing you to make prints, enlargements, passport photos, custom greeting cards, and other photo gifts …
… an optical department to purchase prescription eyewear and contact lenses …
… and an accompanying eye exam room. Each of those departments were located very close to the entrance.
Weirdly, the pharmacy wasn't in that same spot, where I thought it would've been. Instead, it was on the opposite side of the store, oddly next to the bakery department?
Right past the eye exam room, there was an assortment of 'Extreme Value Gift Cards,' heavily discounted. This particular Sam's Club didn’t seem to have as wide a selection of gift cards as I normally see at Costco.
The warehouse had a surprisingly wide selection of mattresses and box springs available for purchase.
There was also furniture for sale, both on shelves and on the floor interspersed among various other departments. It all seemed to be of decent quality and available at very reasonable prices. I was particularly tempted by this classic-looking media console.
The available clothing was nearly identical to that in Costco — an assortment of dresses, shirts, pants, bathing suits, and activewear folded and arranged in the center of the warehouse.
There was also some footwear, though it was more functional than fashionable.
The store also had major appliances, like high-tech refrigerators and ovens.
I was interested to see Sam’s Club's version of Costco's Kirkland brand. I first encountered 'Member’s Mark' in the toilet paper section. Like Costco, Sam's Club also had name brand bath tissue such as Scott and Charmin, but the Member's Mark version was significantly cheaper.
Same deal with the paper towels — brand-name Bounty was stacked alongside Member's Mark.
There were Sam's Club employees giving out samples. We tried Pillsbury Crescent Rolls and a brand of turkey sausage.
The produce department was located right outside the meat section. As with Costco, it was pretty basic — not anything special, and also not anything I would normally buy since I'm just one person. Buying in bulk doesn't really work for fresh produce, and the quality didn’t seem particularly high.
The butcher department had a decent selection of meats and cuts, but it looked a little sad and deserted. The prices were also nothing to write home about.
The fresh fish selection was a lot better, but that likely also had to do with the fact that we were in south Jersey, where there are tons of local commercial fishing companies.
Costco's rotisserie chicken is massively popular and a great bargain, perpetually costing only $4.99. Sam's Club seems to be a similarly popular purchase, as there was only one left by the time I got there (though they were cooking up more right behind the display). It was also a penny less than Costco's chicken at $4.98.
There was a wide selection of different brands of water available. I was particularly surprised to see Dasani, which I've never seen at any of my local Costcos.
This is where I first started noticing one of the distinct differences between Sam's Club and Costco — namely that the former seems to have a wider variety of recognizable name brands available (though not necessarily at the rock-bottom prices Costco is known for).
Next up were the frozen and refrigerated foods sections.
The milk selection was a bit bleak, especially compared with Costco's.
Sam’s Club's selection of frozen fish was nearly identical to what you typically find at Costco, including tilapia and flounder.
One place where Sam's Club exceeded my expectations was its spice selection. The store had a nice variety of large-size spices under the Member's Mark label, both regular and organic. And the prices were great.
They also had some unexpected seasonings, like this Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing Mix.
There was bulk candy available right outside of the spices and snacks aisles.
And gigantic bags of chips as far as the eye could see.
Right beside that, there was a book section very similar to the ones you'd typically see in Costco.
For the most part, there were a lot of cookbooks and books about trendy food fads, like the massively popular Keto diet.
There was also an assortment of Bibles and other religious books.
We noticed that the assorted mixed nuts available from the Member's Mark brand was significantly cheaper than the Kirkland version at only $8.48.
Upon further inspection, it became clear that this was because it included a cheaper assortment of nuts, like peanuts, unlike Kirkland’s far more expensive Extra Fancy Mixed Nuts, which include Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts.
Continuing my loop around the store, I hit the bakery next.
There were plenty of unique and interesting offerings, like strawberry cream cheese muffins. Those looked pretty delicious, as did the lemon bars next to them.
The bakery also had sheet cakes, which Costco's bakery is particularly known for as well.
There was a selection of toiletries between the bakery and pharmacy departments. There were plenty of familiar brands, including Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Olay, and Tresemme.
As with Costco, Sam's Club had a great selection of electronics, like this massive Samsung QLED TV. The 75-inch unit was on clearance pricing at just under $2,000.
Near the TVs was a jewelry department smack dab in the center, with an assortment of necklaces, bracelets, and engagement rings all kept behind locked glass cases.
Toward the exit, there was a Sam's Club food court, which was comparable in price to Costco's notoriously cheap food court. There were many of the same offerings, like a hot dog and drink combo, frozen yogurt, and pizza.
Near the cash registers, there was a selection of perfumes all kept behind a glass case. Sam's Club had a great price on my favorite scent, Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue ($64.98).
Interestingly, we were able to buy a few items without signing up for a membership or even a guest pass. We paid at the Member Services department, and there was a 10% upcharge added for non-member pricing.
Overall, there were plenty of great products to be found at Sam's Club, and I appreciated their variety of name-brand products. However, Costco's slightly better overall pricing, more convenient locations (for me, personally), and greater selection of organic products make it a no-brainer — I'm sticking with Costco. Sorry, Sam's Club.