We shopped at Costco and Sam's Club and found Costco's extra membership cost is worth it

Costco exteriorShoshy Ciment/Business Insider

  • Costco and Walmart-owned Sam's Club are two leading wholesale retailers with similar bulk-sized products and prices.
  • Both require membership for shopping and include pharmacies, food courts, and hearing and vision centers.
  • We visited both to see which was better and found that though Sam's Club's membership was slightly cheaper, Costco's Kirkland brands and superior food court made it the better choice overall.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

For bulk shopping at cheap prices, Costco and Sam's Club are the way to go.

The membership-based warehouses occupy a unique sector of retail. Both offer everything from groceries to clothes in bulk and require a membership in order to shop.

Costco and the Walmart-owned Sam's Club have similar store models and almost identical products and prices. Both sell flowers, electronics, jewelry, and groceries. They also both have pharmacies and affordable food courts and they offer hearing and vision tests in many of their stores.

Read more: This soon-to-be-married Icelandic couple met in a Facebook group for Costco fans, and their friends call their child the 'Costco Baby'

To be sure, Costco and Sam's Club are not designed to foster a regular shopping experience. The stores are set up like warehouses, stripped of all fluff and frills. What you see is what you get - and what you get is usually the best bang for your buck.

The differences between the two are slight but meaningful. Costco's annual membership - $60 for basic membership and $120 for executive - is slightly more expensive than Sam's Club's $45 regular annual membership or its plus membership for $100.

With 539 locations in the United States and Puerto Rico, Costco is about as easy to find as Sam's Club, which has almost 600 clubs in the same regions. But where you live in proximity to a warehouse could make or break your decision to join either store.

We visited both stores without memberships to see which was worth joining. Costco's wide selection of Kirkland Signature products and its superior food court made it the better choice overall. But its proximity to us was what made it the most convenient option - and this factor could vary with each person.

Here's what we saw.
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We first stopped by Sam's Club in Secaucus, New Jersey. We had never been to a Sam's Club before, so we weren't quite sure what to expect.

We first stopped by Sam's Club in Secaucus, New Jersey. We had never been to a Sam's Club before, so we weren't quite sure what to expect.

We noticed that shoppers with Plus membership could get into the store in off-hours, which seemed like a great way to entice shoppers to join.

We noticed that shoppers with Plus membership could get into the store in off-hours, which seemed like a great way to entice shoppers to join.

An employee at the front of the store kindly offered us help upon our entrance.

An employee at the front of the store kindly offered us help upon our entrance.

Once inside, we were able to observe the warehouse store in all of its glory. The store felt like a massive garage, filled with every possible item one might need to get through life.

Once inside, we were able to observe the warehouse store in all of its glory. The store felt like a massive garage, filled with every possible item one might need to get through life.

We ran into this living room set right away.

We ran into this living room set right away.

We started making our way through the store and saw various items available in bulk.

We started making our way through the store and saw various items available in bulk.

Soon, we found ourselves at a food court that was offering items like pizza, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and sundaes.

Soon, we found ourselves at a food court that was offering items like pizza, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and sundaes.

Sam's Club was so huge, that it almost felt like a miniature city inside with its own ecosystem. Moving along, we found ourselves in the middle of a functioning pharmacy.

Sam's Club was so huge, that it almost felt like a miniature city inside with its own ecosystem. Moving along, we found ourselves in the middle of a functioning pharmacy.

Later on in our journey, we found a hearing aid center ...

Later on in our journey, we found a hearing aid center ...

... as well as an eyeglasses and optical center. There was also a tire center in the store, though no photo center — an employee told us it had closed.

... as well as an eyeglasses and optical center. There was also a tire center in the store, though no photo center — an employee told us it had closed.

It seemed like if someone wanted to live in a Sam's Club, they could probably do it just fine.

It seemed like if someone wanted to live in a Sam's Club, they could probably do it just fine.

There was a massive selection of electronics that included televisions and cell phones.

There was a massive selection of electronics that included televisions and cell phones.

Unexpectedly, Sam's Club also had a nice variety of jewelry behind glass.

Unexpectedly, Sam's Club also had a nice variety of jewelry behind glass.

Moving along, we started our trek into the aisles of bulk-sized food.

Moving along, we started our trek into the aisles of bulk-sized food.

The snacks at Sam's Club were a sweet tooth's dream come true. From sweet to savory, Sam's Club had you covered — and always in bulk.

The snacks at Sam's Club were a sweet tooth's dream come true. From sweet to savory, Sam's Club had you covered — and always in bulk.

For those who wanted a month-long supply of cashews, there were many options to choose from. One tub cost about $14.

For those who wanted a month-long supply of cashews, there were many options to choose from. One tub cost about $14.

These tubs of neon orange cheese balls for $6.14 caught our eye.

These tubs of neon orange cheese balls for $6.14 caught our eye.

Overall, the snacks section was jam-packed with options. There were even some displays for Halloween candy when we visited, even though it was mid-August.

Overall, the snacks section was jam-packed with options. There were even some displays for Halloween candy when we visited, even though it was mid-August.

When it came to frozen food, Sam's Club had some of the biggest aisles we had ever seen. The options seemed endless.

When it came to frozen food, Sam's Club had some of the biggest aisles we had ever seen. The options seemed endless.

There was also a great section of wine and spirits that made Sam's Club seem like the perfect place to pick up wine or beer for a larger dinner party.

There was also a great section of wine and spirits that made Sam's Club seem like the perfect place to pick up wine or beer for a larger dinner party.

This 24-pack of Corona Extra was going for about $29.

This 24-pack of Corona Extra was going for about $29.

Sam's Club also had a nice variety of flowers to choose from.

Sam's Club also had a nice variety of flowers to choose from.

We kept bumping into random items for sale that did not fit any specific section on our journey. We saw everything from outdoor swing sets ...

We kept bumping into random items for sale that did not fit any specific section on our journey. We saw everything from outdoor swing sets ...

... to a miniature piano ...

... to a miniature piano ...

... to a safe.

... to a safe.

There was also a great selection of books. Some, like Michelle Obama's memoir "Becoming," were even popular best-sellers.

There was also a great selection of books. Some, like Michelle Obama's memoir "Becoming," were even popular best-sellers.

But for the most part, everything in the warehouse was arranged like this — in bulk-sized compact squares that looked like they had just been loaded off a cargo ship.

But for the most part, everything in the warehouse was arranged like this — in bulk-sized compact squares that looked like they had just been loaded off a cargo ship.

There were also a lot of tables piled with low-priced clothing.

There were also a lot of tables piled with low-priced clothing.

We found a hefty supply of different shoes, including some Nikes.

We found a hefty supply of different shoes, including some Nikes.

Sam's Club also had a large grocery section, complete with meat, produce, and baked goods. These watermelons were going for about $6 each.

Sam's Club also had a large grocery section, complete with meat, produce, and baked goods. These watermelons were going for about $6 each.

We found one of our favorite sweet treats in the grocery section, which made us very excited.

 We found one of our favorite sweet treats in the grocery section, which made us very excited.

Nearby, we found a huge section of cakes and cupcakes.

Nearby, we found a huge section of cakes and cupcakes.

Before we left, we found a few more items that looked like they were made for a giant. This sugar bag would probably never need to be replaced in an average household.

Before we left, we found a few more items that looked like they were made for a giant. This sugar bag would probably never need to be replaced in an average household.

The checkout lines were pretty empty, as it was the middle of the day. Since we weren't members, we walked right through and out of the store. Next, we went to a Costco.

The checkout lines were pretty empty, as it was the middle of the day. Since we weren't members, we walked right through and out of the store. Next, we went to a Costco.

Unlike Sam's Club, Costco has locations throughout New York City. We visited a location on the East Side on 117th Street.

Unlike Sam's Club, Costco has locations throughout New York City. We visited a location on the East Side on 117th Street.

Unlike Sam's Club, it didn't look like Costco was offering any special hours for executive members.

Unlike Sam's Club, it didn't look like Costco was offering any special hours for executive members.

Costco was more rigorous about checking the membership of its shoppers. Our non-member status was discovered right away and we were directed to the membership counter at the front of the store.

Costco was more rigorous about checking the membership of its shoppers. Our non-member status was discovered right away and we were directed to the membership counter at the front of the store.

Costco had the same warehouse appearance as Sam's Club and the same general set-up as well.

Costco had the same warehouse appearance as Sam's Club and the same general set-up as well.

Piles of cheap clothing were also laid out on tables here.

Piles of cheap clothing were also laid out on tables here.

And there was also a selection of shoes.

And there was also a selection of shoes.

Like Sam's Club, everything at Costco looked like it was being sold in lifetime supplies.

Like Sam's Club, everything at Costco looked like it was being sold in lifetime supplies.

We quickly found a center for eye-exams ...

We quickly found a center for eye-exams ...

... as well as a hearing aid center.

... as well as a hearing aid center.

We also found a pharmacy.

We also found a pharmacy.

There was a similarly large electronics display that included televisions, phones, and Apple products.

There was a similarly large electronics display that included televisions, phones, and Apple products.

There was also a glass-enclosed jewelry display in a central location of the store.

There was also a glass-enclosed jewelry display in a central location of the store.

Random furniture items were dispersed throughout. We found this full-sized bunk bed not far from the frozen food section.

Random furniture items were dispersed throughout. We found this full-sized bunk bed not far from the frozen food section.

We also found a kitchen display that looked remarkably similar to the one we had seen at Sam's Club.

We also found a kitchen display that looked remarkably similar to the one we had seen at Sam's Club.

Overall, it was hard to find any serious differences between the two stores. They both carried similar or the same items in bulk sizes.

Overall, it was hard to find any serious differences between the two stores. They both carried similar or the same items in bulk sizes.

This Corona 24-pack was going for about a dollar more than the same pack at Sam's Club.

This Corona 24-pack was going for about a dollar more than the same pack at Sam's Club.

One advantage Costco had was its in-store Kirkland Signature brand. These unique products could be found throughout the store — they are known to be generally less expensive than the name-brands.

One advantage Costco had was its in-store Kirkland Signature brand. These unique products could be found throughout the store — they are known to be generally less expensive than the name-brands.

Source: Business Insider

There was even a Kirkland Signature-brand Rotisserie in the store. Sam's Club also has is own private brand called "Member's Mark," but it didn't seem to have as large of a presence in the store.

There was even a Kirkland Signature-brand Rotisserie in the store. Sam's Club also has is own private brand called "Member's Mark," but it didn't seem to have as large of a presence in the store.

Source: Supermarket News

Near the meat section, Costco was advertising a huge selection of kosher meats, cheeses, side dishes, and baked goods. If there were kosher options at Sam's Club, we did not see it in the same big, bold letters.

Near the meat section, Costco was advertising a huge selection of kosher meats, cheeses, side dishes, and baked goods. If there were kosher options at Sam's Club, we did not see it in the same big, bold letters.

There were cakes for every occasion and customers had the option to personalize them.

There were cakes for every occasion and customers had the option to personalize them.

The grocery section at Costco was similar to Sam's Club overall.

The grocery section at Costco was similar to Sam's Club overall.

The watermelons here cost about the same as those in Sam's Club, nearly $6.

The watermelons here cost about the same as those in Sam's Club, nearly $6.

Even though there were a lot of Kirkland Signature products here, we also found a lot of name-brand products as well, like this four-pound bag of Craisins.

Even though there were a lot of Kirkland Signature products here, we also found a lot of name-brand products as well, like this four-pound bag of Craisins.

And these 62-ounce jars of M&Ms.

And these 62-ounce jars of M&Ms.

Near checkout, Costco was selling movie tickets to use at Regal theaters.

Near checkout, Costco was selling movie tickets to use at Regal theaters.

We also found a section of flowers nearby.

We also found a section of flowers nearby.

The food court at Costco looked like it had more options overall. There was ice cream, churros, acai bowls, and multiple types of pizza.

The food court at Costco looked like it had more options overall. There was ice cream, churros, acai bowls, and multiple types of pizza.

From the window, the food looked as appetizing as it did in the photos that were advertising it above the counter.

From the window, the food looked as appetizing as it did in the photos that were advertising it above the counter.

The lines for checking out at Costco were slightly longer than Sam's Club, which we assumed was due to the post-work shopping rush at around 7 p.m.

The lines for checking out at Costco were slightly longer than Sam's Club, which we assumed was due to the post-work shopping rush at around 7 p.m.

Before we left, we saw some Costco travel deals. Sam's Club also has deals for members on hotels, rental cars, and vacation destinations.

Before we left, we saw some Costco travel deals. Sam's Club also has deals for members on hotels, rental cars, and vacation destinations.

Overall, Costco's in-house brands, superior food court, and New York City locations made it the better option for us. But for someone who lives near a Sam's Club, the cheaper membership and nearly identical products and prices might be a better fit.

Overall, Costco's in-house brands, superior food court, and New York City locations made it the better option for us. But for someone who lives near a Sam's Club, the cheaper membership and nearly identical products and prices might be a better fit.
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