I'm a die-hard Costco fan who shopped at Sam's Club for the first time — and I know which store I'll continue to visit

Scott Olson/Getty Images, Tim Boyle/Getty ImagesI’ve been loyal to Costco for years.
  • Costco and Sam’s Club are two of the most popular wholesale retail chains in the US.
  • I’m a lifelong Costco shopper, but I recently took a trip to a Sam’s Club to see which retailer was better. And by the end, I knew which of the two retailers I would continue to shop at.
  • Here’s how my first-ever visit to Sam’s Club went, from the perspective of a lifelong Costco shopper.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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 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 favour is its membership pricing. Sam’s Club membership is significantly cheaper than Costco’s, with a basic membership running $US45 per year and a “Plus” membership (offering cash rewards and free shipping) costing $US100 annually.

Meanwhile, Costco’s memberships are $US60 for a basic “Gold Star” membership and $US120 for a “Gold Star Executive” membership.

Having exclusively 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 southern New Jersey to find out. By the end, I knew which store I would continue to shop at.

Here’s what I found.

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 about 30 miles south and took about 40 minutes to get to — not exactly convenient.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe Sam’s Club store I visited.

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 about 136,000 square feet, according to the Sam’s Club website.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe warehouse was gigantic.

We visited the store on a weekday in the 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. The Costcos I frequent are typically far more crowded.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI’m used to a busy parking lot.

Like Costco, this Sam’s Club had a gas station right out front, near the parking lot.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe gas station.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderGas was cheaper here than at a standard station.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThis was a new feature I’d never seen at my Costco.

Also outside the store exit was a twine dispenser.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe twine station at Sam’s Club.

This club’s hours were generally pretty comparable with the local Costco’s, except it opens a bit earlier and stays open a bit later on Saturdays.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe hours were more or less the same.

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 Gold Star Executive Membership (but $US20 less annually). Apparently, Plus members get an extra three hours in the store each morning.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderExtra hours for plus members.

After passing the greeter, who didn’t ask to see our nonexistent membership card, the liquor section is the first thing you see just past the entrance.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI wasn’t asked for my membership card at the door.

It was extremely well-stocked, with a decently wide variety of wine, liquor, and beer. They even had my favourite riesling!

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe wine selection was impressive.

They also had offerings from a local New Jersey brewery, alongside information about its location, tasting room, and tour hours. It was nice to see the national chain supporting a local business.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI could buy local New Jersey beer if I wanted to.

On the other side of the entrance was the member-services department, where you can inquire about membership and initiate returns.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThey had a large sign so it was impossible to miss.

Much like at Costco, there wasn’t much of a rhyme or reason to how the store was organised. Here are some bikes next to patio furniture and flat-screen TVs.

Caralynn LippoThe set up was more or less random.

Sam’s Club had plenty of specialty services and subdepartments within the warehouse, again much like Costco. There was a section for tires …

Caralynn LippoThe tire section.

… a self-service photo station allowing you to make prints, enlargements, passport photos, custom greeting cards, and other photo gifts …

Caralynn LippoThe photo section.

… an optical department to purchase prescription eyewear and contact lenses …

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe optical section.

… and an accompanying eye-exam room. Each of those departments were very close to the entrance.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe eye exam section.

Weirdly, the pharmacy wasn’t in that same spot, where I thought it would have been. Instead, it was on the opposite side of the store, oddly next to the bakery department.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe pharmacy was next to the bakery.

Right past the eye-exam room, there was an assortment of heavily discounted “Extreme Value Gift Cards.” This particular Sam’s Club didn’t seem to have a selection of gift cards as wide as I normally see at Costco.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderCostco seemed to have more options for gift cards.

The warehouse had a surprisingly wide selection of mattresses and box springs available for purchase.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderYou could even buy a bed here.

There was also furniture for sale, both on shelves and on the floor, interspersed among 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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe furniture was reasonably priced.

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 centre of the warehouse.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe clothing looked exactly like Costco’s display.

There was also some footwear, though it was more functional than fashionable.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe footwear didn’t catch my eye.

The store also had major appliances, such as high-tech refrigerators and ovens.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe high-tech appliance aisle.

I was interested to see Sam’s Club’s version of Costco’s Kirkland brand. I first encountered a “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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderSam’s Club had their own brand.

It was the same deal with the paper towels — the brand-name Bounty was stacked alongside Member’s Mark.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderMember’s Mark paper towels.

There were Sam’s Club employees giving out samples. We tried Pillsbury crescent rolls and a brand of turkey sausage.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderFree samples are always a plus.

The produce department was 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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI wasn’t too impressed by the quality of the produce.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe butcher department was kind of sad.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe fish selection was much more promising.

Costco’s rotisserie chicken is massively popular and a great bargain, perpetually costing only $US4.99. It seems to be a similarly popular purchase at Sam’s Club, 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 $US4.98.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe rotisserie chicken cost one cent less.

There was a wide selection of brands of water available. I was particularly surprised to see Dasani, which I’ve never seen at any of my local Costcos.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderDasani was a pleasant surprise.

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 recognisable name brands available (though not necessarily at the rock-bottom prices Costco is known for).

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI saw more brands than I was used to seeing at Costco.

Next up were the frozen and refrigerated foods sections.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI headed towards the frozen foods aisles.

The milk selection was a bit bleak, especially compared with Costco’s.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderMilk didn’t appear too stocked.

Sam’s Club’s selection of frozen fish was nearly identical to what you typically find at Costco, including tilapia and flounder.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe frozen fish section was almost identical.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe spice section was well-done and priced perfectly.

It also had some unexpected seasonings, such as this Hidden Valley ranch-dressing mix.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderRanch seasoning was great to see.

There was bulk candy available right outside the spices and snacks aisles.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI always love the candy section.

And gigantic bags of chips as far as the eye could see.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe snacks and chips section was endless.

Right beside that, there was a book section very similar to the ones you’d typically see in Costco.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe book aisle was essentially the same as Costco.

For the most part, there were a lot of cookbooks and books about trendy food fads, such as the massively popular keto diet.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe books were trendy and up to date.

There was also an assortment of Bibles and other religious books.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI was surprised by all the religious titles.

We noticed that the assorted mixed nuts available from the Member’s Mark brand were significantly cheaper than the Kirkland version at only $US8.48.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe nuts were cheaper than Costco.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderBut they were only cheap because they had less variety than Costco’s.

Continuing my loop around the store, I hit the bakery next.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI smelled it before I saw it.

There were plenty of unique and interesting offerings, such as strawberry-cream-cheese muffins. Those looked pretty delicious, as did the lemon bars next to them.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI was tempted by so many different options.

The bakery also had sheet cakes, which Costco’s bakery is known for as well.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe sheet cakes were intricately decorated.

There was a selection of toiletries between the bakery and pharmacy departments. There were plenty of familiar brands, including Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Olay, and Tresemmé.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI saw my favourite brands of toiletries right by the bakery.

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 $US2,000.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe electronics were reasonably priced.

Near the TVs was a jewellery department smack dab in the centre, with an assortment of necklaces, bracelets, and engagement rings all kept behind locked glass cases.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe glass cases of jewellery looked similar to Costco.

Toward the exit, there was a Sam’s Club food court, which was comparable in price with Costco’s famously cheap food court. It had many of the same offerings, like a hot dog and drink combo, frozen yogurt, and pizza.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe food court was basically the exact same.

Near the cash registers, there was a selection of perfumes kept behind a glass case. Sam’s Club had a great price on my favourite scent, Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue ($US64.98).

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderThe perfumes were extensive and sold at great prices.

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 nonmember pricing.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderWe bought a few things, but were charged a slight fee for not having a membership.

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.

Caralynn Lippo/Business InsiderI decided to stick with Costco.

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