Big box stores have the extraordinary ability to make even seasoned shoppers weak in the knees. These wholesale behemoths hold a euphoric place in many a deal-digging heart, sharing a coveted spot with free shipping on all orders, 50-percent-off coupons and the smell of napalm -- er, savings in the morning. Why? Walk through an aisle of discount plasma TVs or half-off prescription meds and see for yourself.
While bulk buying is a major draw for big box stores like Sam's Club, Costco and BJs Wholesale, the perks of being a cardholder go beyond feeding an army. On a near-daily basis, many non-bulk items can often be found for much less than at supermarkets and retail chains. Membership fees range from $40 to $100 annually, yet the initial cost is quickly devoured by savings of 30 to 70 percent on everything from food to electronics.
For those who prefer to buy in person, SmartMoney.com recommends BJs for "it's customer service and overall atmosphere." BJs accepts manufacturer's coupons, unlike other stores. Shopping in your PJ's at home is a whole different beast, and in general, the cost and quality of products at each online store is equivalent.
Once you enter a digital or brick-and-mortar warehouse, remember to stay disciplined with a solid shopping list. You may not be looking to buy in bulk, but impulse rapidly becomes regret when you exit the store with a 20-pound jar of sunscreen. Only equatorial albinos need that level of UV protection. All tubs, vats and pallets aside, here are 11 products you should almost always buy at big box clubs, along with a spattering of things to avoid.
What once cost two or three grand can now be found for under $1,000. Where the clubs shine is with generous warranties and return policies.
Example: Every LCD screen from Costco and Sam's Club can be returned within 90 days for a complete refund, a full 60 days longer than major electronics stores and a month more than online outlets. For certain brands, such as Sony, Sam's Club even extends the manufacturer's warranty by two years. Sniff out an instant rebate -- some up to $500 -- and your TV will enjoy a long, happy, vivid life.
2. AA Batteries
Is there even a need to bring expiration dates into a discussion of bulk battery buying? Didn't think so.
3. Pre-Ground Coffee
Granted, this is more of a bulk-buy type item, but with the way early-morning zombies go through java, a 48-ounce canister is lucky to last several weeks. For most of the early morning undead, bulk buy loses out to the pre-ground variety for both cost and convenience. Large coffee cans cost up to 30 percent less per pound at a big box store than the local supermarket.
In many ways, big box stores are self-contained shopping centers: It's only a matter of time before tanning salons nestle alongside the food court. While not every location has a full-service mechanic, the trend is picking up along with in-house gas stations. All three major merchants have tire stores, but Costco offers the best overall deal.
To put things on a level, we looked at the most affordable Bridgestone tires for a 2006 Honda Civic. Most stores, including big box outlets, charged around $420 for a full set, though a few didn't include installation. From Costco, the same treads clocked in at $330, nearly $100 less. Included in the price were free shipping, mounting and tire disposal. Even when compared to standalone mechanic shops and specialists like Discount Tire Company, Costco lead the way. What's more, manufacturer rebates are almost always available when you buy four at once and most big box stores honor them.
5. Prescription Drugs
Similar to your local supermarket, nearly every wholesale club comes equipped with a full-service pharmacy. But what's the difference? An average of 50 percent on most prescription meds. Though it varies by store and location, most even let non-members fill prescriptions online or in person.
That said, some experts warn against buying supplements and vitamins from big box retailers. You won't believe how old vanilla gets after a few months of the same post-workout shakes, and some people react adversely to different vitamin brands.
6. Cell Phone Plans
Setting up or changing a cell phone plan through a big box store is much like buying a TV. The base rates are almost identical to what you'd get with a service provider, but it's the fringe benefits that make it worthwhile. Along with a convenient, hassle-free way to compare and contrast different providers -- the in-store kiosks are operated by an independent vendor, meaning no pushy salesmen -- you'll find more instant and mail-in rebate deals than anywhere else. Each major cell company offers at least one free smartphone with a new plan, plus the store usually includes a free accessory kit just for doing business through them.
Although the average shopper can save more by carefully scoping sales at the local grocery store, milk is one of the few non-bulk food items that's nearly always cheaper at a club. A gallon will typically cost $1.50 less, even organic varieties. Combine these prices with coupons and watch the price drop until it's udder-ly unbelievable. And that's no laughing matter.
Several money-savvy sites have made an unexpected discovery at big box stores: They carry a wine and beer selection on par with some of the finest restaurants and brewpubs. Most brands and varieties can be found for 20-percent less than at liquor stores or supermarkets. You'll need to check local laws, but some states' allow anyone of legal age to buy from warehouse clubs; cardholder or not.
The real winners, however, are high-end spirit connoisseurs. Bottles regularly priced over $150 can be found for 30- to 50-percent off the going rate. If you're looking to splurge on Bordeaux for your next suave get-together, visit a big box retailer and use your extra cash to indulge in a decadent main course instead.
9. Quality Meat
What's better than butcher-quality meat at a wholesale price? For avid carnivores...not much. If you hit up a local store, there's no pressure to buy in bulk and most carry the same selection as premium supermarkets, from seafood and sausage to filet mignon and roast chicken.
Buying online is a slightly different story, similar to mail-order meat providers. BJs, Costco and Sams Club all have an online ordering and distribution service for certain meats. Most orders come with free shipping and the prices are comparable to specialized delivery companies. Don't be shocked by costs above $100: You're still buying in bulk. Order only if you plan on throwing a gourmet bash or have plenty of room cleared in the freezer.
10. Pet Food
Cat, dog, dry, canned -- it doesn't much matter when it comes to pet food. With the exception of occasional sales at Walmart, you're almost guaranteed to snag a better deal for your four-legged significant other at warehouse stores. Plus, it's already cheaper to buy pet food in bulk: The per pound cost of a 44-pound bag of Iams dry dog food is 26 cents less than the 17.5-pound one. Buying from a big box store knocks it down another 15 to 20 percent, saving you enough to buy Fido a frisbee.
Filling up at your local club can be anywhere from 5 to 10 cents cheaper per gallon than gas stations in the area, provided it has pumps. That said, be judicious and pay special attention to dips or jumps in gas prices. When the cost of a gallon falls, big box stores reap the benefits. Gas prices nationwide are relatively stable at the moment, but it pays to be cautious.
A FEW TO AVOID
Pasta is an oft-used, already inexpensive commodity, which puts warehouse prices about even with those at a supermarket. Plus, pasta crafters offer regular discounts. With some grocery coupons you should be able to find a buck off a bag or box.
13. Large Frozen Foods
As mentioned earlier with mail-order meats, storage is a stumbling block for mounds of frozen food. Do you really have a place to keep 12 frozen pizzas, 80 pot stickers and 150 jalapeno poppers? Didn't think so.
14. Toilet Paper
It seems counter-intuitive, yet with the exception of large households, buying toilet paper in bulk doesn't save money. In fact, it can be up to 10 cents more per roll than buying reasonably-sized supplies elsewhere. For singles or those living in small apartments, there's simply no room or need for 36 rolls.
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