11 Tips for Buying Food at Warehouse Clubs

Buying in bulk at your local warehouse club (whether that’s Costco, BJs, Sam’s Club or another chain) can single-handedly slash your grocery budget by leaps and bounds. It pays to look into how to take advantage of warehouse shopping, as well as how to optimize the purchases you make there.

Having shopped at warehouse clubs for the last 17 years (including all the major chains), I have a unique perspective from which to offer a few tips. Today’s list of tips will focus specifically on buying food, which recently made up about 75% of my monthly warehouse spending. Let’s take a look:

  1. While I love “good wine,” a recent study (can’t remember where I saw it, unfortunately) pointed out that many people couldn’t tell the difference between a $10 and a $100 bottle, and I honestly can’t either. The warehouse carries inexpensive bottles, but nothing beats a $2.99 red or white at Trader Joe’s. Verdict: I don’t buy wine at the warehouse (and I don’t typically drink beer).
  2. The bakery selection is usually extensive, including “mid-level” and artisan breads, pastries and cakes. The prices usually beat anything you can find at the supermarket, but when you buy a case of twelve muffins, you’ll either need a large family or a looser belt to consume it all.
  3. One strategy that works well for fruits, meat, and even some vegetables is to use a portion of the package the same day or week (if it will make it that long) for your dishes, and to freeze the rest. This allows you to buy 12 chicken breasts and not wonder how you’ll eat them all tonight.
  4. The meat department is one of my favorites since the pricing is excellent, and for what it’s worth, many warehouses claim to buy better meat than the typical grocery store. The portions are usually large, but you can mitigate this if you have a large family, freeze the remainder, or if you’re hosting a party.
  5. The selection in the produce, dairy and other cold sections varies from store to store, but is usually limited as far as odd items. However, you’re bound to find at least one kind of whatever you’re looking for as long as it’s a popular food, whether that’s greek yogurt, green beans, or tomatoes.
  6. The same goes for dry goods, like pastas or breakfast cereal, though the selection will be similarly limited and there are many instances where I could not find what I needed for a recipe at the warehouse store.
  7. People often joke about the free samples you can pick up on Saturday afternoons, but this is no joke–I’ve discovered a whole handful of new products by tasting them that I’d never look at or know about otherwise. If you can brave the crowds, visit the store on Saturday and do some sampler-hopping.
  8. Most portion sizes will be bigger than typical. For example, when I buy chicken breasts or pork chops, what would typically be one serving from the grocery store, I can easily cut in half and get two from the warehouse cuts. Go by weight when buying meat and cook/serve accordingly.
  9. Don’t opt for the premium membership, especially if you stick to fresh goods. Most of the “sales” at the warehouses that have this model are for processed foods or non-grocery items. If you buy large volumes of food and the specific store offers a cash-back membership, evaluate it on a case-by-case basis; it might be worth the investment.
  10. Shop during off-hours. Many complaints about warehouses have to do with the crowds and long lines. If you consistently shop on Saturday afternoons, that’s all you’ll ever get, so try to visit the store when no one else is likely to. An hour or so before a weekday closing is usually a good time with short waits.
  11. Many warehouse stores offer a trial membership during a certain time of year, or a “non-member shopping weekend.” Most will also let you browse the store at anytime if you don’t intend to buy anything. Take advantage of these offers to see what kinds of products are sold at the store. If there’s more than one warehouse store in your area, visit them all before making a decision. The grocery selection between the various chains varies significantly.

The per-unit cost on most items in a warehouse, and in particular the meats and produce, is significantly better than any price at any local supermarket. The key in making the purchases effective is how you use them and store them, guarding against the “eat more because it’s there” effect and food spoilage.

Finally, don’t be scared to check out the warehouse even if you’re single or have a small family. Without a doubt, a club membership can still be effective, regardless of your household size.

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