Want the most value for your money when you’re shopping? Join a warehouse club! There are three big warehouse club chains that dominate the business — Costco Wholesale, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club.
So which one is right for you?
In this article, we’ll compare membership dues, store locations, store brands, return policies and more for the Big 3 warehouse clubs.
Comparing Costco vs. Sam’s Club vs. BJ’s
Here at Team Clark, we are big fans of warehouse clubs because you can save so much money buying in bulk. And no one on our team is more passionate about warehouse clubs than the namesake of our site, money expert Clark Howard.
“I love the warehouse clubs and do almost all my shopping in them,” Clark says. “The markups are extremely low so I know I am always getting a deal.”
Table of contents
- Overview: Similarities and Differences
- Membership Dues
- Store Locations
- Store Brands
- Return policy
- Cash-Back Rewards
- Credit Cards
Overview: Similarities and Differences
The decision to join either Costco Wholesale, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale Club can be a vexing one. Here’s an overview so you can familiarize yourself with these three leading warehouse club chains.
Each of the three warehouse club chains is membership based. That means you have to pay in order to shop there, with some very limited exceptions.
This chart will help you understand what you have to pay to get in the door at Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club. All three offer two tiers of membership — basic and premium — and all memberships are annual.
|Warehouse Club||Basic Membership||Premium Membership|
|Costco Wholesale||Gold Star/Business – $60||Gold Star Executive/Business Executive – $120|
|Sam’s Club||Club – $45||Plus – $100|
|BJ’s Wholesale||Inner Circle – $55||Perks Rewards – $110|
You may be wondering what the difference is between a basic membership and a premium membership at any of the warehouse clubs.
Across the board, the biggest selling point is that you get 2% cash-back on most purchases when you upgrade to a premium membership — but more on that in a bit.
Finally, we should also note that BJ’s offers a special online-only membership called Online Access for $10 a year. It allows you to shop BJs.com, but not to shop at their actual stores.
NOTE: Both Costco and Sam’s Club offer a variety of perks for military personnel and their families when they join. But BJ’s Wholesale Club is the only one of the three that will actually discount your membership.
As a “thank you” to the brave men and women who serve our nation, BJ’s offers them more than 25% off the price of a membership — plus a $10 coupon. All you need to do is verify your Troop ID. Click here to get started.
Both Costco and Sam’s Club have a roughly equal retail footprint in the United States, though Costco has more international locations.
BJ’s Wholesale Club, meanwhile, is the smallest of the three warehouse club chains. Instead of having a truly national focus with coast-to-coast stores, its locations are spread throughout the Eastern United States.
- Costco: Currently operates 783 warehouses, including 544 in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to the company’s latest press release.
- Sam’s Club: According to the chain’s website, it has “almost 600 clubs across the U.S and Puerto Rico.”
- BJ’s Wholesale Club: Currently operates 217 warehouse clubs in 16 states, according to the company’s latest press release.
All three warehouse clubs sell a mix of name brands and their own private label goods.
Costco has the Kirkland Signature label. This beloved brand encompasses everything from clothing to food to sundries.
Sam’s Club has its Member’s Mark private label. “Member’s Mark products are exclusive designs that use top-of-the-line materials and the highest quality ingredients to make sure you get the best quality and value at members-only prices,” according to Sam’s Club.
BJ’s Wholesale Club actually has two private labels — Berkley Jensen and Wellsley Farms.
Berkley Jensen focuses on product categories like office, furniture, lawn & garden, home, appliances, baby & kids, apparel and health & beauty, among others.
Wellsley Farms, meanwhile, has a narrower focus on fresh & refrigerated food, canned & packaged food, frozen food, beverages and more.
Warehouse clubs are generally known to have consumer-friendly return policies.
In fact, Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale all believe in what they do so strongly that each will refund the cost of your membership if you’re ever dissatisfied with being a customer.
Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the finer points of each warehouse club’s return policy.
Costco’s deal with its near-legendary return policy is that you can return anything, at any time, no questions asked and no receipt necessary — with some limited exceptions.
- Electronics – Must return within 90 days
- Appliances – Must return within 90 days
- Cell phones – Must return within 90 days
- Tires and batteries – Sold with a “product-specific limited warranty”
- Custom-made products – Can’t be returned
You can read more about Costco’s return policy here.
Sam’s Club says that having your receipt is recommended for returns, but not mandatory.
“We prefer that you provide your original receipt or printed order, but if it is not available, we will do our best to process your return without it,” the store notes online.
However, you only have a limited amount of time to return some items:
- Cell phones/Connected Devices – Must return within 14 days
- Electronics – Must return within 90 days
- Games and software – Must return within 90 days
- Gift cards – No returns “except due to manufacturer defects or as required by law.”
- Golf carts – Must return within 30 days
- TVs – Must return within 90 days
- Tickets – No returns
- Vending machines – Must return within 30 days
Read more about the Sam’s Club return policy here.
BJ’s Wholesale Club
As a general rule, you can return any piece of non-grocery merchandise up to one year after purchase “in new condition [with] accessories intact.”
Several product categories have more limited return periods:
- Televisions, home theater displays, laptops and tablets – Must return within 14 days
- Computers, electronics and patio sets – Must return within 90 days
- Major appliances – Must return within 30 days
Several kinds of items can’t be returned:
- Gift cards
- Clearance apparel
- Opened media (CDs, DVDs, video games)
- In-store jewelry purchases (online purchases can, however, be returned)
- Items containing fuel, gas or oil
For full details, see the BJ’s Wholesale Club Return Policy.
Return policies are important anytime you buy anything at any retailer. This is perhaps no more so than when you’re talking about the warehouse clubs. You’re paying to be their customer and do your shopping there, right?
So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about big purchases like flatscreen TVs for thousands of dollars or a couple dozen eggs for a few bucks. You want to be sure you understand the terms of the warehouse club return policy you agree to when you sign up.
Cash Back Rewards
Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club all reward their premium members with cash back on most purchases.
- Costco: Executive members receive an annual 2% Reward on qualified Costco purchases up to $1,000 annually. Full terms and conditions here.
- Sam’s Club: Plus members earn 2% back on most purchases, up to $500 annually. Full terms and conditions here.
- BJ’s Wholesale Club: Perks Rewards members receive 2% back on most purchases. Full terms and conditions here.
Sam’s Clubs caps your earnings at $500.
Costco, meanwhile, allows you to earn twice as much in cash back — $1,000 — each year. In order to max that out, you’d have to spend $4,170 monthly or just more than $50,000 annually, according to warehouse club’s own numbers.
However, it’s BJ’s Wholesale Club that really stands out in this category. Team Clark has confirmed with BJ’s that there’s no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn.
Cash back at BJ’s is issued as electronic awards in increments of $20. They’re valid for six months from the date of issue and can be used at checkout. You also have the option to get a check by calling Member Care at 800-BJS-CLUB (800-257-2582).
Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale all have co-branded credit cards with cash back rewards designed to appeal to their loyal customer base.
Here’s a look at how they stack up in comparison to one another:
Warehouse Clubs Credit Card Comparison
|Card Name||Rewards||Annual Fee|
Unlike Costco and Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale Club has two co-branded credit cards targeted to its two tiers of membership. The one you apply for depends on what kind of membership you have.
If you have an Inner Circle (basic) membership, you apply for the BJ’s Perks Plus Mastercard. If you have a Perks Rewards (premium) membership, then you can apply for the BJ’s Perk Elite Mastercard.
Meanwhile, none of the cards offered by any of the warehouse clubs has an annual fee, which is a big plus.
So which one is right for you? Our in-house credit card expert, Jason Steele, says it’s really a toss-up.
“These cards are so similar that your decision will likely depend on which store you prefer,” he writes. “In the extremely competitive fields of both credit cards and warehouse stores, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this race is too close to call.”
Joining a warehouse club is a great way to save money, particularly if you have a family or live in a household with more than just one person.
But even though Clark Howard shops at all three, he has a clear favorite — Costco Wholesale.
“Although the warehouse clubs are like three favorite children, Costco is the best. The maximum markup in Costco is 14%, except for Kirkland Signature at 15%. Those are the lowest markups above cost in retail,” Clark says. “Costco also has an unbelievable return policy. And if you buy something that gets cheaper within 30 days of when you purchase it, Costco refunds the difference if you ask.”
When you’re considering which warehouse club to join, you might want to make location one of the prime deciding factors. Because Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s are all so similar, the one that’s nearest to you or easiest to get to is the one you should probably consider joining.
But before you head off, you’ll definitely want to read our article about 13 secret saving hacks at Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale. We’ve got you covered on Clark.com no matter which warehouse club you ultimately choose to join and save at!