If you’re feeding an army or just a hungry family, you’ve probably been considering the benefits of membership in a shopping club like Sam’s Club, Costco or BJ’s Wholesale. On the surface, the membership decision seems like a very simple calculus. You take your projected savings from buying in bulk and subtract from that the cost of a yearly membership ($45 for Sam’s Club, $50 for BJ’s, and $55 for Costco). If that works out to be positive number, you should sign up.
This simple math, though, overlooks some of the more serious hidden dangers in signing up for a club membership. The availability of bulk goods can encourage different spending habits that may not be in your financial best interest. Before you sign up, remember these hidden costs.
The extra cost of impulses
One of the most tempting Costco items is a drum-sized container of peanut-butter pretzel bites. In most stores, this might be an impulse item. It would be the kind of snack you’d pick up because you’re a little hungry or because you might have company later in the week. At ordinary snack food quantities, this indulgence will cost you a dollar or so. Because you’re buying in bulk, though, this splurge could easily run you $5. It’s a savings if it’s something you need, but for extra items, it’s just extra cost. Add up those extra costs over a whole shopping trip and ordinary impulse buys could eat a significant part of your grocery bill.
If you’re not used to shopping with a list, the extra costs involved in ordinary impulse spending can add up quickly. More than in other stores, you need to make a list and be a diligent, informed shopper before you set foot in a wholesale store. Do your research, make a plan and stick to it.
The extra cost of cheap goods
Most people wouldn’t buy a big-screen TV on impulse. Something changes in the brain, though, when one appears on an end cap for a bit cheaper than they are at a conventional retailer. After an entire shopping trip of saying no, the willpower gives up and the credit card comes out. Suddenly, there’s a TV in the car.
The wholesale club model is to get people in the door with savings on everyday goods, wear down their resolve with an incredible array of goods, and finally hit them with high-margin goods like clothes or electronics. It works surprisingly well, even on smaller-ticket items like giant candy bars and holiday decorations. It’s a technique psychologists call “confuse and reframe.” It works quite simply.
The confuse part of the operation is the volume and price of goods. Most people have no idea how to adequately value a 20-pound jar of mayonnaise or a pack of 35 frozen steaks. Nor do most people have easy ways to categorize the thousands of products available at these stores. The brain’s natural response to this confusion is to look for shortcuts and the store provides them: price tags offer comparisons to other brands, shops, and products, showing the considerable savings available if the shopper buys now. That’s the reframe part of the operation. Having convinced the shopper that the appropriate frame is amount saved, that becomes the decision-making procedure.
It’s easy to say that those tactics won’t work on you, but studies say differently. These companies have spent lots of money designing a retail experience that gets you to spend big. They wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t work.
The cost of missed sales
It can be easy to see an item advertised in one of these stores and assume it’s the best price you will ever find for the item. It’s frustrating, then, to go back the next week and see the product on sale for $25 cheaper. Yet this is very common, particularly with seasonal goods that need to be sold by a certain date.
In many cases, these stores will be happy to honor the sale price and refund the difference — but only if you ask for it. Because all transactions are linked to a membership card, it’s far easier for the store to see that you purchased an item and issue a refund. They’re counting on the bulk effect to create less frequent trips so customers won’t see these new sale prices. Shopping at a conventional retailer means more chances to price-check goods.
The cost of waste
If you’re trying to encourage your family to try new things, you know there are going to be some foods they just don’t like. If you’re shopping at a conventional retailer, you might waste a half-pound of asparagus when it turns out your youngest just can’t stand it. If you tried that same experiment while buying from a wholesale store, though, you might end up throwing out several pounds of fresh produce.
Even when buying tried and tested staples, beware the perishable item. If you’re buying something that can spoil in bulk, you’re taking the risk that you’ll have something to do with it before it goes bad. You can minimize this risk by having a plan in place to deal with the surplus. This plan can be as simple as putting it in the freezer or sharing excess with neighbors, friends, and family members.
You can also focus your stock-up efforts on non-perishable goods. Buying things like medications, spices and paper goods in bulk can let you take advantage of the economy of scale without worrying about spoilage. Many of these goods also offer the deepest discounts.
Wholesale stores offer the chance for incredible value, but they also invite some risk. Whether membership is worth it to you or not depends on the kind of shopper you are. If you’re a diligent planner and a seasoned researcher, you can save a lot on things you need. If you tend to make impulse buys, then let the buyer beware.