Whether you're a loyal wholesale club shopper, or someone trying to decide if the membership fee is worth the savings, it's important to understand how Costco and Sam's Club trick you into spending your money. From the floor plan of the warehouse, to how they stock their shelves, everything is done for a reason. And that reason is to separate you from as much of your hard-earned money as possible. Here are the tricks to be aware of so you can become a savvier warehouse club shopper. (See also: What You Need to Know About the New Costco Credit Card)
1. The Shiny Objects Are Stacked Up Front
Have you ever wondered why warehouse clubs put their 4K 65" TVs right near the entrance, and you almost have to step over them to get in and do your shopping? This is where you'll also find all the coolest new gadgets and electronics that are designed to suck you (and your money) in like a Star Wars tractor beam. It's hard to not stop and daydream a little bit. But unless one of these bright and shiny objects is on your shopping list, keep on trucking.
Warehouse clubs are also famous for stocking really cheap seasonal items near the front of the store, forcing you to walk by them. During the summer, you'll find bargains on camping chairs and shorts. During the winter, you'll find deals on coats, sleds, and warm clothing. Known as "Open the Wallet" pricing, it's done to get you excited about the idea of saving money. Money that you can, in theory, use to buy more stuff at full price before you check out.
2. Bland Décor Tricks Your Brain
Have you ever taken a second and looked around at the décor at warehouse clubs? The gray concrete floors, the metal shelving, the pallets stacked to the ceiling. While some of it's for inventory reasons, it's mainly done to make it appear like very little money was spent on sprucing up the warehouse and all the money saved is being passed along to you, the shopper. It's clearly a Jedi mind trick designed to separate you from your money and make you think you must always be getting a great deal. Don't be fooled.
3. The Center Aisle Is a Trap
The center aisles at Costco, especially toward the front of the warehouse, are full of items that you had no idea existed but clearly cannot live without. If you're like most, and easily tempted to wander those aisles and throw a couple "must haves" in your cart, I have a tip. When you walk into Costco, keep your shopping cart in the outside aisle around the exterior of the store and shop from there. The best way to not be tempted by items you don't need is to stay out of the center of the store whenever possible.
RELATED: 12 things you should always buy at Costco
12 things you should buy at Costco
12 things you should buy at Costco
Consumer Reports claims Costco's house brand, Kirkland bacon, actually tastes better than any name-brand bacon testers reviewed. It’s also much more inexpensive, costing between $10 and $16 for a 4-pound pack — about $1.50 less a pound than the leading name-brand bacon options.
The Krazy Coupon Lady — experts on Costco deals — reports Costco’s pure maple syrup costs half of what you would pay at Amazon. House brand Kirkland’s maple syrup costs just $0.32 an ounce, compared to $0.67 at Trader Joe’s or nearly $0.56 for Walmart’s non-organic option.
A number of experts, including My Frugal Adventures and Consumer Reports, say Costco is the best place to stock up on such things as extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil.
Kirkland detergents are proven to be just as effective as name-brand detergents that cost two or three times more, according to Consumer Reports tests. Kirkland’s Signature Free & Clear liquid detergent is just $0.11 a load, and nearly as successful in cleaning stains as Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release, which costs more than twice as much.
At Costco, Kirkland’s canola oil cooking spray is just under $0.15 an ounce. That’s almost half of Walmart’s $0.27, and way less than a four-pack of Pam, which sells for about $0.46 an ounce on Amazon, reports the Krazy Coupon Lady.
Costco’s bulk batteries are a famously good deal — especially since this is a category where buying in bulk makes sense, as batteries are unlikely to expire.
You can buy 3 pounds of Costco spinach for the price of a pound at Walmart, reports the Krazy Coupon Lady. At Costco, it costs just $0.25 an ounce for Earthbound Farm’s organic baby spinach.
While Kirkland brands are reportedly pretty tasty, you can also save big by buying name-brand booze at Costco. Plus, thanks to local liquor laws, in much of the US you can buy alcohol from Costco with no membership card.
The Kirkland vanilla ice cream won Consumer Reports testers over with its "big dairy flavor and complex vanilla-extract flavor." Plus, it’s just $0.30 a serving, compared to top-rated Ben & Jerry’s, which costs a dollar a serving.
At Costco, vanilla extract costs just $0.62 an ounce, reports the Krazy Coupon Lady. At Walmart, it’s $1.84. Plus, it’s not imitation vanilla — it’s the real deal.
According to Consumer Reports, Costco sells the most inexpensive pharmacy prescription drugs, with other pharmacies charging up to 447% more for the same drugs.
Even better, you don’t need to be a Costco member to use the pharmacy.
While you can buy plenty of items in bulk, some of Costco’s best deals are in the food court.
One of the best deals, a hot dog and drink, costs just $1.50. According to Business Insider taste testers, the hot dog is "very flavorful," with "a slight smokiness … similar to kielbasa."
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4. Free Samples Can Play Mind Games
Costco doesn't offer free samples out of the kindness of their hearts. The do it because it helps pad their bottom line. Offering a sample creates a sense of reciprocity in which some shoppers feel obligated to buy something. Often it might not even be the product being sampled, but something similar. For example, maybe the orange juice you sampled is not your favorite, but you decide to pick up some apple juice instead.
Also, there is an interesting psychological effect that takes place when you indulge in a free sample with a bunch of people standing around you. It's as if you don't want to look like a cheap freeloader in front of everyone, so you'll throw a box of the cookies in your cart. The obvious solution to these psychological tricks is to quickly walk past the sample stations and stay focused on why you walked into the warehouse to begin with.
5. Large Quantities Don't Always Signify a Deal
Whenever you're shopping, and see a large pile of a particular item, most brains will automatically associate it with a deal. After all, just think of the quantity discount Costco or Sam's must have received by ordering such a huge amount of product. Surely that saving is being passed along to us shoppers. Right? Wrong.
RELATED: 9 secret ways to save money at Sam's Club
9 secret ways to save money at Sam's Club
9 secret ways to save money at Sam's Club
1. Save Money on a Membership
Shoppers can purchase an annual membership for $45 or a Sam’s Plus membership for $100. The latter offers consumers $10 cash back for every $500 spent, extended warranty coverage and extra savings for travel, pharmacy and business services.
Before purchasing, look for a Sam’s Club membership deal on a daily deal site such as Groupon, said Mary Hoover, creator of the money-saving blog MissiontoSave.com. Typically, the membership price is the same with these offers, but they include Sam’s Club gift cards and coupons. However, consumers can sometimes find discounts on memberships along with the gift card and coupon offerings.
According to Regina Conway, a consumer expert with Slickdeals.net, Groupon recently offered a 10 percent discount on a $45 Sam’s Club membership. If you’re shopping for a membership, Conway recommends setting a “Deal Alert” on Slickdeals.net. You’ll receive an email notification when a deal matching your criteria becomes available.
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2. Tap Into Military or Student Incentives
Sam’s Club regularly offers special incentives for military personnel as well as student memberships, Conway said. For example, active and former U.S. military members who renew or join by April 30 can get a $15 gift card with a basic membership purchase. Additionally, the Sam’s Club Collegiate Membership includes a $15 gift card incentive for new purchases and renewals.
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3. Get Free Samples and Products
Loyal Sam’s Club customers know they can score almost a full meal by shopping at times when food samples are offered. However, they might not realize that they can collect product samples as well. According to Maria Tiongco Ramos, creator of the money-saving blog ASavingsWOW.com, shoppers can get free product samples simply by scanning their membership cards at the “Freeosk” kiosks located in stores.
The samples sometimes contain coupons. In other cases, you can get free, full-sized products, such as personalized photo mugs or photo books.
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4. Take Advantage of Free Health Screenings
Throughout the year, Sam’s Club hosts several free health screening events for members and non-members at its stores with pharmacies. So far in 2016, the warehouse club has hosted three events — in January, February and March.
The screenings are valued at $150 and include blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose testing. You can get details about upcoming screenings at SamsClub.com, or in the store’s bi-monthly wellness magazine, Healthy Living Made Simple.
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5. Get Free Prescription Drugs
Sam’s Club offers no-cost prescriptions for certain medications, a benefit that could add up to hundreds of dollars in savings per year, Ramos said. You have to be a Sam’s Plus member to get the five free prescriptions that the Sam’s Club pharmacy offers, however.
Additionally, members can save up to 8 percent on name-brand medications and 10 percent to 30 percent on qualifying prescriptions purchased without insurance coverage.
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6. Hunt Down Clearance Items
Sam’s Club has a tendency to clear out seasonal items and products that the retailer is not planning to restock. Said Conway, buying items on clearance is “a great way to save some cash.”
Clearance items can usually be found in the back of the store, Roe said. She recommends asking your store’s associates to find out when certain items will be marked down for clearance.
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7. Get Deals With 'Shocking Values' and Auctions
SamsClub.com and the Sam’s Club app both feature limited-time deals called “Shocking Values.” For example, a Blendtec Classic 475 Blender with a list price of $299 was recently marked down to $199.98 — the same product goes for $235 at Amazon.com.
Sam’s Club also holds online auctions, with the bidding price starting at $1 for most items. Recent auction items included a Fitbit fitness band, an LG 55-inch LED Smart HDTV and a Dell Chromebook. To keep track of new auctions and those that are closing soon, you can sign up for text alerts.
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8. Save on Prescription Glasses
Sam’s Club offers members $40 off each additional pair of prescription eyeglasses purchased when you buy one pair at regular price from the optical center. The warehouse store also offers discounted sunglasses.
Additionally, Sam’s Plus members can get $50 off a regularly priced pair of glasses when they buy a one-year supply of contact lenses.
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9. Buy Floor Models at a Discount
Sam’s Club will often sell display items such as furniture when it needs to make room for new inventory, according to Roe.
“One of my best finds at Sam’s Club was a dining room table that had been the display model,” she said. Roe saved more than 50 percent on the original price.
So, if you see something you like, always ask if you can buy the floor model.
There are clearly some items that will save you money by buying in bulk. But don't assume that just because you can buy in bulk from a warehouse club, it makes it a screaming deal. The take-away here is to always do the math and figure out the per unit price to determine if it's a good buy.
7. Expect Highly Targeted Marketing
Sam's Club is famous for looking closely at your order history and sending out targeted marketing campaigns via email and snail mail to get you back in the warehouse. By being aware that they're coming after you directly, you can better decide if the incentive or coupon they're offering really does give you the best value. Bottom line, it's not a coincidence that you just ran out of diapers and within a couple days you get a Sam's Club email with a coupon for diapers inside.
8. Beware the "Fear" of Missing Out
Perhaps the greatest psychological trick that warehouse clubs use is planting the seed in shoppers minds that once an item is gone, you'll never see it again. While this may be the case on seasonal items, it shouldn't be the deciding factor when deciding on a purchase. Do you actually need the item? Or will you end up storing it in the hopes that you might someday use it? If it's the latter, walk by the item like you have blinders on and your budget will thank you.
How do you stay focused and not overspend when shopping at warehouse clubs?