Best buys at the warehouse club

Every savvy shopper knows that membership clubs can save them scads of money (with a few exceptions), especially if they have a large family or are a small business owner. With so much savings at places like BJ's, Costco and Sam's Club, it doesn't take long to recoup membership fees -- that is, as long as you're smart about what you buy and when.

WalletPop went looking for some of the best (and worst) things to buy at club stores. We visited a Chicago area Costco store, then priced the same brand at nearby competitors on the same day. While house brands can yield the biggest savings, they also vary greatly in quality and composition, and therefore can't be comparison shopped accurately and weren't included here. Neither Costco nor Sam's Club accepts manufacturer coupons, and BJ's is not a national retailer and therefore isn't used as a comparison, either. Sizes vary greatly among stores; therefore, all prices are per unit or per measurement for consistency.

Here are our picks for best buys.

Medication and Over-the-Counter drugs
You'll always save money buying prescriptions and over-the-counter medications at club stores. Per pill, the savings are huge.

Citracel Calcium Citrate +D
Costco: $.062 per pill
Target: $.083 per pill
CVS: $.090 per pill
Walmart: $.119 per pill

Excedrin Extra Strength
Costco: $.043 per pill
Target: $.056 per pill
Walmart: $.058 per pill
CVS: $.060 per pill

True comparisons are difficult in this category, since different retailers carry similar items with different model numbers and features. Often, bundles include extras like cables or software, making comparisons even trickier. Still, deals here can be sizable, and if you're in the market for a new TV, home theater or gaming console, it makes sense to check club stores.

Wii Fit Plus bundle
Costco: $85.99
Walmart: $99.00
Target: $99.99
Best Buy: $99.99

Wine, liquor and beer
These beverages are consistently cheaper at club stores in spite of the near constant sales that supermarkets and discount stores run. Beer and wine are easy comparisons and purchased more often than stock up items like spirits and liqueurs -- also priced well below the neighborhood liquor store, albeit in gigantic, liver rotting sized bottles.

Coppola Claret red wine
Costco: $12.99
Trader Joe's: $18.99
Target: $19.49

Miller Lite
Costco: $.59 per bottle
Target: $.67 per bottle
Walmart: $.75 per bottle

No real world, bricks and mortar retailer beats a club store when it comes to popular reading material. comes close on some titles, but not consistently and not if you pay for shipping. However, the selection at membership clubs is limited to bestsellers, new releases and popular cookbook, self-help and coffee table titles.

Innocent by Scott Turow
Costco: $15.19
Borders: $16.79
Walmart: $19.34
Target: $19.59

Office supplies
Membership clubs really shine when it comes to supplies for the home office or small business. Business members are the clubs' core shoppers, and the prices on these items reflect the retailers desire to retain them.

HP Ink Cartridges (No. 92/93)
Costco: $14.63 per cartridge
Walmart: $17.24 per cartridge
Target: $17.25 per cartridge

Dry grocery items
Fresh produce and other perishables like meat and dairy will vary greatly in price depending on the region and season. But shelf-stable items often carry low prices at the membership club. Even better, these items don't spoil. So you can buy them in the club-store sizes without worrying about throwing out what you don't use.

Kraft Velveeta shells & cheese
Costco: $1.19 price per unit
Target: $1.50 price per unit
Walmart: $1.63 price per unit

Costco: $.019 per packet
Walmart: $.028 per packet
Target: $.034 per packet

Costco made big headlines last year when it kicked Coca-Cola products out of its stores in a pricing dispute. The company issued a statement that said, in part: "At this time, Coca-Cola has not provided Costco with competitive pricing so that we may pass along the value our members deserve." Coke was running promotions at rival supermarket chains allowing for weekly specials that undercut Costco's regular low price. Coke's banishment didn't last long -- just under a month -- and the results of Costco's bold move were evident in our price check. Supermarkets' weekly specials on soda were no longer cheaper than the club store.

Bear in mind, pricing can change dramatically from week to week. You can still expect to find tremendous deals on soda throughout the year, especially around holidays -- one supermarket chain in Chicago recently offered a "buy two, get three free" promotion on Coke products for the Easter weekend -- but these deals are appearing less frequently.

Costco: $.24 per can
Jewel: $.28 per can
Kroger: $.29 per can
Dominick's: $.49 per can
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