The Dirty Little Secret That Warehouse Clubs Would Rather You Not Know

We’ve had memberships to several membership-based warehouse clubs over the years. You can save money on many items, but there are often better deals on many items at your local supermarket, Walmart or Target. When you factor in the annual membership fees, which generally range from $50.00 to $100.00 or more, we’re not so sure that you actually save enough to make it worthwhile. That is, unless you own a restaurant, feed a small city, or really need to buy 50 pounds of rice, sugar or detergent at a time. They don’t bag your groceries for you. In fact, they don’t even have any bags (unless you want to buy 500 bags from them at a time).

Interestingly, at a time when other retailers are hurting because of an economy that is in deep recession, the warehouse clubs are enjoying healthy increases in membership and sales volume. Consumers desperate to stretch their dollars are flocking to these retailers in an effort to save some money. Check out this piece from CNBC that says Costco recently reported a 32% increase in quarterly profits, or this Forbes.com article that says BJ’s Wholesale Club saw a larger than 25% increase in profits in the first quarter of this year.

Many warehouse clubs open later and close earlier than supermarkets or other discount chains. In an effort to sell you their more expensive memberships, most of them offer expanded hours to only their premium membership holders, sort of like a caste system. By the time the doors swing open for the hordes of regular members, you just know that all the good stuff will have been snapped up by the privileged few who can afford the $100.00 premium memberships. All that will be left for everyone else will be the dregs. You might as well just drive ’round back and do some dumpster diving.

We’re also surprised they don’t have a little window by the entrance where you have to whisper the secret password before they’ll let you in. And some warehouse clubs limit your payment options. For instance, Costco won’t accept any credit cards except American Express. That’s unfortunate, since we’ve always felt that American Express offers the least consumer-friendly credit cards out there. And AmEx has probably deforested more of the planet than any other credit card provider, so that they can produce all the paper they stuff your mailbox with, trying to convince you to become a cardholder. We can’t believe the volume of crap we get from them. Maybe we should get a wood-burning stove. We could probably heat our home using nothing more than the American Express offers that our poor mail carrier has to keep delivering almost daily.

Then there’s the silly and demeaning entry and exit procedures at many warehouse clubs. You have to show your membership card (at least at Costco) to gain entry. After all, they can never be too careful about who they let in. I mean, God forbid a non-member might sneak in and try to buy something there. Then these places practically strip search you before you can leave with the shopping cart full of stuff you just paid for. If you think we’re overreacting to these policies, which seem to assume that everyone is a criminal, then you probably haven’t read this fellow’s rant on the subject. His discussion is much more eloquent than what the monkeys here at RoutingByRumor produce when they jump up and down on the keyboard to create each of these articles.

Here’s an account from a blogger who got the treatment at a North Carolina Walmart store, where he says he was briefly detained, then threatened by overly aggressive employees for declining to show his receipt.

Maybe we should put the warehouse clubs in charge of the U.S. borders and security at our airports. As an added bonus, they could sell club memberships to all the Mexicans that want to enter the United States, and the proceeds could go to the U.S. Treasury. Before they return to Mexico, they can stock up at Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s, thereby decreasing the U.S. trade deficit. Everyone benefits, and the illegal immigrants won’t have to risk their lives crossing deserts or rivers to get into the United States.

So what’s their dirty little little secret? In many states, certain departments in members-only warehouse clubs are required to sell to the general public without requiring membership. It seems to vary by state, but in general, product categories regulated by the state, such as pharmacy, alcohol and gasoline sales, are usually open to the public. Here’s an article at answers.com that lists which states require warehouse clubs to sell alcholic beverages to the public. This article from prnewswire mentions the fact that Sam’s Club pharmacies are open to the public. But don’t expect the warehouse clubs to advertise this fact. They would probably rather sell you a membership. Don’t even expect a straight answer if you walk thru the front door and ask the gatekeeper at a place like Costco. We did, and our opinion is that they like to play dumb. If you press them, they will acknowledge the fact that certain items must be sold to the public. This posting confirms our experience, and even mentions something called a “temporary alcohol shopping pass” available at Costco. Is this country great, or what ?

With all the big chains offering cheap generic prescriptions these days on a wide variety of medications, is it worth trying to get past the pit bull chained to the entrance at your local Costco, just so you can get some cheap medicine at their pharmacy? This New York Times article certainly seems to think so.

Another option is to ask for a “one-day pass”, which most warehouse clubs will provide. You may have to pay a 10% or so surcharge on any purchases you make, but if you don’t plan on being a regular shopper there, it’s probably a lot cheaper than buying a membership. Some clubs will even refund the surcharge or apply it towards their membership fee if you join within a few days. What wonderful people.

Even in places where the law does not require sales to the general public, there are loopholes that people use to save some money. Some people share their membership cards with friends and neighbors. This article explains how non-members can buy gasoline at Costco gas stations that are supposedly members-only.

As much as we hate Walmart, we think you can do better on most items at Walmart than at the warehouse clubs. We’ve never checked out prices at Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores, but somehow, we doubt that there will be much of a differential in prices between the two.

When you figure in the cost of membership, the extra gasoline you’ll probably burn to get there, the generally limited product selection, the inconvenience, the lack of shopping bags, limited payment options, the crowds, the long checkout lines, the often shorter hours and the obligatory strip searches at the exit, are the warehouse clubs really worth it?

– Routing By Rumor

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Filed under 9/11, Business, Consumerism, Energy Conservation, Environment, Food, Life, Money, Personal, Retail, Retailers, Routing by Rumor, Shopping, The Economy, Walmart, Your Money

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