I visited Costco and BJ’s to compare the warehouse retailers, and found Costco is more expensive but provides a superior shopping experience


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BUSINESS INSIDER

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  • I visited Costco and BJ’s to compare the two wholesale membership stores.
  • BJ’s is smaller and sells more name brand items.
  • Costco is the better choice thanks to reasonable prices, a superior food court, and clean store design.

Inflation and rising grocery bills are pushing more shoppers to membership clubs for bulk savings.

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Costco.

I’m a Costco member, so I visited BJ’s to see how the two chains compare.

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Shoppers leave a BJ’s store in Alexandria, Virginia

Both stores operate on the same premise: Customers purchase annual memberships that give them access to bulk goods at prices lower than most other grocery stores, plus a discount on gas and other items.

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Costco storefront in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

Costco has over 500 stores across the US, while BJ’s has about half as many, located on the East Coast.

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Costco’s Gold Star membership is $60 a year, and the Executive Level is $120 per year. BJ’s prices are just barely less expensive at $55 for the lower level and $110 for the higher tier. Costco has far higher sales than other membership clubs, reporting $192 billion in the 2021 fiscal year.

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Shopping carts at Costco in Fairfax, Virginia

BJ’s is a smaller player, with $16.3 billion in sales in 2021, though that still made it the company’s best year to date.

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I visited both stores to see how they really compare.

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When you walk into Costco, a greeter checks to make sure you have your membership card, which is required to make purchases besides alcohol, at the food court, and a few other exceptions. I entered the gigantic Costco warehouse and was immediately greeted by large electronic displays, with TVs stacked up high.

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You could outfit an entire home from the appliances in Costco, including washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, and more.

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Then, we finally made our way to the food. Brand name snacks mostly made up the center displays, sitting on pallets.

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Products are loosely organized by type, like snacks or baked goods. Most products either come in huge boxes, or you’re required to buy multiple bags.

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For the most part, every section is inside the main warehouse itself, but dairy and some fruits and vegetables have their own separate refrigerated sections off the main area.

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Back out in the main warehouse, we found the bakery with fresh and packaged goods.

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Fresh baked goods are displayed right in front of the kitchen.

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You can also buy custom cakes and order them in store.

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The rest of the back wall next to the bakery is a deli and meat counter.

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This is where you can find the chain’s famous $5 rotisserie chickens.

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A few aisles of refrigerated shelves hold cheeses, butter, and all different kinds of dips and spreads.

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Costco is also known for its prepared foods, like taco kits or other meals, which are located in this section and rotate regularly.

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Beer and hard seltzers are available in the main area of the store. Other alcohol is only sold in the liquor store next door, which has a separate entrance, though that isn’t the case in all locations.

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The remaining aisles on the far side of the store are dedicated to freezers with entrees and desserts, and pantry goods in bulk.

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Most of the non-food items are gathered in the center of the store, from clothes to books, furniture, electronics, and fine jewelry.

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A floral section has bouquets and arrangements, sometimes themed around upcoming holidays like Mother’s Day.

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Costco also provides select services inside stores, including a pharmacy, optical store, and hearing aid center.

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There are about fifteen checkout lanes staffed by workers, plus newer self-checkout stations.

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Just past the checkout lanes, the food court sells food and drinks, including the famous $1.50 hot dog and soda combo deal.

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After easing pandemic restrictions, tables for indoor dining were added back.

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Next, I went to BJ’s just a few miles away.

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When I walked into BJ’s for the first time, it was much less overwhelming than Costco.

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It’s still a big warehouse, but quantities are smaller, and products aren’t stacked up nearly as high.

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BJ’s has most of the same product categories as Costco, like outdoor equipment furniture, grills, and clothing, in addition to groceries.

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The main difference is there is less of everything. Outdoor furniture displays are smaller, and there aren’t water slides and other summer accessories hanging from the ceiling.

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BJ’s does have an electronics section, but it’s not highlighted at the entryway of the store, and it’s definitely smaller than its competitors.

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There are displays of books, clothing, puzzles, and other non-grocery items in the middle of the store, just like at Costco.

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Some pieces of BJ’s, like this greeting card section, reminded me more of a standard Target or Walmart than another warehouse store.

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The bakery section was very similar to Costco’s bakery.

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Fewer items seemed to be made in-house. Instead, they were from name brands I recognized.

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Some things are baked in-store, though. BJ’s sells custom-decorated cakes, just like Costco.

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Other baked goods, like cookies, cakes, and pies, made the whole section of the store smell good.

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Walking through BJ’s feels quite different from Costco, because it’s more open and spacious, without the piles and miles of merchandise the other store is known for.

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There are some appetizers and snacks in refrigerated sections, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Costco.

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There are a few unique kinds of cheese and other dishes, but not as many as you could find at Costco.

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The selection of dips and spreads wasn’t bad by any means, but it isn’t necessarily superior to the average Walmart, which doesn’t charge a membership fee.

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The prepared food looked especially paltry compared to Costco.

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Of course, BJ’s sells rotisserie chickens for $4.99, just like Costco.

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