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Does it pay to shop wholesale?

Gail Johnson
Kari and Jonathan Barker shop with their sons Kaleb and Mason at Costco Wholesale in Bountiful, Utah. 'I used to be a diapers snob,' says Kari Barker.

Does it pay to buy groceries at Costco? Maybe; maybe not.

There’s no denying there are deals to be had at the retail giant. But not necessarily everything is a score. Consider some price comparisons on a few basics purchased in British Columbia:

Cheaper at Costco:

  • Annie’s Mac N’ Cheese: $12.49 for 12 (or $1.04 each) at Costco; $3.99 each at Save-On
  • Canned tomatoes (pack of 8): $10.99 at Costco; $15.84 at Superstore
  • Frozen vegetables (4-kg bag): $11.18 at Costco; $15.96 at Superstore
  • Tropicana Orange Juice: $13.89 for 4 (or $3.47 each) at Costco; $4.69 each at Save-On
  • Cheaper or the same price elsewhere:
  • Mixed sweet peppers, bag of 6: $5.99 at Costco; $3.99 at Thrifty’s
  • Apples (6-Lb bag): $5.79 at Costco; $3.48 at Superstore
  • Organic milk, 4 L: $7.99 at Costco; $7.99 at Whole Foods
  • Bananas, 3 Lb.: $1.99 at Costco; $1.70 at Superstore

A casual survey of colleagues and friends found that some of the most consistently popular (read: cheaper) food items include cereal, cheese, bread, frozen foods, condiments, and anything in cans or jars. Deals seem to be less guaranteed on chicken (depending on the store — they all vary), fresh produce, and coffee.

Knowing that you need to be just as savvy at Costco as anywhere else, how can you maximize your dollars amid the big-box chaos?

Split a membership
You can do this “officially” if you live in the same residence as another card holder or unofficially with a friend, but either way, it makes sense to share the $55 annual tab. At checkout you can ask for a subtotal on a single bill or two separate receipts. If you can’t align schedules to shop together, take turns making the trek and picking stuff up for each other.

Skip the executive membership (unless you’re buying for a family of six)
The $100 annual membership gets you 2 per cent cash back on most purchases. It’s really only worth it if you spend $5,000 a year — and that’s just to break even.

Split the goods
Do you really need 500 tea bags on hand? Twelve cans of tuna? Two Superbowl-size bags of chips? Stock up then divide the packages and the costs with a pal.

Beware of all things supersized
Just because you’re getting a three-pack of family-size, four-cheese tortellini or a bunch of no-name crackers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper. It helps to have a clear sense of how much things actually cost.

The savings are in the details
To calculate accurate cost comparisons, look for the unit price. And look for the details: that toilet paper might be cheaper at one place, but are both products three-ply? How many sheets per roll? How many metres in that roll of aluminum foil? And compare regular priced items for a fair baseline.

Consider transportation costs
If you've got a lengthy commute, you’ve got to include the cost of gas in your overall spending. Then there’s your time. Time is money and, depending on the source of your income, maybe all that travel time and time spent in lineups could be put toward money-making efforts.

Bring your list
It sounds like clichéd advice, but it’s especially important at Costco, where you might be tempted by things you wouldn’t normally buy elsewhere. Once you’ve established the items that you’re certain are a better deal, write them down and avoid straying from that list.

Watch for flyers and coupons
Your local grocery store might just meet or beat Costco’s prices with sales and coupons — even better if you can combine them. Flip through that community newspaper every week to see what prices are being slashed. And remember Costco offers coupons as well.

Check your conscience
For most consumers, savings are the bottom line. But there’s an argument to be made for going green — shopping closer to home to reduce the environmental impact (doubt you could get Costco-size caseloads of groceries home on your bike), plus sourcing local produce diminishes food miles. Then there are the benefits of supporting small, local businesses.