Recently, I received an envelope in the mail stuffed with coupons from local businesses. Among the so-so offers for $20 oil changes and $3 boxes of checks, I discovered a day pass to BJ's Wholesale Club. This piqued my interest, as I had been wondering for some time whether warehouse clubs like BJ's actually offered big enough savings to offset the $45 annual membership fee. So one evening, my husband and I headed up the road to the nearest BJ's to see for ourselves.
We walked into a giant store the size of a warehouse. We started in the electronics section, which seemed to offer everything from $18 DVDs to $700 laptops. These prices weren't bad on the whole, but they weren't noticeably better than those offered at places like Best Buy, and not nearly as good as the deals it's possible to find online.
From there, we moved on to aisles of office supplies and household cleaners, where we found shelves piled high with massive containers. Pencils were sold in packages of 30; detergent came in a box that could cause severe back trauma. Yet as I did the math, I found that the savings on these bulk buys were, at best, marginal. A dozen roller-ball pens for $13.99, for instance, is little better than what they cost at drugstores. And some of BJ's "bargains" didn't hold a candle to the deals we regularly get elsewhere. A 24-roll case of Cottonelle toilet paper, for instance, sold for $12.79, which is much more than the $3.49 per dozen we pay for the store brand at Trader Joe's.
This pattern showed up on item after item. We'd work out the unit price and find that it was pretty good, but not as good as the prices we could get using other shopping strategies, such as buying store brands, choosing frozen concentrate over fresh juice, and stocking up during sales. Why buy a 12-pound bag of Arm and Hammer baking soda for 41.6 cents a pound when a 2-pound box of the store brand costs only 37.5 cents a pound? (Besides, how much baking soda can one person use?)
One reason BJ's prices were so disappointing, it seemed, was that most products were name brands. Star-Kist light tuna, for instance, worked out to $1.55 a pound, which is a great price for Star-Kist, but not much better than the $1.60 a pound normally charged for Stop & Shop brand (which regularly goes on sale for even less). The few products available in the house brand, Berkley & Jensen, did appear to be good deals, such as the three-pound bag of chocolate chips that we snagged for $4.99.
Another problem, for us, was the lack of organic food items. We don't eat 100 percent organic, but we are always on the lookout for organic products at a reasonable price. At BJ's, the only organic product we found was eggs, which cost more than at any other store where we've ever bought them. Moreover, for some items, BJ's prices on conventional produce weren't significantly better than what we normally pay for organic. A 3-pound bag of onions, for instance, cost $1.89, while a 3-pound bag of organic onions at the natural foods store costs $1.99. For an extra 3.3 cents a pound, I'll certainly spring for the organics.
Despite these setbacks, we did find a few items that were still good or even great deals. Among them were a 76.5-ounce box of Kellogg's raisin bran for $7.34, a pound of pine nuts for $7.02, and a pound of Applegate Farms bacon for $6.81. This "certified humane" bacon (meaning the pigs were raised in decent conditions, a requirement for me with all meats I buy) is hard to find; the only other source I've found is a local health food store that charges $8 a pound, so this was a particularly good buy. (All these prices include the 5 percent surcharge we had to pay as nonmembers.)
Overall, our excursion was quite illuminating. We concluded that for us (a childless couple with a preference for organic foods) the savings at BJ's are definitely not enough to offset the $45 membership fee. However, for a large family that's loyal to certain brands, the savings could be substantial. The simplest way to find out whether membership is a good deal for you is to do what we did: visit the store, look for products you buy regularly, and compare the prices to what you pay elsewhere. You can download a day pass from bjs.com. However, be forewarned. The surcharge for purchases with this pass is 15 percent, not 5 percent. Because each family is unique, there's no substitute for doing the math yourself.
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer living in New Jersey, one of the most expensive states in the country, where she has had to hone her bargain-hunting skills in self-defense.
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