Costco has turned on its head the notion that a store brand is a notch below a national brand. How? By using its coast-to-coast strength to strong-arm suppliers to put quality as well as value into its Kirkland Signature offerings. A quarter of Costco's annual sales now reportedly come from its Kirkland product lines, which first hit store shelves in 1995.
It's no surprise. Costco has continually upped its array of Kirkland products, often produced by the same manufacturers who make the name brands. You'll find the red Kirkland Signature logo on everything from toilet paper to tennis shoes. We took a closer look at several Kirkland products getting accolades from customers and critics. You should check them out, too.
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Kirkland Animal Crackers
Whether you're feeding your children or your own inner child, Kirkland Signature Organic Animal Crackers are off the leash. The sweet snacks, in case you forgot, are in the shape of bite-size animals. Kirkland animal crackers come in a 64-ounce barrel, priced at $9.99 (supermarket chain Wegmans sells its own version of organic animal crackers for the same price, but you get 4 fewer ounces).
If you're not a Costco member, you can order the same barrel of animal crackers on Amazon.com, but you'll pay nearly double: $17.98. Shipping is free for Prime members. A small package (just 9 ounces) of the classic Barnum's Animal Crackers made by Nabisco run nearly $3 at some local supermarkets (in our case, Giant, in Northern Virginia).
If everything is better with bacon, as the saying goes, then everything is super better with Kirkland Signature Bacon. The product-testing pros at Consumer Reports put bacon to the test and deemed Costco's store-brand regular sliced bacon the top dog - make that the top pig. Testers raved about the taste, "noting its crispiness and balance of fat and meat flavors."
They also raved about its price: Kirkland bacon typically sells for $1.50 less per pound than name-brand competitors.
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Hate to break it to you but we're edging ever closer to the holiday shopping season and the energy-sucking gadget gifts that come with it. Kirkland Signature batteries can keep all those electronic toys and devices charged up at bargain prices. A 72-pack of Kirkland Signature AA batteries is $19.99, or about 28 cents per battery. Stepping into name-brand batteries will cost you more at Costco (and much more at other places). A 40-pack of Duracell AA batteries is $16.99, for example, or more than 42 cents per battery. (Costco often puts Duracell batteries on sale, however, so check the flyer if you must have a name brand.)
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Costco knows nuts, and its Kirkland Signature Whole Cashew are a prime example. That's not just this nut speaking.
"Costco's nuts are always super-fresh and high-quality," raves food and cooking website TheKitchn.com. "Unless you're a big-time baker, 2- and 3-pound packages of nuts might seem like a daunting purchase, but don't forget that they freeze beautifully."
A 2.5-pound container of Kirkland Signature whole fancy cashews goes for $18.99, or $7.60 per pound, slightly cheaper than the going rate for Planters whole cashews on Amazon (excluding shipping).
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Kirkland Cheese Wheel
Excessive, yes, but there's an odd appeal to having your own 72-pound wheel of cheese. Costco knows this and complies. The Kirkland Signature Whole Wheel Parmigiano Reggiano can be yours for $899.99, or $12.50 a pound. I've had a piece of said wheel and it's delicious.
That per-pound price is a bargain, by the way, compared to the Parmigiano Reggiano sold in the wonderful cheese shop inside my local Wegmans, where chunks were going for $18.99 a pound (in various size chunks, but there was also a wheel nearby). But alas, the question inevitably arises: What do you do with a whole wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano? One answer: Pasta - lots and lots of pasta.
Kirkland Chicken Stock
For home chefs who do a lot of cooking, Kirkland Signature Organic Chicken Stock is a winner in taste and price. But be warned: You're bulk-buying an entire case of chicken stock.
Still, it's a good investment. Stock has a long shelf life, and the six quart-size boxes of organic chicken stock you'll get at Costco cost just $10.79, or about $1.79 per quart. At Giant, a single quart-size box of Swanson organic chicken stock was selling for $3.99.
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Kirkland Coffee Pods
Here's where Costco's Kirkland Signature store brand is taking the lead: recyclable K-cups for the Keurig line of coffeemakers. If you own a Keurig machine (or objected to them because most plastic K-cups aren't recyclable), check out boxes of 120 pods of Kirkland Signature Pacific Bold or Organic Dark Roast coffee in recyclable K-cups. The boxes sell for $36.99, or the equivalent of $12.33 per pound of coffee. Compare that to a box of 72 pods of Dunkin' Donuts coffee for $39.99, or $24.05 a pound. Costco has other brands of coffee pods, as well as its Kirkland Signature lineup of ground and whole-bean coffee.
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Kirkland Diced Tomatoes
There's a lot of cooking going on in our house, even by me. We go through a lot of tomatoes, and turn to Costco for help. In my opinion, Costco's Kirkland Signature organic diced tomatoes -- in boxes of eight 14.5-ounce cans -- are the best. Each can is packed densely with tomatoes, whereas other, national brands are more watery. Each box sells for $5.99, or about 75 cents per can. Fifteen-ounce cans of Nature's Pride organic diced tomatoes (Giant supermarket's organic store brand) sell for $1.89.
Kirkland Dishwasher Pods
If you run the dishwasher a lot, costs mount for those convenient dishwasher soap pods, especially if you're buying name-brand detergent. You don't have to.
Kirkland Signature Premium Dishwasher Pacs get the job done at a fraction of the price of national brands. You'll pay $9.79 for 115 pods, or less than 9 cents per load. Costco also stocks packages of Cascade Platinum dishwasher pods for $19.92 for 92 pods, or more than 22 cents per load. In recent testing by Consumer Reports, Kirkland's pods bested all competitors including name-brand pods from Cascade and Finish.
We go through a lot of eggs in our home, and the 24-pack of Kirkland Signature Organic Brown Eggs are always on the shopping list. They've been consistently good, and they come in at the right price: $5.99 for the 24-pack. That's 25 cents per egg.
By comparison, a dozen Nellie's organic free-range brown eggs was selling for $4.99 at Giant, or about 42 cents per egg. Even uber-discounter Aldi couldn't beat Costco's price when we checked. Its Simply Nature organic brown eggs were priced at $3.29 per dozen, or more than 27 cents per egg.
Kirkland Energy Shots
Sometimes you need a little liquid encouragement to get through your busy days. Costco sells 48-count packages of 2-ounce Kirkland Signature Energy Shots for $34.99, or about 73 cents per shot. Wegmans was selling six-packs of the name-brand 5-Hour Energy shots for $12.99, or more than $2.16 per (nearly) 2-ounce shot.
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Kirkland Food Wrap
Popularly known as "Saran wrap," Costco can't call its food wrap by that name because SC Johnson owns the trademarked Saran brand. By any name, however, the Kirkland Signature version is a winner on quality and price.
A two-pack of 750-foot rolls of Kirkland Signature Stretch-Tite Plastic Food Wrap sells for just $9.89. That's 1,500-square-feet of plastic wrap. At Giant, a 200-square-foot roll of straight-up Stretch-Tite food wrap was selling for $4.19 .
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Not every Costco has a gas station adjacent to it, but the club locations that do have them see steady, and strong, business. What gives? The savings. A Costco in Northern Virginia was selling regular Kirkland Signature Gasoline for roughly 9% less than nearby Sunoco, Shell and Exxon stations. Sure, the difference is a few pennies per gallon, but on a fill-up you might save $3 or more - not bad if you're heading to Costco anyway.
Factor in how valuable your time is, though. Even on a weekday afternoon, at least 20 vehicles were waiting in line, sometimes for 20 minutes or longer, to get to Costco's gas pumps. That's a lot of idling.
And one pro tip, fellow Costco gas guzzlers: Costco's hoses are extra long, meaning you don't have to drive up to the pumps on the side of the car where your gas tank door is located. If you're close enough to the pump, the hose will reach either side. Many people waste precious minutes waiting to pull up to the "right" side of the pump.
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Costco is sweet on its Kirkland Signature brand of 100% U.S. raw, unfiltered honey in 3-pound jars. The price goes down easy: $8.99. I saw that price after I had purchased a 2-pound jar of raw, unfiltered honey for $12.99, at the Trenton Farmers Market in Trenton, N.J. But hey, it was a Jersey farmer.
Kirkland Italian Sparkling Water
If you like your Italian mineral water sparkling, you might often turn to the classic San Pellegrino. Costco knows that. It stacks cases of its Kirkland Signature Italian Sparkling Mineral Water right next to cases of Pellegrino. I detected no taste difference, but there certainly was a price difference.
A case of 24 16.9-ounce bottles of Kirkland sparkling water was selling for $12.99, while a similar size case of Pellegrino sparkling water was $16.99.
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Kirkland Laundry Detergent
We've been increasingly turning to Kirkland Signature products for all our washing needs (see dishwasher pods), more so now that Costco has rolled out Kirkland Signature Free & Clear laundry soap in 194-ounce bottles for $13.99. That'll cover 126 loads, and the price is right compared to Seventh Generation Free & Clear laundry soap, which was selling at Giant for $18.39 for 150-ounce bottles that will cover 99 loads.
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Kirkland Olive Oil
Costco's olive oil rises to the top, notes the University of California, Davis, which conducted a chemical and sensory study of olive oils. Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil was one of only a few imported oils that met international and U.S. standards for extra virgin olive oil. The many brands that fell short in the testing were diluted with cheaper oils and exhibited problems with quality and flavor.
Kirkland Peanut Butter
When my wife finally weaned me off creamy (and delicious) Jif peanut butter and into the world of peanut butter made without sugar (just peanuts; maybe some salt), my snacking world changed.
Our go-to brand had been Nature's Promise organic creamy peanut butter from Giant, but after diving into Kirkland Signature Organic Peanut Butter, that, too, has changed. It's just as good as Nature's Promise, maybe even better, and there's no arguing with the price. You can get two 28-ounce jars of Kirkland peanut butter for around $10, while just one 16-ounce jar of Nature's Promise can cost around $5.
Kirkland Razor Blades
The razor wars stepped it up a notch when Dollar Shave Club took off (and Gillette responded with Gillette On Demand). But I'm looking at Kirkland Signature Triple Blade razor blades as a cut above.
Costco recently started selling them in packages of 14 cartridges and one razor for $19.99, or about $1.43 per cartridge. Compare that to a 20-blade package of Gillette Mach 3 Turbo replacement blades selling for $38.99, or $1.95 per cartridge.
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Kirkland Rotisserie Chicken
The Costco I go to in Northern Virginia must roast hundreds of chickens a day in its giant rotisserie oven, which is constantly getting loaded and off-loaded by the white-coated chicken changers. These Kirkland Signature Rotisserie Chickens are always tasty, and what's not sold is repurposed in other Costco fresh foods made onsite. You can find some of that leftover poultry in Costco's signature chicken noodle soup.
The best part: Costco has kept the price of each roasted chicken at $4.99. At Giant supermarkets, by comparison, Nature's Promise whole rotisserie chicken cost $5.99.
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Kirkland Toilet Paper
Not that it's anybody's business, but our house is Team Costco when it comes to TP. Kirkland Signature 2-ply bath tissue is a steal. Thirty high-quality rolls sell for just $16.99.
Facial tissue is another story. One shopping expert we consulted knocked the quality of Costco's Kirkland Signature facial tissue, earning it a spot on our list of the worst things to buy at warehouse clubs.
Kirkland Tortilla Chips
This one is new on our Kirkland Signature amazing lineup of snacks: 40-ounce (2.5 pounds) bags of Kirkland Signature organic tortilla chips. At about five bucks a bag, the price is right and the chips are tasty and durable enough to stand up to my amazing salsa (made with Kirkland organic diced tomatoes, naturally). Compare that to Giant's Nature's Promise organic tortilla chips, which sell for $3.19 for a 9-ounce bag.
Kirkland Vitamin Water
Yes, bottles of the fruit-flavored, no-calorie and mineral-rich Kirkland Signature Vita Rain Zero are strikingly similar to Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero, which Costco also sells, but I dare you to find any difference in taste. There is a difference in price, which is significant to me; I drink a lot of this stuff.
Costco tabbed Kirkland's 24-count variety pack of 20-ounce Vita Rain Zero bottles at $9.99. A nearby case of the name brand Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero was $15.99. My only bias against the Kirkland product is that it includes tea as part of its variety pack. The Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero, owned by Coca-Cola, has no tea.
Wine snobs are already familiar with Kirkland Signature wines (more on those later), but spirits snobs might still be in the dark about Costco's store-brand booze. Costco isn't allowed to sell liquor in all its stores; many states limit the warehouse club to beer and wine. But some states do give the green light to Costco selling liquor, and its vodka is a hands-down winner, rave spirits experts including Bon Appetit.
I first stumbled upon Kirkland Signature Vodka while shopping at a Costco on Florida's Gulf Coast. Not that I'm so into vodka, but I do know good from bad. Kirkland's vodka ranks up there with my American fav, Tito's Handmade Vodka, and it costs less.
Costco is the biggest seller of wine in the U.S., with estimated annual wine sales of $1.8 billion, and the warehouse club's Kirkland Signature wines are a big reason behind the booming demand. As Annette Alvarez-Peters, who heads Costco's wine-buying team, told Wine Spectator, "The Costco consumer is very loyal to the [Kirkland Signature] brand. They will always give the item a shot." And why not? Wine rating websites typically give Kirkland Signature wines high scores in the mid-to-upper 80s out of 100.
One hint for picking especially good Kirkland Signature wines: When you see the Costco brand on the front label, turn the bottle around. You just might find the name of the source winery on the back label. That can tell you a lot about the experience of the wine maker and the quality of the grapes. Alternatively, read reviews online. This Costco-centric wine blog, for one, has taste-tested plenty of Kirkland Signature wines. In my own taste-testing of whites I found a nice Kirkland Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for $6.99 and a Kirkland Sonoma County Chardonnay for $10.99.
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Copyright 2019 The Kiplinger Washington Editors