Costco Wholesale (COST) may be Yahoo Finance’s 2022 Company of the Year, but its smaller, wholesale retail rivals, Sam’s Club (WMT) and BJ’s Wholesale Club (BJ), give shoppers something to think about.
On the surface, all three rivals appear similar: the look and feel of the warehouses, for instance, along with the merchandise, which all comes in very large portions. However, there are some key differences, such as the their famous hotdog & soda combos.
Over the past few weeks, I took a dive into membership warehouse-land to look at some of the ways the big three separate themselves from the pack. I spoke to industry experts and traveled to locations in suburban New York City. I even sampled a couple of hot dog combo meals. (“Never again!” may be my Yelp review on those food court purchases.)
Here are some ways the big-box stores differ, from the number of stores to their house brands and the combo meals.
Costco operates more than 845 stores in 14 countries. Sam’s boasts 599 Sam’s Club in the U.S. A BJ’s Wholesale club may be a little harder to find, with 231 clubs primarily on the East Coast.
Who's the largest? The average Costco warehouse is 146,000 square feet with a range of 80,000 to 230,000 square feet. In BJ's fiscal 2021 year report, the company said its clubs range in size from 63,000 square feet to 163,000 square feet. Sam's Clubs are typically 136,000 square feet, per the company.
Sales and market share
Costco is way out on top in terms of total sales.
In Costco's fiscal year 2022, sales totaled $222.7 billion with a comparable sales increase of 16% year-over-year. Sam's sales totaled $73.6 billon in its fiscal year 2022 and BJ's sales totaled $16.3 billion in fiscal year 2021. (FY22 sales results are pending)
All three retailers, meanwhile, are still seeing an ongoing bump in foot traffic following the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, Costco foot traffic was up 4.2% compared to 2019 per Placer.ai data, lower compared to that of Sam’s and BJ’s, up 11.1% and 9.4% respectively.
Market share? As of August 2022, Costco holds the largest share of the wholesale club market, 55.5%. Sam’s followed that, 36.2%, and BJ’s came in far behind, 8.3%, according to the career data site Zippia.
Come for the gas and cash wash and stay for the shopping
Costco operates 674 gas stations which sold about 7.5 billion gallons in the past fiscal year. There are 162 BJ's Gas locations, and Sam’s Club offers 524 gas outlets.
Forrester Research Retail Analyst Sucharita Kodali told Yahoo Finance that the locations with gas stations “tend to have more traffic and do tend to do better because the savings on the gas are better than usually anything that’s around and then people can often combine that with a trip to the store as well.”
Patrick De Haan, GasBuddy head of petroleum analysis, added, “Every one of these wholesale clubs that has a station attached generally does very high volumes of fuel and generally is priced extremely aggressively compared to nearby competition.”
Car washes? Sam’s Club is the leader here with 41, followed by Costco with 13. BJ's doesn't offer the service.
The food courts
Ah, the famous food courts…
BJ’s seems out of the hot dog business at some locations. A spokesperson told Yahoo Finance that BJ's has a "limited partnership with Dunkin' that serves a few of our clubs," but "most of our food courts offer lunch snack items like hot dogs, pretzels, and/or cookies with beverages."
My local BJ's didn't have a Dunkin' or a food court. (Which saved me from sampling another hot dog.)
But for those that do though, it’s a serious business. Both Sam’s and Costco peddle their hot dog & drink combos. Costco has been charging $1.50 since 1985—and has sold 1.6 billion of them, in case you were wondering.
But in a nod to inflation with a little bit of retail trash-talk thrown in, Sam’s in November announced a “new lower price” for its combo: $1.38.
“It’s 12 cents. So what?!” Sam’s Club public relations folks said when making the announcement. “Lowering the price by 12 cents…is just another way to show we care about every penny (literally) they spend with us … One hot dog combo at a time!"
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek told Yahoo Finance it does not plan to cut the price of its hot dog combo meal to match that of Sam's.
So, overall, how was the food court experience on my visits? Mixed.
I tried both combos (so you don’t have to, unless you want to).
One big difference was I had to wait 10 minutes at Sam’s in Medford, Long Island (the only Long Island location), before I was served. Two bites were enough for me. Then, the soda machine was mostly out of order, as were the condiments (only mustard packets). The $1.00 chocolate frozen yogurt made up the disappointing dog, though. In total, I scored dinner for $2.59 including tax.
Costco? A lot more efficient. I waited maybe 2 minutes to be served and the bun was tastier than rival Sam’s. (I stopped after two bites as well.) Both the soda machine and condiments were fully stocked. I added a vanilla ice cream cup for $1.99 for a grand total of $3.79. One bummer: No $1 frozen yogurt option.
Somehow I scored the hot dog combos without a membership in both Costco and Sam's (I did get a few angry looks after the employees strictly told me I could not buy anything). However, if you want to purchase any item beyond the food court, you’ll need be a member.
The basic memberships at each are within the same price range. At Costco, its basic Gold Star costs $60 per year and includes the ability to shop online and in warehouses. It includes 2 membership cards. At Sam’s, it costs $50 a year, which increased from $45 earlier this year. This fee gets members one primary card and one complimentary with the ability to add on 8 additional members at a reduced $45 rate. At BJ's the basic "Inner Circle Membership" costs $55 per a year, which gets one card plus a complimentary membership for one household member. Three members are also allowed to be added for $30 each annually.
All three offer higher cost memberships with more perks.
Costco's Perk Rewards Membership costs $120 per a year, but includes all the perks of a Gold Star plus 2% annual reward (up to $1,000 eligible on Costco and Costco Travel Purchases) and Costco Services Discounts. Similarly, Sam's offers a plus membership for $110. This allows 16 club-level members to be added for $45 each, free shipping on most online items for primary and household/complimentary cardholders, free curbside pickup, extra Optical and Pharmacy discounts, early shopping hours and 2% back on qualifying purchases. For the same price, $110 per year, BJ's offers its perk rewards membership, which includes the same benefits as its Inner Circle, in addition to 2% cash back, the potential to earn double or triple cash back during special events, exclusive events during the year and travel benefits.
Costco may have the most famous private label in the land. In 1995, it unveiled its private label products under the Kirkland Signature brand. The most recent revenue figures: Kirkland produced more than $50 billion in sales, per the company — that would be more than 22%, or so, of Costco's total sales.
Sam’s founded the Member’s Mark private label in 1998, but in 2017 the wholesale retailer consolidated its 20 proprietary brands into Member’s Mark. Walmart wouldn't disclose sales. Nor would BJ's, which features the Wellsley Farms and Berkley Jensen brands.
It’s easy to see what the appeal of these private labels is for shoppers. At Sam’s, for example, Member Mark's BETTER Nut Bar, which included 24 bars, retailed for $12.96 and was placed between CLIF bars with 34 bars inside, for $23.28 and Kind Minis, 32 bars, for $17.98.
Where might you spend the most? (By accident even)
At Costco, you might get lost and therefore grab more items you might not even need. Unless you know the store like the back of your hand, it's harder to navigate. There is no aisle signage of what each aisle contains (prompting me to go into each one). Only general departments like dairy, produce and the Kirkland Signature Bakery had signs.
Sam’s and BJ’s had product listings, such as Dog Treats, Snacks, Energy Drinks, among many (many) others.
There are ways to stay focused and look out for limited-time offerings or items that are going off the shelves. Per a tip from Maddie and Meg Antonelli, aka the duo behind “Costco Mamma” on social media, limited-time offerings at Costco are marked with asterisks on price tags, which some customers even nicknamed it the Death Star as nobody knows if they'll ever return. I spotted a similar method at BJs.
No tricks at Sam’s Club, price tags clearly state LIMITED TIME ONLY.
Now that you know all this, which membership will you choose? If any?
More Yahoo Finance Company of the Year 2022 coverage:
Brooke DiPalma is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @BrookeDiPalma or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.