Why I Won’t Pay a Fee to Shop at Costco

My husband loves Costco. Many of our relatives love Costco.  Our friends often tell us they are about to go out “on a Costco run.” I think I may be the only person in this neighbourhood who doesn’t “get it.” I think Costco is ok but I won’t pay a fee to shop there.

At the end of this month our Costco membership is expiring. We bought the membership last year so that I could get snow tires I liked, in stock, at a good price, and installed for our new Camry. The savings more than paid for our annual fee (especially since I had a promotional rate for a new membership.) This year, though, we don’t need anything that could generate a similar saving so we’ll be letting our enrollment lapse. Today I’ll make one last tour of the store to see what I’ll be missing.

Why Costco Doesn’t Work for Me

This is all about me. I realize it may be very different for you!

Costco Every Day Low Prices are Not Quite Low Enough

I’ve been a pricing cycle shopper since the university days when I had to budget to the penny. I am basically at the point where I can sense whether it’s facial tissues or bagels that will be coming on sale this week and at which stores. Because we have the luxury of extra money in our budget, I can afford to pre-buy enough staples and dry goods to last from one sale till the next.

So why would I want to buy canned soup, flour, cocoa powder or tissues at Costco? While their prices are good compared to smaller stores regular (read: high) prices, they are no better than those same stores’ sale prices. In fact, Costco’s prices are often higher than the sale prices I pay at the regular grocery stores.

Costco Bulk Packaging Is Too Large

I like some of the buns Costco bakes. Unfortunately, no one else in my immediate family does and none of my extended family lives very close. So I can buy a package but I then either have to freeze several dozen buns, or throw the stale ones out. Neither option appeals to me. (I did give extra buns to neighbourhood friends several times but it feels strangely awkward wandering around offering half-bags of buns or quarts of strawberries.)

Other items are just ridiculously large. Why would I want 4 boxes of baking soda? It takes the rind and juice of one lemon to make my lemon loaf, so why would I want a bag of lemons? I looked at aluminum foil today and tried to think how long it would take me to use 300 feet. (Especially since I ask myself every time I reach for foil whether this use justifies the strip mines for bauxite in South America.)

Costco Photos From Our Location Didn’t Match Walmart for Quality

Admittedly I haven’t tested photo prints in over a year, so I probably should send a few again to check if anything has improved. But just over a year ago I needed quite a few prints of the same few photos. So I sent a batch online to Costco and a batch online to Walmart. I selected Glossy for both stores. The Walmart prints were noticeably crisper and brighter than the Costco ones. The price was the same.

I’m sure the photo equipment probably varies from store to store. This information likely only applies to my closest Walmart and my closest Costco.

Our Costco Has a Terrible Cash Register System

I think it’s just our Costco but anytime I’ve shopped there I’ve always had to line up for at least 10 minutes to get to a cash register. That includes weekdays and weekends, daytime and evening. That’s just sad.

Again, that doesn’t mean it’s like that at other stores. But I’m not basing my decision on whether to renew or not on whether people in, say, Kingston can get through the checkout in two minutes.

I’m a Brand Buyer and Costco Often Does Have What I Use

As someone who has shopped for a family for over a decade, I’ve fallen into buying patterns. There’s a soap I buy because it doesn’t cause skin irritation for two of us. Costco has products by the same company, but not the version I find works best. There’s a kind of boxed soup stock I like to use when I’m in a hurry in my Minestrone recipe. Costco again has the same brand, but it only has the 0% salt version, and I prefer the 30% salt one. (Er, 30% of the amount of salt used in the original version of the boxed broth; it’s not actually 30% v/v salt!) The same story repeats for shampoo, cocoa powder, and honey.

Sometimes Costco even stocks the exact brand and formulation I want. That’s great; until I go back to get more and they’ve sold out and aren’t replacing it.

It’s just a nuisance that I prefer not to deal with. By shopping at other retailers I can get exactly what I want every time I walk into the store.

Reasons Why I Would Shop at Costco If There Was No Annual Fee

There are many things I like about Costco. It’s just the $55 that bothers me.

Costco’s Return Policy is Great

I agree that Costco has a great return policy. As a very careful shopper, though, it’s extremely unlikely that I would buy something anywhere that cannot be easily returned.

Costco Has Some Very High Quality Exclusive Offerings

I agree that some items Costco sells are not available elsewhere and for some of them it’s worth paying a premium. For example, I have relatives who can get great steaks at their Costco every time they shop there.

Costco Has Good Pharmacy Pricing

Luckily, I don’t really know this first hand as, touch wood, we haven’t needed any prescriptions and so on in years. However, I’ve read many places that Costco has very good prices for prescription and even over-the-counter medications. If I’m wrong about that, please leave a comment.

Costco Pays a Living Wage

Again, I only have this information anecdotally so it could be wrong, but I’ve been told that Costco pays its staff a more reasonable wage than many retail stores. That counts as a positive for a store for me.

Related Reading

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Are you a member of the Costco cult? Or is it just another retailer? Please share your views with a comment.

28 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Pay a Fee to Shop at Costco

  1. A Costco joke that I’ve never failed to get a laugh with: “I love Costco — say you need a skid of grapes.”

    I wasn’t interested in paying for a Costco membership for many years. Then I discovered that I could save more than the cost of a membership on pool chemicals alone. In my area, Walmart and Canadian Tire can’t match Costco for the price of chlorine and a couple of other chemicals. It’s not obvious, though. Buckets of chlorine come in different concentrations (and therefore different amounts of filler that leaves a crappy residue at the bottom of my pool). Costco was one of the first ones to go to higher concentration chlorine where you use less each time you chlorinate.

    Overall, I find that Costco sells products with decent quality. Walmart and Canadian Tire sell a lot of worthless crap. For savvy shoppers who spend the time required, this makes little difference, but I appreciate the ability to make uninformed choices at Costco and have things work out better (on average) than uninformed choices work out at other retailers.

    Your mileage may vary, but I’m a convert to Costco (for now).

    • Interesting info for the pool owners out here!

      I agree that Costco has good products and some of them are exclusives, too. That’s why we bought our snows there.

    • Joe on 26/02/2016
      I have a $110 Costco membership. I find that it gives me returns that are much greater that that yearly cost; groceries and sundries return me about $175 per year, and because I purchase gasoline every time I shop there, I also get a return. Now it is Capital One that issues the return, but it has always been in excess of $200. In addition, The gas prices at Costco Stores is always 4 to 8 cents cheaper per litre than other outlets. I also wear hearing aids and I wear prescription glasses. My hearing aids were very inexpensive (I am due for a renewal this year, and WCB has always paid the total at NO COST to me.) The eyeglasses are progressive, bifocals, with a very flexible frame (bend, fold, twist kind that I wore for coaching volleyball and other sports) and the price complete was under $400. That could not be matched (or even close) by my former vision care provider. For me, the membership fee is worth it. Still, the question remains,”Why should I pay a fee to shop at your store?”
      It is my choice, now, and I am satisfied with the service and return.

      • Sounds like you’ve found a lot of good reasons to shop there!

        There is no Costco gas bar at the location near us; I wonder if they will open one some day.

  2. So I’ve been a member since ’97… I have heard it all from everyone. It’s great, it’s expensive, why do I need that much, it’s a B grade product, etc… Bottom line, know your prices, become an executive member, and get cash back at the end of the year (in store credit). Having 2 properties, with Costco in the middle, works for me as a regular shopper. We bought a home theatre system this year and saved almost $400 to what I could find for the exact package form the BestBuy or other local retailers, and I will get 2% back at the end of the year… Costco.ca also works to have these awkwardly large items delivered to your home for free – FREE shipping to my door, usually in a day or 2 (I’m rural so that’s a plus, especially on gas). Again fits our life flow. – Cheers.

    • Those sound like exactly the right kinds of reasons to be a member!
      And yes, free rural delivery is almost unheard of nowadays. If it was truly rural, I hope it was when the roads were still frozen or baked, not gumbo. : )

  3. I like Costco, but like you I am aware of my prices and the cycles, so it isn’t such a necessity to me. I have moved away from the nearest Costco and it just isn’t worth the cost to pay for the membership, so I just have my Mom take me when I am in town (once every month of two). She has the expensive membership, so she gets 2% back a year – that’s a perk of taking me.

    Last time I went I only spent $45 though. It is losing its appeal when I don’t live close enough for easy access. The brainwashing is wearing off!

    • I think Costco has many good points–it just costs a bit too much to make it worthwhile for me.

      It sounds like you’ve found a way to get the best deal of all: you can shop at Costco for free!

  4. Costco saved me a lifetime of membership fees when I used their auto buying programme on my last car purchase. I got the vehicle at $500 over dealer invoice with no haggling. I saved about $2500 off the best going post-haggle pricing that I could find.

    Every year I make more than enough large item purchases which pay for the membership. Big screen TV, stereo system, patio furniture, new fridge, camera.

    I shop prices for the big ticket items very carefully and Costco is the best pricing more often than not. Amazon was a better deal before they started charging sales tax here in California. My local Costco is 3 miles down the road from me.

    Bonus – they have the best pricing on wine and liquor !

    • Thank you for sharing your good experience with the Costco car buying program in the US with us. Sounds like a great help!

      We used a Canadian agency called APA to get the best price for our last new car. APA would buy it for us (a Camry) at $800 over dealer invoice, no haggle, but we just used the APA paperwork to convince a dealer to sell it to us for less than that.

      Sounds like the membership is WELL worth it for you! We’ll probably join again the next time we have a large purchase to make if Costco has the best deal on that item. At our age, we don’t buy many big ticket items any more.

  5. I agree with most of your points. Plus, Costco plays games with doubling / halving the prices of many items such as cheese slices, cream cheese, OJ, and many other items without noting any special “sale” or “discount”. Obviously their own form of market / economic research using their PAYING members as guinea pigs.

    And the cash lines are ridiculous, even mid day, mid week, forget about peak times.

    Someone could / should start a business group buying stuff and delivering it to others using a single membership.

    • I suspect many people already “reduce” their membership cost by buying one membership and having several friends or family members to shopping together with the person with the real membership doing all the paying at the till.

      There are many things I like about Costco, but for us, the membership fee is just too high to justify unless we are trying to buy some specific large piece of gear at a large discount.

      • Yes, you can do this (as someone already mentioned) on the Exec or Business memberships.

        The Exec gets the holder 2% back, but not on gasoline (not sure about propane) purchases.

        • I guess the margin is so thin on the gasoline they can’t afford to offer cash back on that too.
          I forgot to mention the gas bars as they don’t have one at my Costco. I’ve heard the prices can be so good that people line up down the block!
          Thanks for sharing!

          • The gas prices are (lately) about 6 cents a liter cheaper that the normal stations in the GTA so to save the value of membership on gas purchases you would have to buy about 18 liters of gas per week to cover the cost of membership and thats not including the new pricing system they are putting in place for propane sales where they are starting to charg by the liter instead of by the tank. Crappy tire will fill your 20lb bbq tank for about $20 at costco a totally empty tank will cost about $12 and since i bbq year round and constantly i use about a tank a month. with the new system they are charging $0.70 cents per liter for tank fills which is great if you just want to top up your tank for an upcoming bbq party since crappy will charge you $20 wheather your tank is empty or half full. and i do agree with other posts here you really need to know your pricing before you go in to buy anything and i would say that about 60 percent of what they sell is not really any cheaper than anywhere else but where else will take back your half eaten bbq chicken that you didnt like and give you a full refund on your purchase though. check out the costco chatter on the chow blog to see what others are saying about it.

          • Thanks for the info on price savings on fuel. Our Costco doesn’t sell gas or propane so I didn’t have any info on that. I hope you continue to enjoy your bbq: the weather’s great this year!

  6. One interesting point regarding prescriptions at Costco. You do not need to be a member to use this service!! The savings is worth the trip.

  7. I am a member of Costco and Sams Club. As is the story of us Canadians the prices vary by 20%. The membership for Sams is cheaper.
    Costco used to sell many electronic items specially computers as beautique items. Meaning specially prepared for Costco. These had an item number ending with C. I would not touch them no matter the price. Because these are made of components reused from returned items….these items are very attractive when u see the price as the specs are higher then whats available @ other retailers and the price is less. Issue is these electronics break down more often.
    On that note…..return 2 of these computers at 1000 each and if you do not have a total purchase of over 2 k for that year the return counter will make tons of fuss taking the item back as you are returning more value then you purchase.

    • Interesting!
      I hadn’t thought about what happens if you return something in a different year than you bought it.
      Thanks for sharing your views.

  8. We go weekly. The savings alone on milk/eggs easily pays for 1/2 our executive membership cost. In fact our 2% cheque offsets our membership cost and then some. Agree with you on supermarket sales and certainly applies to some items like toilet paper, etc but not to most… Ie, there are cereal sales weekly that are easily 1/2 what it is in the supermarket even on sale… They rotate what is on sale every week, so if you are fixed on a certain brand it would be on sale again in 6-8 weeks – we like the variety…

    If you wish to avoid lines, go later at night.

    • Thanks for your views! I can see our shopping differs from yours but I understand that it’s working well for you.

      At our particular location the lines are there whenever I go, even 15 minutes before closing. I think it may just be our store that has this problem, though.

  9. We’re struggling with a similar decision regarding justifying the $55 fee. While our gas expenses could do better saving $0.01-$0.02 per litre, and using the Amex Costco card could gain us 1% on purchases – the Costco is on the other side of the city work in and very far from our home.

    Like you we flyer plan.

    • It is a tough call. We’ll probably join again the next time we need a big ticket item that will save us $100 or more. I have to say that I haven’t missed being a member during the last few months though.

  10. Our costco only sells my body wash for a short period of time yearly so we stock up. They sell products from that company year round but the sensitive skin option is seasonal. Now that we know the routine we use it. My mom and I find buying clothing at costco worth the membership alone. Id say I save enough on wool hiking socks alone, they compare to socks 25$ each and a pack of 4 is under 20$ at costco. I agree its not for everyone and you have to know your numbers.

  11. Now with combination with costco mastercard and with focus on prices this is probably the best place to buying stuff in ontario…

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