How to Shop a Bulk Retailer

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Consumers may shy away from shopping at bulk retailers because of the accompanying membership fees, but the truth is, you can easily recoup the $35 to $100 charges by saving on your purchases.

“Even if you make one huge purchase – for example, if you purchased a flat-screen TV – you can justify the price,” says Matt Levitte, editor-in-chief of Cheapism.com. He adds that ideally, shoppers should plan to visit their wholesale club of choice every two to three months to maximize savings on the low prices the membership provides access to.

But this doesn’t mean avid wholesale club shoppers don’t need to tread carefully.

“The atmosphere [in a store] is modeled after a casino,” says Regina Lewis, personal finance expert and communications consultant. “There are no mirrors. There are no clocks. They’re designed to make you lose your sense of time.”  

The hope is that consumers will stumble upon reasonable prices on items they never expected to buy and may not immediately have a need for, like a new printer or a pair of designer sunglasses.

To spare you from overspending, MainStreet asked experts for shopping tips you can use year-round at bulk stores to get great deals.

Make a list and stick to it

This is especially important if you live far from your wholesale club, Lewis says, since you may psychologically want to justify the trip by buying things you ultimately won’t use.

Levitte suggests adding any item you see selling at a low price but weren’t planning to buy to a future shopping list, since low prices are likely to be available later on as well.

You also shouldn’t shop when you’re hungry. “You're bound to throw unnecessary items into your cart,” warns Regina Novickis, consumer savings expert for PromotionalCodes.com.

Shop online

Another way to avoid impulse buying is to purchase items on the retailer’s website. Interestingly, non-members can also order products online from all the major wholesale clubs, though Costco (Stock Quote: COST) and BJ’s both impose a 5% surcharge and Sam’s Club tacks on 10%. 

Sign up for the newsletter

Bulk retailers aren’t big on coupons, mostly because prices are already comparable to what you would pay at a grocery store with a coupon, Novickis says. However, they will advertise special discounts or forthcoming sales in their weekly newsletters.

Costco is especially good at providing discounts in its weekly emails, Levitte says.

Try the store brand

The low prices at these wholesale clubs are possible thanks in part to the pure profits of membership fees (and the fact that both the retailers and the consumers buy in bulk), but Lewis also points out that bulk retailers bring in a lot of revenue by manufacturing their own brands. Costco sells items under the Kirkland label, while Sam’s Club has a few different labels, including Member’s Mark, Baker’s Choice and Simply Right.

Experts agree that these brands, which apply to many categories of products, represent big savings for the consumer as well.

“If you’re willing to wear underwear that says Kirkland on it, you can save some money,” Levitte says. He suggests giving store brands a try to see if you find them comparable to the popular name brands you typically purchase.

In many instances, they are just as good, he says.

Be savvy when choosing your payment method

Frequent bulk buyers should consider getting a credit card that entitles them to cash back on their purchases. Lewis suggests looking for a card that entitles you to cash back on both groceries and gas.

This is because gas is one of the items you should definitely be purchasing at your favorite bulk retailer.

“Gas is usually 5 to 10 cents less per gallon at big box stores,” Lewis says, adding that you stand to save one to two weeks’ worth of gas if you take advantage of the low prices.

What items should you looking for when you visit your local wholesale club? Check out MainStreet’s roundup on what to buy and what not to buy in bulk!

—Jeanine Skowronski is staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach her by email at Skowronski.jeanine@thestreet.com, or follow her on Twitter at @JeanineSko.

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