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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shopping Bargains: The Warehouse Club

Derided by many for their laughable, ludicrous quantities—remember Homer Simpson and the Mrs. Butterworth bottle?—warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s offer equally large savings . . . for those who can control themselves.

Though it is ever-escalating, our annual membership fee at Costco — now $50 — is a bargain as long as we avoid expensive and caloric temptations. So we avert our eyes from the tantalizing bags of Terra Chips and Atomic Fireballs and stick to the basics: coffee, olive oil, mustard, baking yeast, sugar, nuts, basmati rice, juice, fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, canned tomatoes, cheese, and whatever other quality staples can be gleaned. Even with this fairly short list, our membership pays for itself several times over, as we also buy vitamins, detergent, and other household basics at Costco.

We generally do a warehouse run once or twice a month. Here’s what we got on our trip this week:

4.5 lb. raisins                           $6.89
2 lb. pecans                               8.89
3 lb. almonds
1 lb. organic salad mix
2 lb. grape tomatoes
15-lb. bag grapefruit
1.5 lb. Parmigiano Reggiano
1 lb. goat cheese
2 lb. queso fresco
 loaves whole grain bread       4.49
2 lb. coffee

For less than $90, we got a big pile of groceries that in some cases will hold us for months. We’ll use the raisins and nuts for homemade granola and freeze part of the goat cheese and queso fresco. One of the bread loaves will go into the freezer. The costliest single item, the parmesan cheese, will last at least a couple of months.

A one-pound box of salad mix can be tricky to manage, as it’s sometimes hard for the two of us to eat that much lettuce before it goes bad. Although this low price justifies a certain amount of spoilage, we really hate to waste, so we’ll make a few salad-based meals to keep on top of things. (One reason these mixes spoil quickly is that they’re crammed too tightly into the containers; if you shake up the plastic box every time you take some salad out, the leaves will last longer.)

Costco offers some of our favorite seasonal items, such as the $8 one-pound boxes of chanterelle mushrooms that appear in the fall. Other products, like organic sugar, come and go, so if you see something you like and can stockpile it, you probably should load up.

If you have the patience to winnow the quality buys from the towering aisles of junk, and have the room at home to store your purchases, the warehouse club is one of the best deals out there. 

Recommendation: Elissa Altman has written a book on buying, storing, and preparing bulk foods, titled, appropriately, Big Food. Check it out!


  1. I really like the concept of this website. I used to shop Sams/Costco for several years. I found that I ended up wasting more food than the savings I pocketed at the time of checkout. Although there are food item bargains to be had, sometimes having to store them out weigh the benefits. But for the staples you mentioned above I think warehouse prices are very inexpensive!

  2. Indeed, we think everyone goes through that early warehouse shopping phase where you buy way too much, because (as one of our funny friends used to say) you can't afford NOT to.
    But once reason takes hold — and for some it never does — there are great food bargains to be had at the Big Box food stores.
    For some things we know the best bargains are at Costco, for others it's Trader Joe's, and for many it is actually at one of the three supermarkets within 15 miles of our home. For Costco and Trader Joe's, which are farther away, we go seldom but buy wisely for a month's supply of just those items. For the supermarkets, we watch the weekly specials — many of which are not good for you — and buy the good stuff that happens to be on sale.
    And, of course, there are the many times when we just buy what we must, because we need the item. And we try not to be too weird about any of it.

  3. I saw your book in Amazon and looks very helpful. I need this one.