How do we bulk shop, and where?
January 20, 2012 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Bulk shopping: Amazon or Costco and other questions too...

Thanks to the Growing Up Poor thread, my girlfriend and I have decided to try and stop wasting as much money as we do on small portions of things when we can afford to buy in bulk.

I've got an Amazon Prime subscription and she works from home a few days a week so getting packages isn't a big deal. We also have a Costco that is a 20 minute straight shot on the train and probably under a $20 cab ride on the way back, and we have friends with cars who would probably give us a lift to and from in exchange for getting to shop there. Assuming the savings are worth it, the cost of membership is fine with us. We have the closet space to store bulk purchases but not fridge space. My only experience with bulk shopping is going to Costco with my mom when I was a teenager, and I don't really eat any of the stuff I remember buying there, and definitely not in the quantities I did when I was still growing.

The thing is that we don't really need fresh groceries. We're a two-person household. The part of Brooklyn where we live has some of the cheapest/freshest fruits and vegetables. She's a vegetarian and I don't eat enough meat to make buying it in bulk worthwhile (we also have a wonderful meat store nearby.) I eat a lot of Eastern European stuff -- cured meats, pickled vegetables, certain types of breads -- that's not going to be at Costco. We also just got a SodaStream, and neither of us drink juice or anything like that. We also don't keep more than one or two servings of junk food/sweets in the house, and that is definitely not something we need to buy in bulk.

However, that still leaves toiletries, canned and dry goods and food that doesn't go bad quickly. So, the real questions are:
  • Does it make more financial sense to buy in bulk from Amazon or Costco? (NB: We are fully aware of the ethical issues at hand.)
  • Is Amazon better for certain things and Costco for others?
  • What foods can purchase in bulk that doesn't go bad, soon?
  • What non-edible household stuff does it makes sense to buy in bulk?
posted by griphus to Shopping (45 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
re: non-edibles - toilet roll, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, tissues, laundry detergent & dryer sheets, tampax, razors, contact lens solution, maybe shampoo & conditioner? Costco is somewhat limited as to brands for a lot of things, unfortunately.

Also, if you are buying Lactaid pills anywhere but on Amazon you are getting wildly, horribly, offensively ripped off.
posted by elizardbits at 11:27 AM on January 20, 2012

Things we regularly stock up on at Costco: big bag of Craisins, canned black beans, canned diced tomatoes, toilet paper, paper towels.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:29 AM on January 20, 2012

Do you have room to buy lots of stuff in bulk? I usually don't buy stuff in bulk because it would be inconvenient to convert much of the space in my apartment to become a warehouse.
posted by grouse at 11:30 AM on January 20, 2012

Mr. Adams and I are a two-person household, but we always buy paper towels and toilet paper in bulk from Costco. Paper towels - I'm a compulsive hand washer/wiper and we go through a lot of them. Toilet paper - we don't necessarily use more than the average human, but we have two bathrooms and it's just convenient to always have a stock of TP in reserve and not have to worry about running out. Other items we buy there are certain spices...for example, I love garlic powder and add it to many of the things I cook, and it's cheaper to get a large container of it at Costco than frequently purchasing the small McCormick bottles at the grocery store.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:32 AM on January 20, 2012

We have both Amazon Prime and a Costco membership. Compare prices - sometimes items (such as DVDs) are cheaper at one or the other. It can vary. Also, keep in mind that shopping at Costco doesn't always mean you're buying in bulk (even though you get the bulk discount). It's not like you're buying 25 DVDs at a time or anything.

Non-edible goods we buy at Costco: paper products (plates, napkins, papertowels, napkins), soap, hand sanitizer, some OTC drugs, batteries, books, DVDs, bath towels (the ones we got are super soft and plush. I love them.), gloves (got a great pair of smartphone-friendly grippy gloves for $10 last year) and many other things I'm not thinking of, I'm sure.

Pantry stuff that is a good deal at Costco: Nuts, real maple syrup, olive oil
posted by geeky at 11:34 AM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: Do you have room to buy lots of stuff in bulk?

Thankfully, storage space isn't too much of a problem.
posted by griphus at 11:34 AM on January 20, 2012

This New York Times article by Ron Lieber ended up saying it's kind of a toss-up. I'm guessing I would agree, if I ever shopped at Amazon. Interestingly to me, he mentioned getting his car damaged by a shopping cart in the parking lot at Costco-- the parking lot at my Costco scares me shitless; the way it is set up, people always seem to be coming at you out of nowhere in their giant SUVs. He certainly makes it sound like the answer to your second bullet point is "Yes."

That said, I really like to buy things like paper towels, dish and laundry detergents and some nonprescription drug items at Costco. I have also bought quite a few bottles of wine; the prices are really, good good compared with big box liquor stores around here. Offerings and quality in the food department vary by region and even store. Here in Chicago, food boards have ongoing threads about good deals, which often include things like olive oil, dried mushrooms and other non-perishable stuff.
posted by BibiRose at 11:35 AM on January 20, 2012

Oh, thought of one more thing - Tires. I've found pretty good deals on tires for my car at Costco and they come with free rotations. YMMV.

(See what I did there?)
posted by geeky at 11:39 AM on January 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

The train, taxi, and your time aren't free, so be sure to figure those into the cost comparison. I'd much rather go with Amazon. It's great for stuff like 40 gazillion litterbox bags so we never run out, and dryer sheets, batteries, etc etc. You can subscribe to specific items and get cheaper prices. You just set and forget it, and it magically appears.
posted by desjardins at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Re-reading my question, I should probably clarify that we don't own a car.
posted by griphus at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2012

The next few times you go shopping, keep your itemized receipts (do you get those from the stores in your hood?) or take a minute to write down what you got, the size, and the cost.

Then you

1. Have a better idea of what you actually buy
2. Can calculate the price per unit of measurement
3. Can compare those prices to the prices on Amazon and see what's cheaper

This is a LOT easier to do online than in a store.

Amazon also has Subscribe and Save which gives you an additional discount.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:41 AM on January 20, 2012

From my experiences.. buying "food" (ramen, popcorn, rice, tea) at amazon is slightly cheaper then buying it in a store. Especially if you can take advantage of the subscribe and save stuff. Just cancel the subscription later (there is no penality that I know of) if you don't want it to reoccur.

But never buy paper products on Amazon. you're better off going to your local grocery store and buying however many Amazon is selling and still pay less.

Stuff I buy at Sam's Club (is like costco) that hasn't been mentioned yet: Ziplock bags, saran wrap, aluminum foil.
posted by royalsong at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2012

If you don't have a car, it's going to be very hard to buy enough stuff at Costco to make the trip worth your while.
posted by desjardins at 11:43 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are a consumer of a lot of over-the-counter medicines, it's often easier to get big bottles of basic stuff like generic tylenol and benadryl and advil at Costco. I've also personally found it useful for big things of frozen food [not useful to you], tires [same] and big rolls of plastic wrap, trash bags, facial tissues and a few other things. Think about whether there are non-perishable things your household just runs through [pet food? peanut butter? batteries?] and put them on a big list.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on January 20, 2012

Oh, something I found Amazon is really good for.. might not be good for you, but for the woman living in your house: Period stuff. Pads, tampons, midol.. all that.
posted by royalsong at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2012

Household stuff in bulk:

Dishwashing sponges and soap
Trash bags
Ziploc bags
Toilet paper/paper towels
OTC medicines
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should just take a trip to Costco to see what they stock. Ask your friends if anyone has a membership and tag along the next time they go. Someone will have membership - this is what facebook is for, right? - and you will have a better idea of the selection.

Costco has things like flour, sugar, rice, beans, salt, pepper, oils for cooking, milk, eggs, butter, dog/cat food, and so on. It does have a vast selection of junk food, but it also has a vast selection of basics. Socks!

It may make sense for you to do a 3xyear pilgrimage with a friend who has membership and pay them in cash for your groceries.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:51 AM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

The one thing you also want to consider is the cost of the impulse buy. Going online to buy cough medicine or whatever at Amazon, I am significantly less likely to be waylaid by a random impulse buy, but I find that when I go to Target to get cough syrup, I can't get out of the store without spending another $60 on stuff I will use eventually but may not need to buy at that specific moment. When I had a Costco membership, it was more like $200, and I was unlikely to run to Costco just for cough syrup. (We bought a Costco membership to buy mattresses for our son's bunk bed, but didn't use it enough to make it worthwhile, so we let it lapse.)

I'd add laundry supplies and household cleaning products to the young rope-rider's list of non-perishables.
posted by ambrosia at 11:55 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

One-person vegetarian household here - my Costco shopping covers:

Non-perishables: toilet paper, Kleenex, razors, contact solution (occasionally contacts as well), printer ink, saran wrap, cat sand, garbage bags.

Perishables: spices I use a LOT of, olive oil, nuts, dried fruit, occasionally canned fruit.

Services: having pictures printed, house insurance.

Clothing: totally depends on your style, of course, but I've gotten a couple cute coats there, along with things like yoga pants and lightweight jackets.

Agree with sciencegeek - find a way to take a fieldtrip to your local Costco. They are limited enough on brands that you either like what they carry or you don't. For the items I've tried, their Kirkland brand tends to be pretty good.
Possibly worth your while as is, would definitely be worth it if you can find a friend to split membership with and plan quarterly shopping trips.
posted by dorey_oh at 12:06 PM on January 20, 2012

If you don't know anyone who has a Costco membership, you can as for a day pass to browse (possibly buy things, but I'm not sure). Tell the card check folks you'd like a day pass, and they'll direct you to the membership counter.

Then you can browse the isles, noting the quantities and costs of items you might need, and how often you'd need them. Add on the cost of the card, and factor how you get there, if you want to be exhaustive.

One way to make a Costco membership go farther: because you don't have a car but might go with friends who do, offer to go in on a membership with them. Plan times to go together, buying more and/or splitting bulk purchases into manageable quantities.

OOOH! Printer ink re-fills are AWESOME. I'm sure you can go elsewhere, but our $35-45 per cartridge cheapo printer can now be refilled for $8 per cartridge (or there-abouts). That alone could push you to join, if you can't find a similar service elsewhere.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2012

And if you're a fool who has been lured into the Kourig single-serving machine trap, they sell k-cups in bulk for ~$0.50 per cup, instead of $1 per cup. Limited flavors/varieties, but that's what you have.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:11 PM on January 20, 2012

Costco is great for bulk frozen stuff: shrimp, scallops, salmon burgers, organic chicken parts, tortellini, etc.
posted by gnutron at 12:17 PM on January 20, 2012

Something a lot of people don't take into account about CostCo is that if you drink any quantity of milk (at least a gallon a week), the savings on milk alone will pay for your membership in a year. In the midwest, at least, milk at CostCo averages $1.20 less than at the grocery store.
posted by jferg at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2012

Costco like stores are great for basics and I wouldn't use them for regular fresh fruit or more than basic meat (chicken breasts or ground sort of thing). I have found you have to be careful with both Amazon and Sams/Costco in that sometimes you can get the same items cheaper in a supermarket if you are willing to try a little sale/coupon combining. You don't have to turn into crazed couponer (unless you want to) but I find it a great way to stock up on basics cheaper than both options.
posted by wwax at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2012

I'm going to start looking like a Costco obsessed freak if I don't stop posting answers but... Do either of you wear glasses? Both people in our household do, and the deals on glasses at Costco pays for our membership alone. Last time we priced glasses it was going to be $400 for a pair at LensCrafters and the like vs. $150 at Costco. They sell name brand frames (mine are Coach!) and the same thin lenses / special coatings everyone else does for like half the price. So worth it. (They have good deals on contacts too.)
posted by geeky at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2012

We are a 2-person household who just got our first Costco membership. It was worth it just for the tires we bought. I know that isn't relevant to you, but I'm mentioning it to point out that we were really agnostic on Costco before our first trip there like a month ago. The thing that we noticed, and the reason we probably won't be paying for another year (unless we need more tires!) is that our costco doesn't sell most of the things we're comfortable spending money on. For instance, we only use recycled paper products and our Costco doesn't stock them. There goes the toilet paper savings! We prefer to buy organic food and don't eat much processed stuff. That eliminates like 99.8% of the store! So, my advice is to think about what you actually buy and whether you could even get it at Costco if you wanted to.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2012

One thing that I haven't seen mentioned is that Costco sells much more than the Kraft-style mass market foods. They often have extensive organic selections (including organic ground beef -- delicious) and "artisanal" foods, the kind you'd see for sale in specialty food stores and sigh because there's no way you can pay, say, $16.99 a pound for organic chicken sausages. At Costco you might see the same thing for around 4.99 a pound.

I have found the fresh veggies, fruits, and meats superb and far better than I can buy in any local supermarket.

And seconding the awesomely cheap and high-quality glasses.
posted by ROTFL at 12:49 PM on January 20, 2012

We buy both perishable and non-perishable items at Costco besides the already mentioned paper goods, like TP, etc. We get soymilk, the non-refrigerated kind, canned tomatoes, disposable gloves, motor oil, liquor, sheets (high quality), maple syrup, tuna, and dog food, to name a few. Although we are just a two-person household, the membership works for us. I am not as sure about it if you don't have a car. A trial run sounds like a really great idea.

One other thing it's good for is when entertaining. They have platters, frozen noshy-bits, etc.

And I would nth the glasses, too.
posted by annsunny at 12:53 PM on January 20, 2012

I have found the fresh veggies, fruits, and meats superb and far better than I can buy in any local supermarket.

I've found fruit and veg at Costco to be a mixed bag -- often comparable to or higher than supermarket prices, far higher than produce-stand prices, and sometimes doesn't have a great shelf life.

(The big bags of spinach at Costco are great value, but it seems pot luck whether it lasts 10 days or 2 days before it starts turning black and slimy. And I've always had bad luck with their nets of tangerines.)

As noted above, dairy staples (milk, cheese, yoghurt etc; also eggs) are far cheaper at Costco; probably what we buy there most often.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:05 PM on January 20, 2012

Things I think are a killer deal at Costco

-2 lb blocks of vintage white Tillamook sharp cheddar
-often wine
-generic Claritin (loratadine)-335 for $15, as opposed to a buck a pill in other stores.
-meat is generally very good quality.
-chicken Better Than Bouillion
-other cheese, including the wonderful delice de Bourgogne.
posted by purenitrous at 1:13 PM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Organic milk is far, far cheaper there. We like their organic ground beef, too. Once in a great while they'll even have bison steaks, but it's rare. Batteries are a good value. You can also buy a vacation, carpet, window coverings, tires, hearing aids and glasses through Costco. They also have the Mexican coke with real sugar. I've also had good luck with their orchids and flowering plants when they are available (and they make great gifts!) If you have any kids in your life to buy presents for, they have a good selection of toys around the holidays.

They have decent dog and cat food, as well. We buy Fancy Feast in bulk there because our 16-year-old cat will only eat that brand.
posted by Ostara at 1:15 PM on January 20, 2012

i love amazon prime. i just got a box yesterday with 4-64oz jars of pasta sauce, tampons for 3 or 4 months, 324 allergy pills, and a book of dirty drawings. i also loved my costco membership when i had it - but i loved it because it was a 10 minute drive to the costco. i hated the lines and the parking lot and super intense filling station portion. i also loved it for things you won't use, gas, frozen products, tires.

search amazon prime (and make sure to only be searching the prime section, or else you pay out the nose for shipping), and make sure they carry the brands you want, but i'd go with that for what you're using it for - not having to carry home a 32 roll of paper towels pays for the few extra pennies you spend on prime.
posted by nadawi at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2012

Warning: the thing about Costco is that you WILL BLEED MONEY if you buy anything outside of a specific list you bring with you.

I think most people I know end up buying all kinds of things they actually don't really need after a trip to Costco. Like, some random pillows or a big ol' tray of chocolate thing-a-ma-bobs. An additional problem is that I've noticed a lot of their consumables now occupy the higher tier of prices. For many items, they no longer have the Kirkland (their brand) or the discount version, but a higher quality/higher price brand. That might be important to you, but we're perfectly okay with the cheaper paper towels, you know?

It's pretty funny how we come out of our local grocery store with a cart brimming with stuff for $100. But five random things from Costco that we really, really didn't need ended up being $200. As long as you're not impulse shoppers, you'll be okay.

The few years we didn't have a Costco membership, we saved a ton on groceries. We have a membership now, but our trips to Costco are considered "luxury shopping" trips. It might be because we have a discount grocery store that has everything Costco has for much cheaper...they do exist...
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:50 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

generic Claritin (loratadine)-335 for $15, as opposed to a buck a pill in other stores

Amazon Prime also stocks cheap generic over-the-counter drugs in bulk. They are generally Kirkland Brand, made by Costco. For example, loratadine.
posted by grouse at 1:53 PM on January 20, 2012

Don't forget Costco pharmacy! I can get 90 days supply of my generic prescription drugs from Costco Pharmacy for $10 cash. My insurance co-pay charge for just 30 days supply would be $20 at a regular pharmacy.
posted by monotreme at 1:55 PM on January 20, 2012

I'm in Brooklyn, too. I had a Costco membership a couple years ago, let it expire, and then hemmed and hawed about whether or not it was worth it (membership fee, car, etc). I bit the bullet just last week, because honestly, the price of cat litter alone pays for the membership.

I think the prices on a lot of stuff are better than Amazon. Amazon offers delivery but I think for me the cost differences weren't worth it. Also, all of the other stuff I get I won't have to worry about for a long time. It's nice not to have to worry about stopping at the store because you're out of xyz.

I was planning on using a car share, but I realized that a car service was going to be about the same cost, if not cheaper (I'm only like 3 miles away) and I wouldn't have to worry about driving.

The other thing, is that once I put up the money for the car, I was able to stock up on everything, but I realized that the Costco isn't too far from the subway nor is it inconvenient to get to from my place, so I can easily hop on the train and pick up one off items.

And I like having it for stuff I might need later that is cheaper. Basic clothing items, appliances, batteries, print cartridges etc. I don't really buy perishable food there. But nuts, canned tomatoes, beans, stuff like that.

Also, for what it's worth, you can technically shop at Costco with a gift card without having to pay for a membership. Some people say to get a friend to get you a $10 gift card (or one or two). I didn't feel quite right doing that (I read that Costco limits their mark-up to 15% and makes most of their profit from membership fees... I'm still saving money even with the membership fee, so it just felt wrong).

Also, they have pretty good coupons.
posted by lurking_girl at 3:55 PM on January 20, 2012

I am compulsive shower gel user. I used to buy Ivory Original Body Wash from Amazon, but found I was still going through the (rather large) 24 oz. bottles quickly.

Then I tried the Kirkland Signature Body Wash (warning: link goes to a clunky web magazine), and it takes me *forever* to finish one 27 oz. bottle (they are sold in two-packs). It lathers very, very richly, so I don't use as much (and I say this as a germaphobe who takes her daily shower very seriously:)

I also buy toilet paper and paper towels from Costco. Occasionally, I will impulse-buy - my most recent purchase being a two-pack of super-strong ShedRain umbrellas with a fiberglass membrane that has withstood the gusty winds of the DC area relatively well (I don't remember the exact price, only that it was less than $20).

TLDR: yes, I would recommend a Costco membership. The following threads are older, but also have good advice:

How to make a healthy weekly Costco shopping list
Best things to buy at Costco
posted by invisible ink at 4:32 PM on January 20, 2012

Midwest, here. My list of "It would be tantamount to throwing money away, if I bought it anywhere but Costco":

Various South American, Kiwi, and Australian wines.
Organic sausage of multiple varieties.
Coleman's uncured, nitrite-free bacon.
Chicken - boneless, skinless breasts.
Wild Alaskan salmon - boneless and skinless - cans - Kirkland OR Bear & Wolf.
Maranatha organic almond butter.
Daisy sour cream.
Organic heavy cream.
Organic eggs.
Fage Total yogurt, 2%.
Organic wild blueberries.
Organic frozen mix of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.

Contacts, glasses
Contact solution
Tampons and other lady products
Various kinds of OTC medicine
Anti-malarials -- every time I've traveled overseas in the last seven years, I've found that Costco routinely has the lowest price for (the otherwise PROHIBITIVELY expensive) Malarone
AMAZING Egyptian cotton towels
posted by artemisia at 5:03 PM on January 20, 2012

PS Depending on the state, your Costco may not carry booze. There are some very sad Costcos in NJ that don't. Poor Costcos!
posted by artemisia at 5:04 PM on January 20, 2012

As someone without a car, I would say:

Costco might be hit-or-miss for you. I would think that the price of the membership + the price of a taxi + the total cost of the random impulse purchases might = not many savings.

I would go periodically, carpooling with someone, and I found it useful for eye exams, contact lenses, toilet paper/paper towels, over-the-counter drugs, and cheese. It was also good for the holidays, when I'd be cooking a big meal, and needed to stock up on food; usually I would have a family member drive me as part of the holiday preparations.

I go more often now, as my partner has a car, but: eh. A lot of stuff is actually overpriced (their produce goes for more than what I can get at the local grocers, and some of their frozen goods don't seem discounted), or priced well, a two-person household easily going to go through a gallon of mustard? I think we go so we can buy a lot of TP and snacks and not have to think about it for a couple of months.

It might be beneficial for you to do the math, with your local prices (+ cost of transportation) and see if it really will save you cash.

One thing: I've read that certain state laws mandate that Costco keep their pharmacy open to non-members, and that other states mandate the same for alcohol. So, check into that, maybe: those are pricey items, and you may still be accessible to Costco savings, even without a membership.
posted by vivid postcard at 7:04 PM on January 20, 2012

Their Kirkland brand albacore tuna is *really* good, and totally worth it.

I shop there becase we bought a Vizio tv there (off their website, it was delivered (we have a smallish car)), but now the main staying power is their generic wellbutrin is made by Watson, which I can tolerate okay, unlike the generic wellbutrin at my walgreens. So I get $20 nice liveable option vs $300 name-brand option to keep me alive (insurance would not pay for name-brand, even after careful pleading by my doctor).

Giant jar of sun-dried tomatoes is also a plus.

Watch out, you will spend $100 or more every time you go in there if you are not careful. That's what happens to me, anyway.
posted by marble at 2:30 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a love-hate relationship with Costco. What I've found is that their regular prices are often somewhat cheaper than the grocery store's regular prices, but not enough to justify going there. I can almost always get things cheaper by waiting for a sale at Target.

The only thing that I absolutely MUST shop for at Costco is their Kirkland branded men's undershirts. They are far and above the best thing I've ever found.

I keep the membership because I have their branded Amex rewards card, and using the card for my work expenses purchases means the membership ends up being free.

However, I can't see how you save money with Costco if you have to pay for transportation. You have to use a LOT of toilet paper and 5 gallon jars of mayonnaise to make up for a $20 cab ride, or even $6 worth of subway fare. Even if Amazon's per-unit price is a little more, the free shipping and lack of hassle makes up for it.
posted by gjc at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2012

gjc - i don't know if you already know this and i don't know how the price compares, but amazon has the kirkland undershirts.
posted by nadawi at 12:04 PM on January 21, 2012

I think you'd be better off by making a price book which lists the items you buy a lot and their prices. You'll start to get an idea of when things are at their lowest price and then you can take advantage of the sale. It doesn't take long to build up a stockpile this way of the non-perishables that you use regularly. Your price notebook doesn't have to consist of more than 10-15 items to start to make a difference. Since I know the lowest price of the staples, when I go to a place like Costco, I can tell if something is a deal or not. For me, I have rarely found a really good deal there.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2012

Forgot the link for the price book.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:40 PM on January 21, 2012

« Older Memphis, Where the Old Time Jam at?   |   . Little Granny Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.