- We compared hundreds of items at Amazon and Costco to see who had the best prices — and Costco was the clear winner
- The winner: Costco by a landslide
- Why Amazon is still a worthy competitor
- Time is money
- Costco may limit quantities on popular items
- Costco can be an impulse buyer's worst nightmare
- Costco's selection is limited
- Buying in bulk may not always make sense
- The bottom line: shop Costco for savings, use Amazon for a dash of convenience
- Costco, Sam’s Club or Amazon Prime: Which Retail Club Is Best?
- Health and beauty
We compared hundreds of items at Amazon and Costco to see who had the best prices — and Costco was the clear winner
- Costco is known for offering its shoppers great deals on products in bulk.
- However, Amazon offers the convenience of ordering the same products without the hassle that sometimes comes with buying in bulk.
- To see who truly offers the best deals, we analyzed Amazon and Costco prices on 100 items across four areas: household staples, baby and pet, beauty and toiletries, and health — and Costco was the clear winner.
Conventional retail wisdom states that you'll save big if you buy in bulk.
That kind of thinking has made Costco a prominent retail success story even as many brick-and-mortar competitors have faltered in the face of stiff online competition.
But is trekking to Costco for mega quantities of paper towels and sandwich bags worth it when you can buy many of the same products on Amazon with the click of a mouse? We at Cheapism have decided to find out just what kind of savings we're talking.
We analyzed Amazon and Costco prices on 100 items across four areas: household staples, baby and pet, beauty and toiletries, and health. We did an apples-to-apples comparison, pricing the same product at both retailers.
Amazon items had to be shipped and sold by Amazon itself, not a third-party seller, and Costco's prices were obtained in-store, not on Costco.com.
The winner: Costco by a landslide
If you had any doubts about whether that $60 Costco membership is worth it, let us put them to rest. On most of the products we surveyed, Costco was cheaper — and many times, way cheaper. Here are our findings in a nutshell:
- Costco was the better bet almost 80 percent of the time The warehouse club beat Amazon’s per-unit pricing on 79 of the 100 products we researched — 22 household staples, 18 baby and pet items, 19 beauty and toiletry products, and 20 health items. Amazon undercut Costco only twice on household staples, six times on baby and pet goods, three times in beauty and toiletries, and three times in health, for a total of 14 times. The retailers basically tied seven times.
- Savings with Costco were greatest in the household staples category That’s where the savings averaged 25.4 percent. Costco was 23.4 percent cheaper on baby and pet items, 21.4 percent cheaper for beauty products and toiletries, and 21.6 percent cheaper for health items.
- Savings were impressive on several items On three products, Costco was more than 50 percent cheaper than Amazon per unit. That means more than 61 percent savings per tablet on Bayer Aspirin, more than 58 percent per treat on Blue Dog Bakery dog treats, and over 51 percent savings per ounce on Arm & Hammer liquid laundry detergent. On 17 other items, Costco offered savings of at least 30 percent.
- When Amazon did beat Costco, it was by a slim margin Amazon was cheaper on 14 items, but the average savings were in the single digits — nearly 6.6 percent savings for Amazon’s winning items compared with 23 percent for Costco’s. The single best deal we saw on Amazon? Savings of 14.36 percent per diaper on Huggies Little Snugglers, size 1, over Costco.
The savings are more impressive considering we examined products many households order multiple times a year. For instance, you may buy a 26-ounce four pack of Sensodyne Pronamel Toothpaste for $21.
99 that will last an entire year, or a single 8-ounce tube of the same toothpaste on Amazon for $9.84 three times a year.
You'll pay almost $30 on Amazon — and end up with less toothpaste than you would have gotten at Costco.
Why Amazon is still a worthy competitor
So it's a no-brainer, right? Buy all your goods at Costco and reap long-term savings? The numbers are compelling, but there are still reasons Amazon can make more sense for some shoppers.
Time is money
Ordering household staples on Amazon is a lot less time-consuming than spending an afternoon in the aisles at Costco.
And if you live in a rural area where Costco is hundreds of miles away, Amazon's prices will probably look a lot more reasonable (though as we note in our previous price comparison between Amazon, Walmart.com and Jet.
com, Walmart and Amazon are often neck and neck on prices — and Walmart offers a simpler online shopping experience that even includes free two-day shipping without a membership).
Costco may limit quantities on popular items
Costco often prohibits customers from buying more than a couple of items at a time, most often when it puts items on sale. For instance, a $4.40 Costco discount on 30 rolls of Charmin Ultra Soft Toilet Paper resulted in an impressive 41.67 percent savings per square foot over Amazon, but customers are limited to two packs. Quantity limits aren't as common on Amazon.
Costco can be an impulse buyer's worst nightmare
As the Consumerist notes, the store strategically places “trigger items” — those are items nearly everyone needs, cereal or paper towels — all over the store, making it hard to get the items you need without passing a lot of potential impulse buys.
And since the store is constantly cycling in different items, buyers may feel it's now or never, and end up with a cart full of goods that weren't on their shopping list.
In contrast, e-commerce retailers Amazon still lag when it comes to impulse buying: 68 percent of impulse buys happen in a brick-and-mortar store, Costco according to a recent CreditCards.com survey.
Costco's selection is limited
Costco is able to offer low prices in part because it keeps its inventory streamlined. The average store offers fewer than 4,000 items to choose from, according to The Motley Fool.
If you're looking for paper towels, you'll probably be choosing from one or two big name brands (Bounty, for instance), and Costco's store brand, Kirkland Signature.
In contrast, Amazon has nearly 400 million products, according to ScrapeHero, including nearly 61 million in the home and kitchen category alone.
As for paper towels, you can choose from Bounty, Viva, Sparkle, Scott, Brawny, Seventh Generation, and dozens of brands you've never heard of. (You can even find Kirkland merchandise on Amazon, though usually at a healthy markup over what you'd pay at Costco.) Moral of the story: If you want variety, Amazon is a much better bet.
Buying in bulk may not always make sense
Repeat after us: Buying 250 ounces of laundry detergent, no matter how cheap, may not be a good move if you're single and do little laundry, or don't have the room to store a massive bottle.
Amazon offers a wider range of quantities on popular items — in fact, you may be able to buy the same smaller bottle of detergent you'd pick up at your local big-box store using the Amazon Prime Pantry program, which makes it more cost-effective for the site to ship smaller items.
The catch? You need to be a Prime member, and you have to select five Pantry items to nab free shipping.
The bottom line: shop Costco for savings, use Amazon for a dash of convenience
The numbers don't lie: You really can save big with Costco. But buying everything in bulk may not be to every shopper's advantage. That, combined with the convenience and variety Amazon offers, means the online retail giant will probably stay firmly entrenched in any shopper's arsenal.
Costco, Sam’s Club or Amazon Prime: Which Retail Club Is Best?
The right store for the right stuff:
Selection, of course, isn't just about total inventory. Here's what the experts say about how Sam's Club, Costco and Amazon fare in seven major shopping categories.
Amazon has one big advantage here, says Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business: With its Prime Wardrobe program, you get a seven-day try-on period for up to eight items and free return shipping for items you don't want to keep.
Prime is also a good bet for name-brand fashion, kids clothing and sneakers, budgeting expert Andrea Woroch says. For office wear, she gives high marks to Costco's private label, Kirkland Signature, especially for men's button-down shirts (she says her husband is a big fan).
For blue-collar attire work pants and flannel shirts, Sam's Club may have a slight edge in price and availability, according to Cohen.
Amazon has always had terrific deals on laptops, printers and TVs, perhaps because of the vast variety it offers, says Woroch. It's also her go-to for tech accessories charging cords and phone, tablet and laptop cases.
Costco and Sam's both offer great electronics deals, but rarely on the exact same models, so it can be very difficult for consumers to compare their prices, Cohen says.
For the best pricing on most electronics, it's hard to find better deals than on Amazon during super-competitive Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, Bodge says.
For sheer range, Amazon is hard to beat. Prime Video offers unlimited streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows. Prime members also get Amazon Music, with access to more than 2 million songs. (For an extra monthly fee you can subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited, which includes more than 60 million tracks.)
Reflecting Amazon's origins as a virtual bookstore, no one else compares for variety and selection of literary matter, Bodge says. But you'll often find better deals on individual titles at Costco or Sam's, which often slash prices on books recently off the best-seller list and carry special editions specifically published for warehouse club discounts, Cohen says.
With their bulk deals, Sam's Club and Costco can offer better value for your money than Amazon on a wide range of groceries, especially nonperishable foods tuna, beans, peanut butter, canned soup and boxed rice that you can buy in large quantities without worrying that they'll spoil, Woroch says.
Another plus: “Discovery is better at the wholesale clubs,” since you can walk in and see the products for yourself, says Bodge.
Both chains have house brands that shoppers really love, Cohen says — Kirkland Signature at Costco, Member's Mark at Sam's Club. She says Costco is also good at tailoring food inventory for local markets (great kosher selections at its store on New York's Upper East Side, for example). And, of course, its $4.99 rotisserie chicken is beloved nationwide.
That said, if you are an Amazon Prime member, you can get free Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in some areas with a minimum purchase that varies by region (often, but not always, above $35).
The Amazon Fresh selection can include products from Amazon-owned Whole Foods, but deliveries are sourced from warehouse locations. There's a distinct service for Whole Foods customers: Personal shoppers fulfill your order at the nearest store and deliver it for free in specific markets to Prime members who spend more than $35.
Health and beauty
For replenishing supplies of your day-in, day-out products, Costco and Sam's get the edge because of their value pricing for large quantities, Cohen says. Amazon may be better if you frequently try new things, she says: “I'm going to be able to buy it in a small amount so I don't have to buy a whole case.”
And there's lots to try. “Amazon has enormous breadth and depth in this category,” says Howard, who says he's counted more than 90,000 cosmetics available on the site.
Bodge cautions that bulk-buying some health and beauty products at the warehouses can have hidden costs. Be sure you will use up those mega-bottles of vitamins or large sunscreen two-packs before their expiration dates, she warns, or what seemed a great value in the aisle can end up being a waste.
All three retailers offer prescription-drug services that are not tied to membership. Any consumer can purchase meds from Costco or Sam's Club, or from PillPack, an online pharmacy acquired by Amazon in 2018.
The warehouse clubs consistently charge less for prescriptions than big drugstore and grocery chains, according to Consumer Reports, and offer additional savings for members.
Sam's Club members can get select generics for as little as $4 (with a broader selection for Plus members) through a partnership with the America's Pharmacy network. The Costco Member Prescription Program offers savings of up to 40 percent for people who are uninsured or whose insurance doesn't cover all their meds, and it even offers some discounts on pet prescriptions.
Amazon's PillPack sorts your daily pills into one packet and, once the service is established, automatically takes care of refills. Customers are responsible for copays, but PillPack covers shipping. Prime membership is not required.
The warehouse clubs are often your best bet for prescription glasses, Howard says, not just because of the value pricing but because customers can meet directly with optometrists there.
You might not think of warehouse clubs when planning your next vacation, but they offer an array of members-only travel benefits. It's probably not worth joining just for those deals, Cohen says, but it does give Sam's Club and Costco an advantage over Amazon, which is not a shopping destination for discount travel.
Woroch says Costco Travel is the first place she goes when looking for deals on hotels, airfare and car rentals. Members can get discounts on everything from group trips to cruises to ski lifts, and special pricing on all-inclusive resorts.
Sam's Club Travel and Entertainment is generally focused on discounts on theme parks and attractions but also offers some international travel deals, Cohen says.
Theme parks are a major category for both warehouse travel sites, Howard says, with admissions discounts of 30 percent to 50 percent at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Legoland resorts and other major sites.