Comparing Costco Prices with Local Grocery Stores, part 1

April 11th, 2008 · 28 Comments

I decided that instead of writing about what I bought this week at Costco (it wasn’t that interesting, so you’re not missing out on anything good), I would do a little comparison shopping with three other major grocery store chains in my area. There have been a couple of things I’ve read lately, blog posts and news stories, questioning the value of a Costco membership because you’re probably not really saving over other grocery stores. Over the years I have done quick little comparisons on things like butter, milk, or eggs and Costco has always come out favorably in these comparisons. But after reading this news story, I decided to expand my comparisons and make it more official.

The stores that I compared with Costco are HEB, Wal-Mart, and Randall’s (a.k.a. Safeway). All stores are located within 6 miles of my house, including Costco, and are the stores that I would go to (and sometimes do) if not for my love affair with Costco. I chose 43 items people frequently buy, even things I don’t buy, like coffee, that I knew I would be able to make a direct comparison amongst all four stores. I chose items that were well known brands or store brand items that I knew I would be able to find easily at all stores. I used the store brands of many products for the comparison prices, unless a specific brand is listed such as Tide or Cheerios. I wanted to make sure I was comparing apples to apples. All prices in my comparison were gathered this week – Costco on Sunday, with HEB, Wal-Mart, and Randall’s on Tuesday. I also want to point out a few things: a) I did not cherry pick items from Costco that I knew were cheaper than at other stores; b) I did not have my Costco prices with me when I went to the other stores; c) I want to reiterate that I compared store brands to store brands and name brands to the same name brand.

What Did I Compare?
The items in the list below were what I used for my comparisons. As you can see, they include bread, milk and dairy products, soda, juice, coffee, fish and chicken, pantry items, and household items such as batteries. I figured this was a wide enough range that I could get a good understanding of the way prices in general would compare across the four stores. I was really pleased with the items that I picked because it turned out that the only things that weren’t available at all four stores were steelhead trout (Wal-Mart and Randall’s didn’t have this), wild halibut and Tree Top apple juice (Wal-Mart didn’t have either of these). I also tried to note differences in quality where applicable, such as the size and grade of eggs, and whether the apple juice was from concentrate or not. Other than these small differences, everything was easily comparable.

  • Bread (white & wheat)
  • Milk (Skim, 1%, 2%, Whole)
  • Butter
  • Eggs
  • Yoplait Light Yogurt
  • Vanilla Ice Cream
  • Imperial Pure Cane Sugar
  • Cherrios
  • Peanut Butter (Jif & Organic)
  • Spaghetti
  • Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup
  • Doritos
  • Fish (Trout, Salmon, & Halibut)
  • Chicken Breasts (Boneless & Skinless)
  • Whole Rotisserie Chicken
  • Coffee (Decaf, Regular, & Folger’s Classic)
  • Tropicana Premium OJ with Calcium
  • Apple Juice (Tree Top & Store Brand)
  • Coke (Classic & Diet in cans)
  • Baking Potatoes, Large
  • Organic Spinach
  • Head Lettuce
  • Organic Baby Carrots
  • Gala Apples
  • Irish Spring Bar Soap
  • Tide
  • Clorox 2
  • Batteries (Duracell AA, AAA, 9Volt)

Where’s All This Great Data?
Updated link information (2008.04.11 at 4:25 pm):
If you don’t have a Google login you can view the data here:
http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=py1XOAFfFke8OaTsQEXJ6LQ

If you have a Google login you can also view it here:
http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=py1XOAFfFke8OaTsQEXJ6LQ&hl=en

I’ve laid out everything in a spreadsheet to keep track of the comparable prices for each item across the four stores, as well as the items’ original prices and sizes from each store. To get the ‘comparable price’ I made sure that all prices were figured on one specific size (usually the one that was found at the most stores). For instance, regular coffee at Costco was in a 48 ounce can, however, all of the other stores had 34.5 ounce cans, so I figured the price of the Costco coffee per ounce and then multiplied it by 34.5 to come up with the comparable price for Costco.The first column is for the list of items separated into different categories, the next four columns are for the comparable prices for each store, there is one separator column and then the next four columns are for the original prices and sizes for each item across the four stores.

The best comparable prices are highlighted in yellow and the text is bold so you won’t miss who has the best price! So, go check out the spreadsheet and you can see all of the comparison information side by side.

What Are My Conclusions?
The results were interesting, actually. Since I’ve never done a side by side comparison of prices across all of these stores I could easily see I am glad that I quit shopping at HEB! In any case, here’s how my results turned out:

Costco had the best prices on 35 of the 43 items. Real stand outs were butter, yogurt, bread, sugar, Jif peanut butter, Cheerios, fish, the whole rotisserie chicken, fruits and veggies, as well as soap, Clorox 2, and AAA and 9 volt batteries. These are all things where Costco’s price is less by around a dollar or more! There are other items where Costco has the best price but it isn’t quite as dramatic a difference. There are also some places where I was comparing store brands, and there might be a quality difference that accounts for Costco’s price not being rock bottom. A good example of this is with apple juice; Costco juice is not made from concentrate as is HEB’s (this is the only thing that HEB was cheapest on).

The one item that the comparison pricing was really shocking for was the vanilla ice cream. Costco sells the KS brand (which my mom, the ice cream connoisseur, says is the best vanilla ever), so I was comparing store brands but Costco actually turned out to be the most expensive place to buy your ice cream. Now, is this because they have a much higher quality? I don’t know and didn’t compare ingredients and such but that is a possibility. Wal-Mart actually had the cheapest price on the ice cream.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, they came in second in my comparison test with 5 of the best priced items. These items were: AA batteries (by only 4 cents under Costco), Tide, head lettuce (this is a toss up though because it was really quite small in comparison), store brand decaf coffee, and of course the vanilla ice cream. It is kind of interesting that with all of Wal-Mart’s buying power and their commercials about passing the savings right on to the customer, their prices are not way more competitive. Of course, if you consider that their other competition is not Costco but HEB and Randall’s they would do much better.

Randall’s, whose pricing in the store made me think they wouldn’t have the best prices on anything, actually came in third with the best price on two items. These items were: boneless, skinless chicken breasts and store brand regular coffee. Their price on chicken breasts was so much lower than anyone else’s that I think they must have been on some kind of sale and I just didn’t notice the signs. By the way, for all of you Randall’s fans that are thinking I did you wrong, I did actually use the ‘member pricing’ for all my comparisons.

Obviously that leaves HEB in fourth, or last, place in the comparison price battle. As I mentioned already, the only thing they had the cheapest price on was their store brand apple juice. However, since it is from concentrate and Costco and Wal-Mart both have store brand juices that are not from concentrate, it is at best a hollow victory. Especially when you consider that they were only 20 cents less than Costco’s better quality juice.

Okay, this post is getting rather long, so I’m going to cut it off here. In part 2 of this discussion I’ll address the issue of the differences in quantities, if there is indeed a difference.

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28 Responses so far ↓

  1. 1 barbara the best juicer in the world // 2013.05.02 at 10:46 pm

    You left out the crucial issue of waste in your calculation. Since items are sold in bulk, what about the food stuff thrown out because you bought too much? Costco while reasonably priced, encourages wasteful spending thus obesity. I mostly use them for non-perishable items like soap, tissues, utensils and sometimes seafood. Excellent study except for the waste factor not included!

    • 2 Kimberly // 2013.05.02 at 11:51 pm

      @Barbara – I don’t waste food. If people do end up with that as a result of the larger sizes then they definitely shouldn’t shop at Costco. I make excellent use of my freezer and only buy the things that I know I can/will eat before they perish. Plus, a lot of the grocery items are packaged to help you avoid waste by being in multiple packages. There’s nothing on my comparison list that should go bad before a normal family could use it or freeze it. What are you thinking would go to waste?

  2. 3 Costco apples | Superstartrave // 2012.12.28 at 4:36 pm

    [...] Comparing Costco Prices with Local Grocery Stores, part 1 … [...]

  3. 4 Vicki // 2010.06.30 at 6:35 am

    Thank you for confirming what I suspected!!!! I know it is crazy for me to shop there, since I am a household made up of one retired elderly woman. However, “inclusion” may be the operative term, used by another person! Now I realize that I am going to HAVE to try the ice cream, as soon as I get enough room in the freezer to store it!

  4. 5 Joanna // 2010.06.29 at 8:25 am

    First off, thank you for the ground work!
    I love Costco just as much as the next person however one main missing component from your data is the use of the coupon. I am an avid coupon cutter which when you take the costs savings of being able to use coupons at store such as Walmart, the savings scale can be tipped dramatically.

    • 6 Kimberly // 2010.06.29 at 1:13 pm

      As I think I mentioned in one of my comparison posts (though I’m not sure which one), I don’t count the use of coupons because they are not consistent pricing. And while the use of coupons can make any of the stores a better deal on those particular items, it is very hit or miss. I feel it isn’t really a valid baseline price comparison to count coupons.

  5. 7 tiramisu // 2010.03.13 at 12:28 pm

    Thank you so much for the spreadsheet. Now, I know where to go.

  6. 8 chicken // 2009.09.09 at 7:21 am

    There are few better places to eat than Roosters Piri Piri

  7. 9 Kimberly // 2009.05.20 at 7:28 am

    I just wanted to let everyone checking out this comparison, that I’ve updated it for 2009. So, you can see how the prices stacked up on my . I’ve changed the way I show my data in the spreadsheet to make it even more clear that Costco has great pricing but also how the other stores really do stack up.

  8. 10 CH // 2009.05.19 at 6:44 pm

    I am curious to any price comparison on prescription drug prices for cash paying customers at the three major warehouse clubs. Has anybody price shopped for some common prescription drugs?

    • 11 Kimberly // 2009.05.20 at 7:11 am

      CH, while I don’t have a comparison for other warehouse type stores, I did a small comparison recently on Costco vs. WalMart pharmacies for some prescription medications that I take. You can check it out here on my This Week at Costco – April 26, 2009 post. Costco came out saving me a lot of money. So much so that it would be like getting free prescriptions several times per year. Also, if you want to check prices for any drugs at Costco, you can do that through their online pharmacy.

  9. 12 2009 Costco Price Comparison // 2009.05.07 at 8:46 am

    [...] my blog for a while you probably caught my two posts about price comparisons from April 2008 (part 1 and part 2). I decided to do a repeat of my comparison from last year, although I did make a few [...]

  10. 13 Marie // 2009.04.12 at 10:48 am

    For the Walmart comparison, you do have to consider that WalMart does not charge membership fees, a huge source of revenue for Costco. Also Walmart must stock 2 or 3 times the items, most in smaller quantities. So its an apples or oranges comparison.

    I am a huge Costco fan, but I also realize that I do not save as much money at Costco as I would like to think, considering for me the waste of items I buy in larger quantities than I would like to, the storage costs, and the limited selection. For me the limited selection is a convenience, and the store is more fun to shop in than WalMart, which I dislike going to.

    For example, I just threw out a large container of salsa. I only used a half cup out of at least a quart. It took a lot of room in my refridgerator. I really liked it but it cost me $6 for a half cup plus storage.

  11. 14 Kimberly // 2009.03.18 at 3:43 pm

    I’m planning on doing things a little differently this April when I re-do my comparison, so perhaps my changes will address your concerns. My comparison last year was just meant to see how prices compared against Costco in particular. Therefore, I didn’t really rank the other grocery stores against each other, just Costco.

  12. 15 Mike // 2009.03.18 at 3:08 pm

    I just stumbled upon your website from a link from msn money. I like your data but I disagree with you conclusions. Although HEB had the lowest price on only one item, I think it is second best to Costco. On many items HEB was the second best. What you should do is total the cost of all items from each store to find out how they rank. I’m concerned with total cost. Randall’s prices seem to be the highest on most products except for the chicken and coffee. I would put them last.

  13. 16 Alice // 2009.02.17 at 10:42 am

    An added benefit to Costco membership — I had to replace a set of tires a few months ago — the cost of the whole set was over $100 less than anywhere else — top of the line Michelin’s, which included alignment and balancing (also free in the future). This took care of my membership fee for at least 2 or 3 years. Costco is also great for nuts — very good quality walnuts, etc. LOVE COSTCO.

  14. 17 an ice cream expert // 2009.01.31 at 8:21 am

    The KS ice cream isn’t expensive at all when you consider the ingredients. “super-premium” ice cream must have at least 12% butter fat, the most expensive component in ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s has 12%, Cold Stone has 14%. KS ice cream has 18% butterfat, so it would cost even more to make, and there isn’t another major ice cream out there with that fat content to even compare it to. I would consider it a bargain, though it does take a lot of freezer space.

  15. 18 This Week at Costco - January 4 2009 // 2009.01.10 at 10:39 am

    [...] I really have no reason to complain.  Especially not when I think of how much cheaper it is to buy my peanut butter at Costco versus the other grocery stores in my area. 2, 3 pound containers for [...]

  16. 19 More Costco Pricing Comparisons // 2008.07.29 at 12:11 pm

    [...] prices for Costco and Walmart.  She found out basically the same thing that I did when I did my comparison back in April – Costco really is a more inexpensive way to buy most everything.  She had a variety of items that [...]

  17. 20 Mother Hen // 2008.06.25 at 10:05 am

    Thanks for all the info. I definitely feel better about paying to shop.

  18. 21 Kimberly // 2008.04.17 at 11:23 am

    I kind of assumed that the KS brand of ice cream was nowhere near the same as the store brands at the other places by the way my mom raves about it. However, I wanted to consistently price against the store brands where I could without too much commentary on quality since that is kind of hard to quantify. You’re right though, when compared to the better brands the KS ice cream is certainly much more comparable in price.

  19. 22 RSMBob // 2008.04.17 at 12:32 am

    Just stumbled in, but I will comment on the ice cream. The KS vanilla ice cream is certainly not cheap, but it needs to be compared to similar quality ice cream. The KS is VERY good stuff (much creamier and denser than Edy’s/Dryer’s or Breyer’s), and the only major brand that I would compare it to is Haagen Dazs, and I think you’ll find that the Costco price turns out pretty good.

  20. 23 Sara in Austin // 2008.04.16 at 11:01 am

    Wow, incredibly thorough and convincing. I’ll start buying eggs & milk at Costco, for sure, and review the rest of these…

  21. 24 Comparing Costco Prices with Local Grocery Stores, part 2 // 2008.04.16 at 9:58 am

    [...] Comparing Costco Prices with Local Grocery Stores, part 1 [...]

  22. 25 Earl // 2008.04.12 at 7:56 pm

    i like chicken and potatoes

  23. 26 Mindy // 2008.04.11 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks. That info is great. I love Costco and have wondered if I just like to be “included” or if I really save money. Thanks for all your research. I love your blog…very helpful.

  24. 27 Kimberly // 2008.04.11 at 4:19 pm

    Whoops…I forgot to actually publish my spreadsheet before I inserted this link. But I’ve updated the link in the post & it should be working correctly now (no Google login necessary).

    Here’s the update link, as well: http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=py1XOAFfFke8OaTsQEXJ6LQ

  25. 28 Mindy // 2008.04.11 at 3:22 pm

    When I click on the link to open the document it says that I need a login and password. Am I doing something wrong? I would love to see all the research that you have done. Very interesting!

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