Monday, March 5, 2012

The Wholesale Club, Revisited

Are these wholesale clubs a good deal?  Yes and No.

The BJ's Wholesale spring catalog arrived today, replete with coupon offers.  Wholesale clubs, as I noted before, can be a good place to buy goods cheaply.  However, they also can be mechanisms for encouraging over-consumption and impulse-purchasing, in the worst sort of way.

The temptation is, when you go there, to see large displays of goods which seem to be at prices that are so cheap that "You can't afford NOT to buy!" when in fact, you really can't afford to, at all.

If you keep your head down, have a shopping list, and buy staple items, the prices can be bargains.  But most of the best bargains are on items that are not advertised, do not have coupons, or are store brands.  Nearly every item for which there is a "coupon" is a bad deal.

For example, every month there is a coupon on Bounty(tm) towels.  But even with the coupon, the best bargain is in the store brand Berkley and Jensen towels.  Similarly, other "brand name" high-markup items, particularly toiletries, all have coupons - razor blades (in those huge packages that are stuffed with cardboard filler to make them look bigger) or brand-name shampoos and soaps, deodorants, etc.   Often these are no real bargains and only a few pennies less than what you'd pay at the grocery store.

Lately, they have been pushing outdoor furniture - the kind that is the worst bargain.  For "only" $1800, you can have a patio set that looks nicer than the furniture in your house.  But the very features they tout in the catalog often work against these sets.   The fine painted finishes turn milky white in the sun and rain or flake off.   Fabric cushions do what you'd expect fabric cushions to do in the sun and rain - fade and get moldy.  Within a year, this $2000 set of patio furniture is looking shabby.  Within a few years, it goes to the curb.

The best deal in Patio Furniture, as I noted before, is a used set of "wrought iron" furniture with no pads.  It will last you the rest of your life and can be had at a garage sale or on Craig's list for $400 or less.  Without a coupon.

One of the funniest items in the catalog was the home defibrillator kit.  I guess in this era of morbid obesity, it was only a matter of time before a set of heart paddles was standard equipment in the American home.  What was interesting about the promotion in BJ's was that if you bought the defibrillator, you got a free electric toothbrush, which struck me as odd.

"Quick, Billy!  Get the defibrillator!  Mom's going into cardiac arrest!   No, Billy, not the electric toothbrush!"

Of course, there are some who say that heart disease platelets can be aggravated by bacteria in the mouth from lack of flossing.   So perhaps the electric toothbush/defibrillator package is not so bizarre.

The end result of reading this catalog, was that I came to some basic principles about wholesale club shopping:
1.  Have a shopping list and stick to it.  Do not impulse purchase items!  Walk away from the attractive end-cap displays and the like - there are no real bargains there.

2.  Don't bother with their in-store coupons, unless you intended to buy the item in question.   Usually the couponed item is no bargain, compared to the store brand.  Never impulse-buy an item because there is a coupon.

3.  Weigh the cost of traveling to and from the club with the savings.   If you have to drive 20 miles each way, chances are the trip is costing you at least $10 in gas costs and tire wear.  If you are buying $100 worth of groceries, the savings of the wholesale club are pretty much negated by the travel costs.

4.  Understand the cost of items at other stores in your area, before buying.  Sometimes, things at the wholesale club seem cheaper, but are actually more expensive that at a regular store.   I bought a 5-gallon bucket of chlorine tablets for our pool, for example, only to discover I paid $10 more than I would have at the pool store, or Wal-Mart.  The wholesale club is not always the cheapest!
Does this mean there are no bargains there?  Not at all.   We got great deals on glasses.  And their price on flat-screen televisions, particularly the lower-end models, seem to best Wal-Mart.  Wine there is cheap - besting the prices at Total Wine.  But some other things are not such bargains, and they rely on you buying one "non-bargain" item for every bargain item in your shopping cart.  And the non-bargain items are not hard to spot - they are the impulse items that are not on your shopping list, the end-cap display items, and the coupon items in the catalogs.