What Not To Buy In Bulk

What Not to Buy in Bulk: Soda

The more you buy in bulk, the better the bargain—or so we’ve been taught. Warehouse clubs do indeed offer incredibly low prices on bundles of items on a regular basis, but if you take a few minutes to hunt for weekly specials and coupons, even bigger savings can often be found at your local grocery store—and you can free up household storage space while you’re at it.

“There’s never one place that’s going to be the cheapest on everything,” says retail consultant Neil Stern of McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago-based firm specializing in shopping strategy. “The clubs are among the straightest shooters in retail, but even so, there are always items you can buy more attractively somewhere else.”

In Pictures: What Not To Buy In Bulk

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To find the best deals on brand-name items, we shopped four stores in the Chicago area: Costco, Sam’s Club, Target and Wal-Mart, all on the same day. We then compared prices to those listed in the weekly ad for the local Supervalu-owned Jewel-Osco. To consider regional differences, we also compared in-store pricing at Sam’s Club in Marietta, Ga., near Atlanta, and area Kroger stores based on the grocer’s weekly ad (the suburban Atlanta market is often considered a good snapshot of nation-wide suburban shopping trends, according to retail experts). Prices at office supply stores were found in Staples and Office Depot weekly online ads. All pricing was for the week ending June 12 and do not include generic store brands. Since package sizes vary, all comparisons are on a per unit basis.

When it comes to grocery store discount specials, anything that customers purchase on a weekly or monthly basis is fair game. Retailers either offer them at a loss, hoping to make up the difference elsewhere in the shopping basket, or work with suppliers to defray the costs on a promotional basis. In general, warehouse clubs don’t play the high-low pricing game, but supermarkets do, and that’s where you can reap the savings.

Coke and Pepsi drinkers can regularly find their beverage of choice at a consistently low price at the warehouse club, but savvy savers need only to look to weekly supermarket ads to find even better deals, though spotlighted brands change frequently. We found Pepsi at the Chicago-area Sam’s Club for 24 cents a can, at Jewel-Osco it was 20 cents a can and 21 cents per can at Target thanks to a “buy three 12-packs and get one free” in-store promotion.

Same story for toilet paper. Quilted Northern sold for 51 cents per roll at Sam’s Club in Atlanta, while the identical product was available at Kroger for a penny less per roll for loyalty cardholders. Download a digital coupon and the price dropped to 33 cents per roll. You won’t have to fill your garage with toilet paper to get the deal, but you may want to. Considering the average American uses roughly 21,000 sheets of toilet paper per year, according to the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia, for a buyer of Quilted Northern, which runs 232 sheets to the roll, this could add up to about $60 a year in savings for the average family of four.

Office supplies aren’t always cheapest in huge quantities, either. Plain white copy paper, perhaps the most popular office item, is practically given away to get shoppers in on a regular basis. Sam’s Club sells a 20 lb. box, or 10-ream case, for $26.60 while Staples and Office Depot both had the same size for $24.99. Occasional manufacturer rebates knock that down even further (vendors offer rebates for retail partners but warehouse clubs don’t participate).

“The warehouse club is not a model intended for everyone,” says Brendan Langan, who oversees warehouse club research at Kantar Retail. “It can be an extremely high-value proposition, particularly for growing families, but most people still need a fill-in grocery trip.”


(Photo at top left)

Americans love their soda, and grocery stores try to lure them in by offering frequent sales on at least one brand. The week we shopped, Pepsi drinkers were the lucky winners. Pepsi at the Chicago-area Sam's Club was 24 cents a can; at Jewel-Osco (a SuperValu-owned supermarket) 20 cents a can, and 21 cents per can at Target (with a "buy three 12-packs and get one free" in-store promotion).


Beginning Monday, Atlanta's Kroger had Coke on sale for 25 cents per can when buying four 12-pack cartons. The price is identical at the nearby Sam's Club, but Kroger card holders will receive points for purchases good toward 10 cents off per gallon of gas at local Shell stations. A double deal on gas: save at the pump and avoid an extra trip to the club store.

Snack Chips

Snack chips are big promotional items for supermarkets, especially around big events like the Superbowl, national holidays and graduation time. Like with soda, major manufacturers help retailers deeply discount products on a rotating basis. The week we shopped, Frito Lay products were in the spotlight. Doritos were 22 cents per ounce at the Atlanta-area Sam's Club and 15 cents per ounce at Kroger.

Sports Drinks

Beverages are often less at the local grocery store, but you'll have to watch the sales closely. We found 32 ounce bottles of Gatorade for 79 cents each at the Chicago-area Jewel-Osco and 94 cents each at Sam's Club.

Paper Products & Cleaning Supplies

Paper products and cleaning supplies are almost always cheaper at the warehouse club with one exception: toilet paper. Remember this general rule: items used daily are the most likely to be sold at a deep discount everywhere, including supermarkets and discount stores. The Sam's Club in Atlanta had Quilted Northern for 51 cents per roll. The identical product was available at Kroger for a penny less per roll for loyalty cardholders. Download a digital coupon and the price goes down to 33 cents per roll.


Produce isn't exactly at the top of the list when it comes to making bulk buys, but it's often one of the best values at the warehouse club. That said, supermarkets will always feature one in-season item at doorbuster prices, like Chicago's Jewel-Osco where red grapes were 99 cents per pound compared to $2 per pound at Costco. No need to eat them at once, either. Grapes freeze well, making great warm weather snacks.

In Pictures: What Not To Buy In Bulk

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