My afternoon at BJ’s

Consumer Reports News: April 24, 2009 05:46 PM

Because it’s not a national chain, BJ’s Wholesale  sometimes gets short shrift in our coverage of warehouse clubs. Compared to the 800-pound gorillas of the industry, Costco and Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale is a regional operator, though definitely a player, with 180 stores in 15 states in the Eastern U.S. By contrast, Sam’s and Costco have about 600 and 550 stores, respectively.

So when I heard about BJ’s free two-month trial membership offer last week, I took the opportunity to visit and assess some differences and similarities between the New England-based club and its key competitors.

Just to be clear, these are personal observations gleaned from a single trip to one particular BJ’s club store, which I compared to my equally local experiences at a nearby Costco and Sam’s. It’s not any sort of official Consumer Reports pronouncement. If you want to read how BJ’s really stacks up as a supermarket, for instance, check out our brand new Ratingsbased on our survey of more than 32,000 subscribers (you'll need to subscribe to see the Ratings. For our free money-saving shopping tips, click here.) In a nutshell, BJ’s and Sam’s earned practically identical scores, and both ranked significantly below Costco, which has superior perishables (meat, produce, and baked goods) and prices.

I started following the clubs back in 1994, shortly after Costco merged with Price Club, which pioneered the unique shopping concept in 1976. The business model is pretty much the same today as it was back then: Convince shoppers to pay to shop in a barebones warehouse in exchange for low prices on a limited selection of mostly national brand products in bulk sizes in a wide range of categories. The idea not only caught on, but proved a stunning success, especially in hard times. BJ’s prices are said to be 30 percent less, on average, than those in a traditional supermarket. There’s no question clubs offer better day-in and day-out prices, because you never have to wait for a sale. The problem is that there are so many bargains it takes enormous discipline to keep from buying too much stuff.

Like all clubs, BJ’s mixes both the practical and frivolous, inexpensive luxuries and everyday necessities. But overall, BJ’s seemed more intimate. There didn’t appear to be as much of any one particular product (Barilla pasta, say), nor was the merchandise piled as high on pallets. 

There were unique features, too, like a vast section dedicated to greeting cards, something I hadn’t discovered at a club store before, and rarely-seen accessories like belts and an expansive array of infant and childrens’ apparel. 

Being somewhat vertically challenged, that is, short in stature, I was pleased by the low shelving in the health and beauty aids section, which made items easier to reach. BJ’s also has helpful signs at the end of every aisle identifying the products along that particular row. Sam’s Club uses similar signage, Costco  doesn’t.

What really distinguished BJ’s, in my mind, was the availability of more niche groceries (for example, high-end King Arthur flour and Hellman’s Light mayonnaise) and consumer-friendly package sizes. There were single heads of lettuce, and 3-pound bags of onions and 5-pound sacks of baking potatoes, not just the typical 10- and 20-pound bags. Defying the norm, there was outstanding variety within some brand lines and categories. Take Dunkin Donuts coffee. Elsewhere, I’ve never found more than one option: dark roast. During my trip to BJ’s, there were five varieties: dark and medium roasts, decafe, hazelnut, and vanilla. I was also stunned by the variety of ice cream; there were nearly 10 brands, including Haagen Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, Edy’s, Klondike, Breyer’s, Nestle, and Healthy Choice. That’s outstanding for a club store. And the sizes were similar to those you’d find at a supermarket.

Don’t get the wrong idea. BJ’s, like Costco and Sam’s, is a far cry from my neighborhood A&P. You’ll still find those 8-pound containers of Ore-Ida French Fries and tubs of cream cheese. But I did notice more practical options.

In terms of fees, Sam’s Club has the cheapest entry level membership, at $40 a year, vs. $45 for BJ’s and $50 for Costco. But when it comes to payments, BJ’s accepts the widest range, including all major credit cards. Recently, the chain started accepting food stamps as well.

BJ’s is also the only club to accept all manufacturers’ coupons, even the ones in the Sunday newspaper inserts.

In addition, I appreciate the fact that BJ’s has an express checkout lane for purchases of eight items or less. Long lines are one of shoppers’ biggest gripes about club stores, and I’ve never seen an express lane at Costco, and only occasionally at Sam’s.

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