Costco is one of the most popular stores in the America — and for good reason. The warehouse club offers good prices, prides itself on good customer service, pays its workers fairly, and even hands out generous free samples, so you can snack while you shop. Is it any wonder it’s the second-largest retail chain in the world after Walmart?
People who haven’t caught the Costco bug, though, might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, it’s pretty natural to be skeptical of a store that charges you $60 a year just for the privilege of shopping there.
What exactly do those 60 smackaroos get you? A lot more than the chance to buy enough ketchup to last you a lifetime. Costco offers way more than just discounts on bulk grocery items. But if you’re not familiar with all the ins and outs of shopping at the store, you could be missing out.
Whether you’re a loyal member or new to the popular warehouse club, here are 15 secrets all Costco shoppers need to know to get the best deal.
1. You can (sometimes) shop without a membership
Costco’s a pretty exclusive club. To even get in the door, you’ll need to spring for a $60 annual membership. But if you’re not ready (or willing) to buy a membership, you can still take advantage of the store’s great deals. The easiest way is to shop with a member, though they’ll have to pay for the purchases, not you. Or give your friend some money to buy you a Costco Cash Card. Once you have that bit of plastic, you can shop sans membership.
No friend or family member with a Costco membership? The store isn’t completely off limits. In some states, such as California, the store has to let you buy alcohol even if you don’t have a membership. The same is true for getting immunizations and filling prescriptions at the pharmacy. You can also shop at Costco.com, though you’ll pay a 5% non-member surcharge on your purchases.
Next: It’s more than just groceries.
2. You can get a lot more than groceries
Yes, Costco is the place to go if you need a 50-pound bag of rice or massive jar of mayo. But if you’re not already a devotee of the warehouse club, you might not know it sells more — a lot more. It has gas, clothing, TVs, furniture, vacations packages, and even caskets. If you want it, there’s a good chance Costco has it.
Matt of Costco Insider makes a point to do most of his shopping at the store. What’s one of the most surprising things he’s bought? “Definitely an engagement ring. A lot of people never think of Costco as selling them, but they do, and they’re a great value, too. Also a mattress, a large wine fridge, [and] a trip to Hawaii.”
Next: Speaking of those vacations
3. You can book a budget-friendly trip
Costco members can book vacation packages, cruises, rental cars, and more through Costco Travel. And the packages often include extras — such as resort credit, airport transfers, or Costco cash cards — to sweeten the deal. When The Points Guy dug into the store’s travel offerings, he found particularly good deals on theme park packages and cruises. (The savings on rental cars weren’t as great.)
Even if you’ve already booked your flight and hotel, you might still be able to score some pretty sweet discounts on activities and entertainment. “Their pricing on tickets — lift tickets, movie tickets, theme park tickets, etc. — is lower than everywhere else,” the Costco Insider said.
And if you’re hitting the road for your vacation? Fill up at Costco before you go. “Their gas stations almost always have the cheapest gas in town,” according to the Costco Insider.
Next: Save on gift cards.
4. Stock up on gift cards to save big
In addition to discounted movie passes and theme park tickets, Costco also sells bargain-priced gift cards. As of August 2017, you can get two $50 P.F. Chang’s gift cards for $79.99 (a $20 savings) or four $25 Cold Stone Creamery gift cards for $69.99 — $30 off. You can buy some cards online, but be sure to check the gift card display at your local Costco store next time you visit. You might find discounted cards for local attractions or restaurants.
Next: Delivery is coming.
5. Home delivery is coming
Sure, you can shop for some items at Costco.com, but if you want one of the store’s famous (and famously cheap) roast chickens, you’re going to have to go pick it up yourself — unless you happen to live in one of the cities where Costco is rolling out its home delivery service.
Shoppers in cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, can order from Costco via Instacart. And in select Florida cities, including Tampa and Orlando, you can use the Shipt app to get your Costco goodies. Shipt plans to expand its services to 50 more cities, which means Costco shopping without all the hassle of navigating a crowded parking lot could soon be a reality for you.
Next: And that brings us to drug prices.
6. Costco has some of the cheapest prescription prices around
If you’re paying out of pocket for your prescription medications, prices can vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy. Discounts might be available off the list price, Consumer Reports noted, but many shoppers don’t know to ask for them. But Costco had some of the lowest upfront prescription prices for common generics of any pharmacy the magazine studied — in some cases, more than $100 less than big chains, such as Rite-Aid and CVS.
In some states, anyone can fill prescriptions at a Costco pharmacy. But if you’re a member, you might save even more by signing up for the Costco Member Prescription Program. Members might be able to save as much as 70% off the price of their medications.
Next: Hit the food court.
7. The food court is insanely cheap
Want a lunch for less than 2 bucks? Head to the Costco food court, where a jumbo hot dog or Polish sausage and soda are just $1.50. The price hasn’t budged for 30 years (take that, inflation). Even better, if the food court is located outside the store, you don’t need a membership number to get the deal.
Hot dogs aren’t the only cheap eats at Costco. A slice of pizza is $1.99, or you can get a whole pie for $9.99. Chicken bakes are $2.99 and churros are $1 each. If you happen to be in Canada, you can even get an order of poutine for under $5.
Next: Shop clearance items.
8. Clearance items have a special code
You won’t see big signs advertising clearance items at Costco, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. You just need to take a close look at the price label.
“Clearance items end in .97, and discontinued items have an asterisk in the upper-right corner,” Mike Catania of PromotionCode explained. (You can see what the price label will look like here.) “Since the .97 clearance items vary from location to location, there’s a cult following for them and even a dedicated site. You can sign up through that site to receive email notifications when a clearance item is listed at your local store.”
Next: You don’t need a giant pantry to save.
9. Even apartment dwellers can save big
You don’t need a big SUV and a garage the size of Rhode Island to haul your Costco purchases home and store them. Nor do you need a huge family to eat up all the goodies you buy. Even solo apartment dwellers and smaller families can enjoy the benefits of a Costco membership. “You do have to be much more disciplined though,” Matt from Costco Insider admitted.
“You can save a good amount of money on frozen food, alcohol, clothes, and dry foods that have long shelf lives,” he explained. “You want to stay away from large quantities of fresh foods that will expire before you can get through it all. That is where you start getting negative value on your membership.”
Next: Know the return policy.
10. The return policy is generous
Forget onerous return rules. Costco has one of the most flexible and generous return and refund policies in the retail industry. A no-questions-asked return policy applies to most purchases, with the exception of electronics, diamonds, and a few other items. You can even get a refund on your membership if you’re not totally satisfied.
“You can buy something new with confidence knowing you can happily return it if you don’t like it,” Matt from Costco Insider explained.
Next: Not everything is a deal.
11. Some things aren’t a great deal
Just because it’s on sale at Costco doesn’t mean it’s automatically a great deal. While you’ll save on many items, there are a few things to avoid throwing in your cart. Obviously, that includes anything you can’t use up before it goes bad. But a few other items also make the list.
“Books and DVDs are not a great deal at Costco,” Matt from Costco Insider said. “Amazon usually beats Costco pricing and also allows for digital downloads. Condiments are also not a great value. Remember, you can’t use manufacturer coupons at Costco, whereas you can use them at the supermarket.”
Next: Set up a wedding registry.
12. You can register for wedding gifts at Costco
Brides and grooms on a budget already know you can buy your wedding bands and ceremony flowers at Costco. You can even order a cake to serve to your guests or book your honeymoon through the store. Now, you can also create a Costco gift registry, even if you’re not a Costco member.
Through a partnership with MyRegistry, engaged couples can add Costco items, including bedding, bath towels, cookware, and appliances, to their wish lists. You can even register for fine art or furniture — or car seats and diapers if you’re expecting a baby. Plus, your guests don’t need to be Costco members to shop at Costco.com. The only catch? Not everything sold at the warehouse store is available online.
Next: You’re a member everywhere.
13. Members can shop at any Costco in the world
Your Costco membership travels with you wherever you go, even if you leave the country. The warehouse store has hundreds of locations outside of the U.S., including in Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia. There’s even a Costco in Iceland.
The merchandise at international stores is tailored to the local market, so visiting one can be an affordable way to stock up on local delicacies. The South Korean stores sell a lot of sea cucumber and bulgogi, while you can find a case of Pocky and jumbo-size containers of Kewpie mayonnaise at Costco in Japan. Plus, picking up essentials at Costco can be a great way to save money if you’re moving or traveling abroad for an extended period of time.
Next: Car shopping? Head to Costco.
14. Costco can help you buy a car
You’ve probably heard about Costco’s cheap gas, but did you know Costco can also help you buy a car? Through its partnerships with dealerships across the country, the membership club is one of the biggest sellers of cars in the U.S., according to Fortune. In 2016, nearly 500,000 were sold through the Costco Auto Program.
Members get lower prices on vehicles they buy through the program, as well as extra discounts on parts and service. You don’t buy the car directly from Costco, but you will be shopping at a pre-screened, authorized dealer that’s agreed to offer special deals to members. Plus, you can turn to Costco customer service for help if you feel the dealership is treating you unfairly.
Next: Not everyone loves Costco.
15. Not everyone loves the mega-retailer
Bargain hunters and bulk buyers might love Costco, but not everyone is enamored of the warehouse club, especially companies that say the retailer has been selling fake or “grey market” goods. Tiffany & Co. recently won a $19 million suit against Costco, which was selling rings labeled “Tiffany” that weren’t made by the famed jeweler. In 2014, Costco settled a lawsuit with Michael Kors that alleged the retailer was falsely advertising the brand’s handbags for sale even though it was not one of the fashion company’s authorized retailers.
Some have also claimed the store stocks name-brand goods it didn’t buy directly from the manufacturer. Selling those “grey market” goods isn’t illegal, but it does tend to rub manufacturers the wrong way, especially if their products end up in a store they’d normally not do business with, Refinery29 explained.