I visited BJ's and Costco in Georgia to compare the wholesale stores' offerings, setups, and more.
BJ's felt less chaotic and more cost-effective for smaller families.
Though Costco is great for large families and businesses, BJ's may have become my go-to warehouse.
The business models and membership plans are similar.
But before shelling out the $60 annual membership fee, it's worthwhile to remember other competitors, such as BJ's Wholesale Club. Though the franchise isn't as widespread as Costco, the store has 229 locations across 16 states.
Same as with Costco, customers pay an annual fee to shop at BJ's. It's $5 less to become part of the Inner Circle and customers can add on one household member and receive store-brand coupons.
BJ's customers can also use manufacturer coupons, which Costco doesn't allow.
Customers can also choose upgraded memberships to earn rewards, such as BJ's $110 Perks Rewards plan. This membership gives you 2% cashback in $10 increments, which you can apply directly toward your checkout purchases.
At Costco, customers can choose a $120 Executive Membership, which grants you 2% rewards on qualified purchases but is only awarded three months prior to renewal.
Both warehouse stores I visited have their own gas stations.
A lot of shoppers go to Costco for cheaper gas options, but that also means you're typically fighting really long lines at busy locations and on weekends.
Many BJ's stores also have their own fuel stations and sell gas for several cents less per gallon than regular locations.
Higher tier members automatically receive five cents off listed prices and are further incentivized with a gas savings program that takes money off your bill with eligible purchases.
Costco only offers savings through an additional credit card.
Each warehouse also has its own tire center.
Both locations I visited also have tire centers, which have easy drive-up access from the outside of the building.
I loved that this center is accessible from the inside of BJ's warehouse, near where the auto supplies are stored.
To check out Costco's tires, you have to go outside to the separate entrance.
Alcohol selection and placement vary by location.
The BJ's I visited in Woodstock, Georgia, sells alcohol in a self-contained beverage outlet at the entrance vestibule.
In New York, where I'm originally from, hard-liquor sales are highly regulated, which means Costco's alcohol was in the entry vestibule.
However, the Kennesaw, Georgia, store I visited doesn't sell its liquor in a "package store" but instead has a large variety of high-end wines and cocktail mixes.
In my opinion, BJ's liquor area doesn't feel as posh as Costco's.
Just walking into the stores is a completely different vibe.
Upon walking into Costco, I'm used to being immediately barraged by the membership-card checkers, the display of seasonal products that line the walls, and the electronics section stocked with large state-of-the-art TVs.
Besides the TVs, Costco's enormous electronics section expands further into smartphones, computers, laptops, tablets, and more.
However, all of these elements can cause bottlenecking at the front of the store, which is stressful for those who don't like crowds.
BJ's entrance also faces an electronics section, but it's an overall gentler approach.
The TVs on display are smaller and the staff is far more relaxed at checking membership cards. When I walked in, I was reminded more of a Walmart rather than a warehouse, especially since the display of promoted items toward the entrance is smaller.
You have to work your way into the store to see the bigger TVs, which I didn't mind.
Bedding, furniture, and appliances are merchandised differently.
Mattress samples can be found in a bedding display behind the TV area and in the middle of the store, in the furniture section, at Costco.
The mattresses at BJ's are stacked vertically against the back-right wall, and furniture items continue down that line until you get to the tire center.
The Kennesaw Costco also displays its major home appliances along the mattress sample wall.
The Woodstock BJ's, on the other hand, doesn't have washers, dryers, or full kitchen sets on display. Those seem reserved for online ordering and delivery.
Publicly available health specialties are more accessible at BJ's.
Select health services, namely, optical exams, are open to even non-members at either club.
In fact, at BJ's, you can even buy glasses without a membership. At Costco, you have to be an official card-wielder for the privilege.
But Costco has the advantage in its hearing screening program, which is available to the paying public and has a full pharmacy that will fill prescriptions for anyone whose doctor sends them.
Both stores' signage is ugly but functional.
I think the signage at BJ's is a little sad and retro, from the 70s-style script lettering to the heavy block print on the big department overheads.
That's not to say Costco's signs aren't horribly chintzy-looking — they look like straight-up stickers.
Both franchises' signs blend into the rest of the store, so they can be difficult to spot even if you're looking for department labels.
Costco's thrifty-looking lettering is saved from making the place look dated by virtue of having great lighting, as opposed to BJ's unappealing fluorescents.
But points to BJ's for having extremely clear signage.
BJ's price tags have arrows pointing directly at where its merchandise is stored, which is very helpful, and I really like that the savings are highlighted in yellow.
Because it directs the eye, it's a lot easier to avoid getting distracted by the pallets up above.
This clear labeling includes the aisles.
Unlike Costco, which uses numbers to signal shifts in layout, BJ's uses traditional supermarket signs to denote what you can find in each aisle.
This, as opposed to Costco's more labyrinthine setup, is really helpful for those looking to get in and out of the store.
This is also very helpful to shoppers like me, who are used to Costco's general formula across stores.
At Costco, snacks, nonperishables, cleaning supplies, and healthcare items are on the left side of the store. BJ's reverses that, with all house things, including cleaning items, to the right.
Both franchises' bakeries are located in the back right of the store.
BJ's is noticeably smaller, as is its baked-goods selection.
You may pay more per unit for half a dozen, but you're saving money off your total purchase by not having to commit to a giant pack of anything. However, the croissants are worth the dollar more to double your package.
BJ's cakes and pies — which aren't gargantuan like their competitor's — are packaged as if they came from a supermarket distributor rather than from an in-house operation.
BJ's baking supplies aren't strewn about like at Costco, which also contributes to the supermarket-bakery feel.
For some reason, the transparency of BJ's mass-produced, not-from-scratch buckets of ingredients feels more genuine, as does the simple packaging of its specialty cakes and desserts.
Both of the stores keep packaged bread separate from the in-house bakery.
Costco's bread section is located in a corner visible from the bakery, tucked away by the produce section, and takes up a considerable amount of space.
The variety is astounding and wonderful, with brands and types to accommodate all preferences — keto, gluten-free, organic, budget-friendly. The bread is also placed alongside packaged name-brand and European pastry snacks.
BJ's comes out as the loser in this area because its section is a fraction of the size and basic.
Although BJ's racks are stocked with imported packaged snacks, it's hidden in the middle and isn't even visible from the bakery section.
Costco's produce is set up like a big farmers' market.
Costco's produce section has bins and boxes of bulk buys of fruits brightly asking for your attention before you hit the bakery.
The greens are placed in their own refrigerated room.
BJ's produce section feels like a mix of typical supermarkets and Aldi.
BJ's also has bins in its produce section, but they're set up on tables like at Aldi.
Its greens are stored in open cases along the back wall, like at most grocery stores.
This setup makes it a much easier and less-overwhelming transition to warehouse bulk portions, as many of its packaged items and veggies are regular-household sized.
Though it does have Costco-warehouse sizes of some produce, like iceberg salad mix, for incredibly cheap — under $4 — storing your BJ's produce in your standard fridge feels much more manageable.
BJ's also backs its self-branded, white-label Wellsley Farms greens up with an impressive money-back guarantee, just like at Lidl and Aldi.
Costco, on the other hand, proudly displays name brands.
BJ's meat department is also more like a standard grocery store.
I loved that BJ's meat section offered smaller packages, akin to family-size, in addition to larger cuts like whole sides and haunches.
BJ's pricing is impressively lower than most supermarket standards, and in many cases, is cheaper than Costco's sales.
All the meat is laid out in traditional open-shelf cases, which are easy to navigate.
Costco's butcher is renowned but can be overwhelming.
Costco has a tremendous selection of premium cuts, but that means the prices correspond.
The cuts of meat are huge, so you really have to commit, and honestly, my freezer is often not ready for that.
These cuts of meat are located in inlaid bins.
Costco has a manageable seafood section, but BJ's has a deli.
BJ's doesn't have a fresh seafood section but makes up for it with a real, slice-to-order deli featuring its own brand of cold cuts and Dietz & Watson.
On the other hand, Costco only offers pre-cut bulk packs priced by the pound in the deli cases that sit in front of its famous rotisserie chickens.
BJ's also makes a strong showing in its roasted-poultry selection, with 3-pound Perdues hot and ready at the same price as the Kirkland chicken.
BJ's doesn't have as many at the warming station, though this might be because it doesn't expect to sell as many chickens as Costco.
The heat-and-eat meal selection is where Costco really shines.
The deli department is busy at Costco, taking all the time it saves by not cutting meat and cheese and pouring it into almost-homemade meal-prep kits.
The variety is astounding, and the size of the ready-to-go trays is fit for a family's or dinner party's feast. The trays are sold by the pound, so you can avoid buying too much.
At BJ's, the prepared meals are more like what you find on the name-brand side of Costco's impressive refrigerated-foods wall.
They're displayed supermarket deli-style in short bays that punctuate the space.
At Costco, dairy gets its own room.
Milk and eggs are given the same treatment as greens and are located in a big refrigerated section at Costco.
BJ's puts all of its dairy products in refrigerated aisles, similar to the setup of Costco's juice, shredded-cheese, and yogurt sections.
Frozen foods are displayed the same way at BJ's and Costco.
BJ's lines half the wall of its store with freezer cases of desserts and fruits.
Costco's frozen-foods section wall is lined with beverages as well as pet items, which get their own aisle at BJ's.
However, you don't notice the absence of a pet-items section since Costco has more aisles of frozen foods, which better accommodate the variety of authentic Asian products and brands — a nod to its primary demographic.
I wouldn't say BJ's selection is limited, just more traditionally "American" and less global. For the basics, it definitely has most folks covered.
The snack selection is enormous at Costco.
The huge snack selection, as well as the large size of the packages, make this an exceptionally tempting set of aisles.
BJ's offers a similar setup, but also sells more conventional-size packages and has mix-and-match deals on snacks located on the endcaps.
BJ's nut selection, hidden amidst the snacks, is disappointing.
However, BJ's selection of nuts falls short and seems less impressive than the Kirkland-brand tubs placed by the line-up for the registers.
In Costco's nut section, you'll find packaged lunchbox treats, trail mixes, healthy snacks, and protein bars.
At BJ's, these bars are found by the protein powders in the healthcare section.
Costco has over-the-top quantities of coffee, but I appreciated that BJ's offers free grounds.
Costco's packages of coffee, just like the industrial-sized bags of baking ingredients, cooking oils, and veritable tubs of spices, seem big enough to fuel diners.
Buying coffee from BJ's is more accessible for the average person, with large but not industrial-sized bags and the availability of grinders.
At both stores, the supplements and healthcare aisles are toward the left front, near the checkout.
Both stores have a wide selection of name-brand vitamins and over-the-counter items.
Baby items get their own big aisle in BJ's, with gear and formula also located nearby.
At Costco, the baby section is mostly diapers and is located on the perimeter of the pharmacy area.
When I rounded the perimeter, I moved into the middle — the clothes.
There's a significant difference in how the clothes are merchandised at BJ's and Costco.
Costco folds its clothing items on shelves made of pallets, which look and feel low-end ... because they are.
On the other hand, BJ's clothing is displayed on metal shelves. The section feels much more like a proper clothing store, thanks to hanging garment racks surrounding the area.
BJ's clothing section is much bigger than it looks, and has mirrors set up at key points.
The books section at BJ's is significantly more welcoming and the card shop is clutch.
Maybe it's because it's surrounded by clothes and set up as a smaller display table, but BJ's book and card section is very welcoming.
Adding to the appeal, there's a Hallmark Greeting Cards mini-store right next to it, which is immensely handy and saves the trip to a card store.
I love that you can buy a thoughtful gift and a card at the same place, and both at a discount of the standard retail price.
Costco has an option for those who want to say it with flowers.
Costco's blooms are a lovely way to say "I'm thinking of you" to someone as you're running errands, and for a fraction of the price of a florist — even a supermarket one.
The flowers are always fresh and set right by the checkout, so the store makes it easy for you not to forget that special gift.
Store check-out is different at both warehouses too.
At Costco, check-out can be daunting, since it gets crowded on the weekends, with long lines and people barking orders.
It has an efficient process, as your cart goes on one side of the conveyor belt and the customer on the other, but it can look like a lot.
Self-checkout is also available.
BJ's checkout area is more relaxed.
BJ's check-out process is far calmer, friendlier, and less brisk and militant.
Check-out was a little jarring because there's no Plexiglass divider at the register and you're in close proximity to the cashier. I had gotten used to those two things at many stores amid the ongoing pandemic.
The BJ's location I visited also had a self-checkout area.
On my way out of Costco, I passed a bustling food court.
The entire experience of shopping at Costco is generally aggressive, from your first step inside to leaving the store.
Most BJ's locations have an in-store Dunkin' counter in lieu of a café.
To exit either store, you'll probably be waiting in line for your receipt to be checked and marked.
Costco is better for bulk buying, but BJ's is more realistic for the typical family.
There are a lot of similarities between the two stores — both warehouses have tire centers, bulk-buy items, gas stations, fresh-baked goods, and cheap rotisserie chicken.
Overall, Costco is not for the faint of heart and the sights, sounds, people, and the sheer commitment of buying industrial-sized quantities of everything can be overwhelming.
However, Costco does offer certain things BJ's doesn't: a wide variety of packaged and fresh food, a pharmacy, home-improvement supplies, strong name-brand representation, lots of Asian food items, fresh flowers, and the convenience of more locations.
On the flip side, BJ's offers a calmer environment, its own card shop, a cut-to-order deli, smaller sizes of packaged items, access to coffee grinders, a large baby section, and more curated choices.
The environment also has friendlier and more personable customer service and ample parking thanks to less crowding. At BJ's you'll probably spend less and have more storage space in your house than if you shop at Costco.
But "best" is also based on what you prefer and can tolerate.
Unless you're a restaurant owner — in which case, Costco's Restaurant Depot-levels of package sizes and commercial-grade items are definitely the way to go — you have to weigh your priorities for a typical family's needs.
Personally, as someone in a smaller household whose head cannot be trusted with 5 pounds of potato chips at a time, BJ's is worth the drive and may have become my new default.
Read the original article on Insider