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7 Major Differences Between Costco and Sam's Club Right Now

The two major warehouse rivals offer unique perks and drawbacks. Which one is right for you?
FACT CHECKED BY Justine Goodman

In many ways, Costco and Walmart-owned Sam's Club are more alike than they are different. The rival retailers are both warehouse clubs with hundreds of locations in the United States and globally. They both sell bulk goods—often at tantalizing bargain prices—and dish out free samples to hungry customers. They both even boast their own popular private label store brands: Costco's Kirkland Signature and Sam's Club's Member's Mark. And that's just a sampling of the commonalities between the two.

But for all of the things that the grocers have in common, there are also several key differences in the ways they operate and the experience they provide to shoppers. That's not to say one is necessarily better than the other. However, consumers interested in purchasing a membership at one of these clubs can determine which one is the best fit for their shopping needs by weighing the unique perks and drawbacks of each grocer.

Read on to learn about the seven major differences between Costco and Sam's Club right now.

Receipt checking process

Sam's Club Seamless Exit technology
Sam's Club

Regardless of whether you shop at Costco or Sam's Club, you'll be required to present your receipt for a worker to check as you exit. While both retailers use these receipt checks to prevent theft and ensure that shoppers aren't overcharged or undercharged for their groceries, shoppers often complain that long lines can build up at the exits when the checkers can't keep pace with all the customers attempting to leave.

Though Costco has yet to introduce any fixes for the issue, Sam's Club recently debuted an exciting change aimed at getting shoppers out the door faster. The warehouse club has been testing new technology in its exit areas that ​​takes images to automatically check shopping carts and help shoppers avoid those long lines.

Sam's Club began piloting the feature at 10 stores earlier this year, but the company plans to expand it to nearly 600 clubs by the end of 2024.

"Before this technology, members were slowed by queuing at the club's exit area to have Sam's Club exit greeters review receipts," Sam's Club said in a Jan. 9 announcement about the feature. "Members continue to say they want a faster and more convenient shopping experience and consistently rated the wait times at the exit – especially during busy periods – as a pain point in the shopping experience."

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Membership costs

Costco membership desk
Kenishirotie / Shutterstock

Both Costco and Sam's Club charge their members annual dues, but how much you'll pay depends on which warehouse club you frequent. Sam's Club currently charges $50 for its basic Club membership and $110 for its higher tier Plus membership, which comes with extra perks like extended shopping hours and free curbside pickup.

Meanwhile, it's slightly more expensive to score a Costco membership. Costco's basic Gold Star Membership currently costs shoppers $60 annually, while its higher tier Executive Membership with extra perks costs $120 annually.

Costco's membership fees will eventually become more expensive since company executives have been teasing a hike for more than a year. They have yet to say exactly when that fee increase may be implemented, but once it takes effect, the margin between Costco's and Sam's Club's membership dues may be even wider.

Food court offerings

Costco food court menu
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One of the biggest perks of shopping at either Costco or Sam's Club is access to the retailers' affordable (and beloved!) food courts. There are a couple of options that shoppers can find at both retailers, such as hot dogs, pizzas, soft drinks, and sundaes. However, there are also several food court offerings that are unique to each warehouse club.

Sam's Club, for example, serves soft pretzels and ICEE drinks, two items you won't find at Costco. Meanwhile, Costco's food courts offer chicken Caesar salads, massive chocolate chip cookies, Chicken Bakes, and as of last month, a new turkey Swiss sandwich. These are all options that you won't see at Sam's Club.

So even though the core offerings at both in-warehouse eateries are the same, they make a point of selling several options that are unique to their respective brands.

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Costco exterior
Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock

While Costco and Sam's Club aren't wildly different in size, there are some key differences between the footprints of each warehouse club chain.

As of mid-March 2024, Costco operated 876 locations across the world and 604 in the United States and Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Sam's Club currently boasts nearly 600 locations across the United States and Puerto Rico with an unspecified number of additional warehouses in China, Mexico, and Brazil.

Though Costco's and Sam's Club's total warehouse counts in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are pretty similar, Costco's reach across the world is far wider.

While China, Mexico, and Brazil are the only countries outside of America where Sam's Club operates, Costco has warehouses in Canada, Mexico, Japan, the United Kingdom, Korea, Australia, Taiwan, China, Spain, France, Iceland, New Zealand, and Sweden.

Both Costco and Sam's Club allow active members to visit stores in any country, but Costco customers can shop at a wider array of international locations.

Technological advancements

sam's club mobile app on iphone
Vladimka production / Shutterstock

Perhaps the biggest difference of all between Costco and Sam's Club is their technological capabilities—and Costco seems to be trailing its rival in several key ways.

For one, Sam's Club offers a Scan & Go service that allows shoppers to scan and pay for products through the app so they can skip the checkout lines entirely. Though Costco shoppers have expressed a desire for a similar feature, the retailer has yet to add one.

Another frequent complaint is that Costco doesn't give its members the ability to check the inventory of certain items at specific warehouses. This means that shoppers don't have a clear, convenient way of seeing whether items on their shopping lists are in stock in their areas, unless they can get a worker to check availability over the phone.

Costco has been promising an inventory lookup feature since last year and executives said during a recent earnings call that it will finally start rolling out in a few months, but an exact launch date has yet to be announced.

Sam's Club, however, does give members the capability to check availability at specific locations through its website. Customers need only search for their local warehouse using the online club finder and then enter the item number, model number, or product description in the search field to see if it's in stock.

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Payment methods

costco checkout lanes
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Costco and Sam's Club differ significantly in terms of how shoppers can pay for their groceries, with the latter accepting a wider variety of payment methods.

Sam's Club shoppers can use any of the major credit cards, including Discover, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Members can also pay with debit cards, Sam's Club credit cards, Sam's Cash (rewards earned through qualifying purchases), and gift cards from either Sam's Club or Walmart.

On the other hand, Visa is the only major credit card that Costco currently accepts, something that has irked many a member. The retailer also accepts most debit cards, Costco Shop Cards, cash, mobile payments, personal checks, traveler's checks, and EBT cards.

Curbside pickup availability

Costco cart in parking lot
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Curbside pickup at retail stores was an offering that skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as shoppers sought contactless options to make their grocery trips safer. But aside from temporarily testing curbside pickup at a few New Mexico stores in early 2021, Costco has never offered the service to its shoppers on a wide scale.

On the other hand, Sam's Club does offer curbside pickup to both of its membership tiers. Club members will have to pay a $4 fee every time they use the service, but Plus members can enjoy curbside pickups for free.

This story has been updated to include additional information, copyedits, and fact-checking.

Zoe Strozewski
Zoe Strozewski is a News Writer for Eat This, Not That! A Chicago native who now lives in New Jersey, she graduated from Kean University in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Read more about Zoe