I used to shop at warehouse stores more often than I do these days. I’d let my membership lapse. But when I got into bulk cooking again, buying in bulk started to make more sense, so the family renewed the membership. I’d gotten used to one-stop shopping for a lot of stuff, and there are things that warehouse stores are great for. Meat is usually multiple dollars a pound cheaper. That alone makes it worth it to me to have the membership, even if I don’t buy anything else there.

Of course, I do buy other things there, but it does drive me a little crazy that there are definitely things warehouse stores aren’t good for at all. If you cook from scratch, eat anything even vaguely “ethnic”, or don’t eat a lot of junk food, you’re not going to be able to do most of your shopping there!

This is a list of things I regularly use that I can’t/shouldn’t get at my local warehouse store:

Produce – Now, I do eat a lot of produce. But my household only has three people. Three pounds of grapes is going to go bad before we finish them. Ditto lettuce or any of the more fragile veggies. If we had more people in the house or more than one fruit addict, it would be different.

Spices – You’d think things like spices would be an ideal thing for a warehouse store, but unless you can find it in an Italian mix, don’t count on being able to find it there in my local store! I mean, nutmeg? They didn’t have nutmeg??? Honestly! I get that they might not have a good garam masala, but not nutmeg? Psychos…

Pasta – Another thing you’d think would be awesome for a warehouse store. It’s $0.17/lb more expensive in the warehouse store than it is in my local grocery store.

International-type food – Coconut milk? Green chilies? Refried beans? Forget it.

Dry beans – This is where I roll my eyes and say, “Come on, people!” You’d be hard put to find something more shelf stable that sells well in bulk. (Yes, yes, I know, convenience food makes more profit for them, and there are plenty of people who find cooking with dried beans too damn much trouble)

Old-fashioned Oatmeal – I think the instant stuff is nasty and mushy, but that’s all they sell there, and even the oatmeal is hard to find.

Seltzer water – Yes, yes, buying fizzy, flavored water isn’t exactly frugal. But a majority of the household likes it better than soda. It was available in the warehouse store, but more expensive than we could get in the grocery store.

Short grain rice – I like rice you can use to make onigiri. Since even most grocery stores in my area only carry it as expensive “sushi rice”, I don’t sweat this much. There’s a co-op that sells it in bulk and sells it as inexpensively as bulk rice is often sold in other stores. (Other forms of rice are quite a good deal, and their variety actually wasn’t bad otherwise).

Plain yogurt – Everything they had was flavored and sported pink ribbons. ‘Nuff said.

Oddly enough, they do carry flour and even the brand of flour I insist on using. They also carried the yeast I prefer. Canned goods were indeed cheaper, and though we don’t use a lot of them, I do at least buy crushed tomatoes. Paper goods, plastic bags and many other things were also cheaper to get there, so we did.

The point is that while you could argue that warehouse stores are awesome and cheaper than regular grocery store, it’s easy to get caught up in the greed and buying in bulk. So, how do you work a warehouse store to truly save money?

  • Keep a price book

    You can do this in several ways. I use a shopping database on my phone (does anyone but me mourn the loss of the PDA Handishopper? That was awesome) and keep the price I can generally expect to pay for items in the database. This means it’s easy for me to tell whether or not a particular item is a good buy or not. Some people just remember that sort of thing, but I don’t, hence the database.

    If you don’t use a handheld device, you could make a price book in a spreadsheet (I’m presuming you have a computer if you’re reading this, and there are free spreadsheet solutions out there. Google Docs and Open Office both have spreadsheets that can more than handle this) for items you usually buy and print out the prices along with the items you want to get on that particular shopping trip.

  • Shop to a list

    Impulse buys are Satan’s own toenails when it comes to warehouse stores, as you’ll have all sorts of gadgety goodness and gastronomic greed pushed at you when you are in the store. Resist! Think about what you want and need in advance and stick to it!

  • It’s not cheaper if you’re not going to use it up/will have to overuse something before it goes bad.

    You know how I don’t buy produce at a warehouse store? Throwing away lettuce mush isn’t saving any money, but neither is eating a whole box of Clementines in a couple of days, or using way too much dish detergent because you have that huge bottle of it. If buying in quantity has you being careless about what you use because you have lot of it, you’re probably spending more money, not less.

The real takeaway? Warehouse stores are an awesome savings tool if you show self-discipline. Otherwise? Forget it. They’re not worth it.

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