Buying in bulk isn’t always best

Shoppers walk out with full carts from a Costco store in Washington, DC, on May 5, 2020. - Big-box retailer Costco is limiting consumer purchases of meat in the wake of shutdowns of US processing plants due to the coronavirus.Costco, which has about 440 stores in the United States, is limiting purchases to three items among beef, pork and poultry products, the company said on its website. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)(AFP via Getty Images/NICHOLAS KAMM)

Shoppers at big box club membership retailers like Costco or Sam’s Club can save significant money by buying in bulk, but bulk buying has its downsides and the savings are sometimes insignificant, if there are savings at all.

LendingTree compared prices for 20 common items bought in bulk at those big box discounters, and found, on average, the savings are 25%.

Batteries are among the best bulk-buying bargains. An eight-count pack of Duracell AA batteries cost 93 cents per battery, while a 40-count pack cost 45 cents per battery, a 52% discount. Bottled water purchased in bulk is on average 50% less expensive.

Toilet paper is a common item consumers stock up with in bulk quantities, but there is no difference in price for toilet paper.

“It turns out you don’t save any money at all, and depending on the size of your home, bulk toilet paper may take up a lot of room. So that’s not a good one, and then we also found that instant coffee saves you only about 5%, so not a ton there either,” said Derek Miller, senior research analyst at LendingTree.

Cereal is also typically not that much less expensive in bulk, with an average savings of 11%. Ziploc freezer bags were a big bulk saver on LendingTree’s shopping list, at 45% less expensive.

Buying in bulk for perishable goods may not be a good idea, regardless of the savings.

“Depending on how large your family is, you can imagine yourself maybe going to Costco and seeing a 64-ounce tub of mayonnaise, and then you get home and you find three years later you’ve only gone through 12 ounces of mayonnaise. So if you don’t actually consume all of the mayonnaise, you’ve not actually saved anything,” Miller said.

Bulk buying doesn’t work for consumers with limited space to store it. And LendingTree also said consumers need to factor in the annual membership fees which, depending on how much they bulk buy, may eat into the savings.

LendingTree compared prices for various items in Costco and Sam’s Club to identical items at Walmart or Amazon. LendingTree’s bulk buying study with price differences for several common products is online.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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