There's something empowering about grabbing a cart roughly the size of a Hummer, flashing your membership card at the door and heading for wide aisles where surprise finds await.
I'm talking about membership warehouses such as Costco and Sam's Club, whose popularity continues to grow.
Becky and Alan Trenda of Royal Oak, Mich., are examples of why. They hold memberships to Costco and Sam's Club to buy food, laundry supplies, bottled water and many other household necessities for their four kids, one dog and two cats.
"I do buy in bulk," says Becky Trenda, adding it's easy to save enough to justify the annual memberships ($35 to $40 at Sam's Club and $45 at Costco) in just a couple of trips. "But you have to still be a good shopper to make it worth your while."
How do the two stores compare? What surprises is how similar they looked, down to the signage in the food courts.
Merchandise and pricing were also similar in a survey of four stores in the Detroit area, but the brands each store carried differed. Products also typically turn over and change quickly, except for staple items each store carries.
Costco (whose Maryland stores include Arundel Mills, White Marsh and Glen Burnie) seemed to stock more luxury cosmetics, including a couple of Stila and Smashbox items, and even Strivectin-SD (a popular wrinkle treatment) eye cream for $46.99, which typically sells for $59 in department stores. Costco was also selling women's Lucky brand jeans for $40 (typically $70 or higher in department stores) and Apple iPods for $10 less than you can buy them from Apple.
Sam's Club (Maryland locations include Baltimore, Catonsville, Cockeysville, Owings Mills and Annapolis) offered some impressive clothing labels, such as men's Ralph Lauren linen pants for $29.86 and women's DKNY jeans for $32.23. They were also selling women's leather jackets for less than $55.
Retail analysts say this is why such membership warehouses are doing well. It's not simply the appeal of buying household necessities in bulk, but the fact that these stores carry high-quality items at low prices. In other words, it's not just cheap stuff. Consumers can spend thousands on flat-screen TVs or designer jewelry and get a good value.
It's little things like finding three-packs of Estee Lauder lipsticks (usually $22 each in department stores) for $43.99 or Lladro porcelain figures (typically hundreds of dollars) for as little as $67.99 (both at Costco) that makes shopping at these stores a treasure hunt. Both stores stock designer handbags, high-end watches and jewelry, Waterford crystal and all sorts of luxury items.
"Really what they represent is sort of a consumer revolution in terms of quality and pricing," says Kenneth Dalto, a retail analyst in Farmington Hills, Mich. "By word of mouth, people are realizing the meat and clothing and other retail items are good, and it's going across class lines."