Which one to join? The short answer can be found here:
Costco Oahu Locations:
Costco Hawaii Kai (East Oahu)
Costco Iwilei (Downtown area)
Costco Waipio (Waipahu/Leeward)
Costco Kapolei (West Oahu)
Sam's Club Locations:
Sam's Club Keeaumoku (Ala Moana)
Sam's Club Pearl City (Leeward)
Costco has four branches somewhat evenly spaced throughout the urban and suburban stretch of Honolulu. Sam's Club has two locations, both centrally located in dense population hubs. If you're only picking one and not the other, pick the one situated where you can most often enjoy the benefits. Extended, that means that Hawaii Kai residents should most certainly pick Costco, whereas an apartment dweller near Ala Moana should pick Sam's Club.
As for whether they're both worth it, In Hawaii it's a resounding YES. If you're a Costco member and want to know whether you should join both clubs, fortunately Sam's Club has a way for you to find out. It's called a One Day Pass (PDF), There's a small 10% upcharge, but at least you'll get a chance to browse the aisle to see the merchandise.
If you're a Sam's Club member and want to find out if Costco has what you need, you can get a Costco member to buy you a Costco gift card and shop without a membership. The cashier will ring you up under the member code #99. Be aware that some have reported issues with the gift-card-only approach. It may, for non-member shopping at Costco, be better advised to -- borrowing the slogan from a local competitor-- "shop with a friend."
Or, if you're still sitting on the fence about both, use the One Day Pass at Sam's Club and a member-purchased gift card at Costco to explore.
Membership clubs offer Hawaii residents a reprieve from crazy regular tourist retail prices. As an example, a 1/2 gallon of lactose-free 2% milk might cost $8.50 at a normal store. At Costco, you get three 1/2 gallon cartons of 2% lactose-free milk. At an everyday store, 8-ounce trays of mushrooms are advertised at the SALE price of $3.00. At Sam's Club, four times the quantity (a two pound container) is usually around $5.50.
It's pretty hard to not join. Membership fees are generally low given the benefit they provide. The lowest priced membership is $55 at Costco and $45 at Sam's Club. It's not that simple though. There are multiple levels of membership, some of which may end up saving you more than you paid.
For instance, with the $110 Executive Membership at Costco, we've received a merchandise check for all of our membership money plus more every year. Add the upcoming VISA card they're offering with Citibank, and you could end up saving thousands of dollars on top of the price you paid.
Sam's Club has its own branded credit card and a purchase rebate program too. They also have specials. For example, through the end of 2016 if you use your Discover Card to buy the membership, you can get a bonus Sam's Gift Card of either $10 or $25. Sometimes, you can also find deals on Groupon or LivingSocial. In any case, $45 is not a lot of money relatively speaking. Last year I bought an outdoor grill and I probably saved $350 or more over comparable models.
That leads us into merchandise prices. They're different, as is the merchandise. Sometimes the Costco price is lower, sometimes the Sam's Club price is. One website did an extensive comparison table of merchandise which, while interesting, doesn't really address Hawaii prices at all.
In general, I think that Costco has better prices on liquor and organic food, whereas Sam's Club has great prices on Wal-food. Staples usually overlap in terms of availability, but often come in different brands and packaging sizes. For instance, at Sam's Club, flour is sold in 25# bags and at Costco the normal stock size is 50#. Costco's 50# size may have better per unit prices, but really -- who needs 50# of flour for a household?
Getting into specifics, for the sake of comparison, Yoshida's teriyaki sauce was $8.29 at Sam's Club and $6.99 at Costco. Conversely, an eight-pack of sweetened condensed milk was approximately $1.50 per can at Sam's Club and a little over $2.00 at Costco.
Which leads to another point. Both companies receive routine price changes from headquarters and also have some flexibility in pricing locally. When there is a large batch of perishable produce that needs to be sold, both will price it accordingly. Interestingly, one blog explains how you can tell which items at Costco have been marked down and why. Summarized, it looks like this:
Reading Costco Price Tags
.99 = item is full price
.97 = a deal decided by the manager, usually on clearance items
.49 and .79 = a manufacturer’s special
.00 = the goods are about to expire
* = the item is being discontinued
Reading Sam's Club Price Tags
.01 or anything ending in a penny = clearance priced
Letter on shelf tag (usually RH corner) is:
A = Active Item (Something that they normally carry)
N = Never-Out (Item should always be in-stock)
C = Canceled (Store will no longer carry the item. If it’s not already clearance priced, it will be soon if not sold out)
The point here is that prices are dynamic, so a point to point comparison today may change tomorrow.
Before concluding, it would be hard to discuss gas prices without delving a bit into the subject of selection. With the exception of the Hawaii Kai Costco, Costco offers a gallon of gas at a price normally 35 cents or so below retail competitors' prices. I had heard that Hawaii Kai didn't get a gas station because the community opposed it, but I have been unable to confirm that that was the case.
Sam's Club Pearl City also offers discount gas at about 35 cents less than retail competitors' prices.
According to GasBuddy, both Costco and Sam's Club were selling gas at $2.13 a gallon when the next competitor's price -- excluding Navy Exchanges, which are limited to armed service personnel -- was $2.50.
(Due to amount of detail in this subject, it was separated into two parts. This post addressed Convenience and Price. The next post will address Selection and Quality.)