Saturday, July 23, 2011

Grocery shopping: Some Big Choices at Sam’s Club

On a whim, my wife and I recently decided to join Sam’s Club. A local department store with groceries, Sam’s is conveniently located close to our home. You can find it behind Neighborhood Market, a grocery store run by Wal-Mart. I think it a bit odd that Sam’s should be so close to another grocery store, especially since Sam’s is also affiliated with Wal-Mart. Granted, Sam’s is more than just a grocery store. But the placement next to Neighborhood Market still seems strange.

We have friends who are members, and they seem to be saving some serious money stocking up on groceries at Sam's. By the way, you can’t even walk through the doors without a membership. Even though there is a $40 per year fee for your membership, there is a $20 rebate on your first purchase if you opt to sign up for the Sam’s card. Sweet.

Or maybe not. As soon as we hit the aisles to look for food, we realize why the carts are a good 1/3 larger than the carts in any other grocery store. Everything exists in mega quantities, and is apparently destined to grace the cupboards of Gargantua and Pantagruel. We see enormous cans of peaches and pineapple, Ketchup bottles monstrous enough that you need to hold them with two hands, chips that must be purchased two bags for one low price, and pork slabs two feet long. Mayonnaise comes in king-size jars only, and there is no light option.
Since I am a vegetarian with somewhat unusual dietary requirements, I head out to look for the fruits and vegetables. I grab a bunch of bananas that are sold by the pound, just as they are in every other supermarket I have ever seen. But peaches and mangoes, two of my favorites, come in boxes of 10-13. I find myself wondering how many of each we can eat before they spoil from age, how we can refrigerate so many and how to tell if they are good to begin with. The mangoes are large and plump, with a nice orange color. We can definitely eat those in a week. I take one of the peaches from its prepackaged box to perform the smell test. No; it does not have the rich, luscious peach smell that I love. I put the box back and move on to the mushrooms. I don’t find anything other than two pound boxes of white button mushrooms and baby bellas. The lack of selection is a bit disappointing, but we like both these choices. So I grab a box of the white button mushrooms and move on to the asparagus. It is prepackaged in two pound bunches as well, so I grab a bunch wondering for how long we will have stinky urine. We both like asparagus, but I am not sure we are prepared to eat that much in a week. Even the Jolly Green Giant might have trouble here.
Next we turn our attention to buying things on our list that we need to complete our prepared menu for the week. We usually make one Italian entrée and one Mexican entrée on separate nights throughout the week, so we set out to find the ingredients for cheese tortellini and guacamole. We do need pasta sauce, but they don't have our brand, Newman's Own. The brand we do find comes three jars to a pack. We need a lime for the guacamole, but limes are not packaged for indvidual sale. Avocadoes come in bags of six.

Some of these items could be purchased in quantity and saved for later. The pasta sauce would easily keep for a while if you liked their brand. And the coffee, which comes in large quantities like everything else here, might be separated into one pound bags to be used later. Hopefully that way it will retain its freshness. We are already accustomed to buying kitchen size garbage bags in boxes of 100 to save money. We do the same with laundry soap. Even though the smallest quantities at Sam’s are usually larger than the largest quantities offered by the supermarket, we see the cost saving logic. But we soon begin to ponder how our weekly food budget can survive this. We have less than $90 to spend for everything. We can’t buy very many things on our list if we spend $6.98 for mangoes, $14.88 for coffee and $11 for garbage bags. We may have to reorganize our shopping so that our trips to Sam’s are semi-weekly or monthly.

I already mentioned that mayonnaise does not come in a light version the way it does in the grocery store. Similarly, there is no vegetarian version of Pork and Beans. Sharp cheddar cheese made with 2% milk, a diet friendly staple at most grocery stores, is nowhere to be found. Rice milk is not here either, though soy milk is readily apparent. Since light mayonnaise, vegetarian beans, light cheese and rice milk are all on my list, I am starting to get a bit frustrated. But I am happy to find a 2.5 pound bag of French Roast style coffee beans for $14.88 that offers a significant savings over the 12 oz. bag of Starbucks beans that I currently buy in the grocery store for about $9. It looks like I can also get a deal on my favorite cereal if I buy the 2.5 lb. size.
Perhaps this decision to join Sam’s Club is not one to make on a whim. The item size, cost and selection are all issues to be considered. Even so, we are happy to give this a try for a year and see where the journey takes us. We are also members at the local food coop, and we can’t buy all our groceries for the week there either.


  1. Hi Randy,

    I think Walmart and Sams Club see their co-existence as complementary. In your example you found a lot of really great bulk items but not exactly in the size or offering that you prefer. So, in theory... the average Sams Club shopper can go fill up their carts with bulk value and then go fill-in at the adjacent grocery store those items that are still on their list!

    Side note: You should make your own light mayo using sunflower oil... it's super-duper easy! :)

  2. That makes sense about the two being complementary. I guess I never thought about that way since we shop at Walmart rather than at Neighborhood Market. I mentioned homemade mayonnaise to my wife, and she said " Oh yeah, egg yolks." We will try it. I like the Nayonnaise product too, even though it is a bit pricey. I saw you have a new post about making your own mayonnaise.