Costco hacks you need to know

We're all familiar with the hilarious image of the Costco bulk shopper who walks out of the store with multiple 48-packs of toilet paper and economy-sized vats of ketchup. But whether you're a wholesale expert or a Costco novice who's just there for the free samples, there's more to this "members-only" grocery haven than just stuffing your pantries with ridiculous quantities of household items.

As the second-largest American retail chain in the world after Walmart, Costco's warehouses can be a little overwhelming. If you've ever shopped there, you might feel more inclined to go straight for the familiar items like paper towels, the famous rotisserie chickens, or the food court (our personal favorite part of shopping at Costco!)

We've compiled a list of the best tricks, tips, and hacks to make the most out of your shopping experience at Costco, even if you're not a member. From secret price codes to the strangest items for sale there, these hacks will impress even the savviest of Costco fans.

You can shop at Costco without a membership

You may have heard the rumor that you can sneakily shop at Costco without having to shell out the cash for a membership. Fortunately, this Internet-fueled legend is true! In fact, there are several ways that you can take advantage of Costo's warehouse prices as a non-member.

If you use Instacart, Google Express, or other similar grocery-delivery services, you can get Costco groceries delivered, even if you're not a member.

You can also use a Costco cash card, which is like a Costco gift card that ranges in value from $10-$100. Although you have to be a member to buy one, you don't have to be a member to use one. So if you're lucky enough to be gifted a Costco cash card, just pick up as many goodies as your arms can carry, swipe your cash card, and walk out without having to flash a club card. And if you don't have a cash card, there's no harm in having a friend with a membership pick one up for you.

You can buy alcohol even if you're not a member

Those aren't the only ways to spend money at Costco without being a member. The best non-member perk you can take advantage of is definitely buying alcohol.

In 12 U.S. states, it's illegal to require a membership to buy alcohol, so if you walk into a Costco in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, or Vermont, you can buy alcohol — even as a non-member. Plus, like many Costco products, the alcohol prices are often much cheaper than you'd expect.

Unfortunately, this rule only applies to those 12 states, so this is a hack that only works for a certain percentage of Costco stores.

It's also important to note that this loophole is not known to many Costco employees, so be prepared to speak with a manager to clear up any confusion when they try to stop you at the door.

The best bargains are in the center of the store

Product placement is everything when it comes to savvy grocery shopping. At Costco, the literal placement of products is a clue to where the best bargains are. The best deals at club stores are usually in the center of the store.

"Membership stores — often governed by space constraints and the fact that those large club stores stock such an incredible range of products — put many of the bargains into what they call 'center court,'" Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and founder of Envirosell, a retail marketing research and consulting firm, told Bank Rate.

Elaborate displays of items in "center court" are usually paid for by makers and distributors, so it's cheaper for the store and usually results in aggressive pricing and even better deals for the customer. And don't discard the items displayed on pallets — they may not be fancy displays, but the prices are probably a steal.

Costco has a secret pricing code

Most savvy shoppers already know to pay special attention to prices to see if you're actually getting a great deal. But at Costco, the numbers in those prices could actually be a secret code. According to Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com, any Costco price ending in .97 means that the item has been marked down nationally (via Kitchn). "Those items don't usually last long because people buy them fast," Elledge said.

That doesn't mean you should fill up your cart, though. Even if the item was marked down or is being closed out, it might only be a small discount, so don't buy blindly before researching.

Regularly-priced items usually end with the number nine. If you happen to catch a price that ends in .88 or a whole number, that's likely a regional sale or manager markdowns on items that have been returned, according to Tough Nickel.

Asterisks on price tags are a secret code, too

If you see an asterisk on the price tag, especially on a sale item, that's your cue to stock up! An asterisk in the upper right-hand corner of the price tag means that the item won't be restocked, and is another more subtle part of Costco's pricing code.

Once the product is sold out, Costco has no plans to carry it in store anymore — at least not in the foreseeable future — so the price you see is likely the lowest the price will ever go for that specific item (even if it's not discounted), according to Consumerist. Plus, the remaining in-store stock is likely the only stock that your Costco will carry, so if an item you grab every time you're there suddenly has an asterisk on the tag, consider clearing the shelves — it's about to disappear. 

There are few things more frustrating that when your favorite store stops carrying your favorite products, so this code is a great way to get a heads up. 

Movie tickets are cheaper to buy at Costco

If you can use your Costco membership to buy passes to Disneyland, surely you can use it to buy movie tickets. As the Krazy Coupon Lady says, it's actually cheaper to buy movie tickets at Costco than through the movie theater, especially if you buy them in bulk for major theater brands like Regal and AMC. As of April 2018, a 10-pack of AMC movie tickets at Costco will cost you $8.99 per ticket, which could add up $2-$3 saved per movie, depending on where you live.

For a limited time, Costco was even selling memberships to the super-popular service, Moviepass, which allows you to pay an annual subscription rate to go to the movies for a year.

There's pretty much never a reason to buy tickets through movie theaters or an online service anymore (because let's face it, convenience fees are not fun), so why not buy them in bulk instead?

Some Costco brand products are the same (or better) than their branded counterparts

One of the best shopping tips that you can use at practically any grocery store is to swallow your attachment to brand names and pick up some store-brand products instead. Many of Costco's store-brand products — under the name Kirkland Signature — are nearly identical to (or better than) their branded cousins. From olive oil to peanut butter, dozens of ranked lists have sung the quiet praises of Kirkland Signature products.

One of the most popular Costo-brand items is — surprisingly — vodka. According to Munchies, Costco's vodka is made from the same water source as Grey Goose vodka, and has even scored higher in many blind taste tests. Aggregate booze rankings from Under the Label rate Kirkland at a score of 88, while Grey Goose only scored an average of 82 points.

Clearly, you should never judge a grocery store product (or a bottle of liquor) by its label.

You can ask for half of a rotisserie chicken

There's nothing quite like the smell of a dozen juicy chickens slowly rotating under a heat lamp. At Costco, much like the cheap food court hot dogs, the rotisserie chickens have stayed the same price point of $4.99 for years, and they weigh at least three pounds cooked.

But even though a rotisserie chicken can feed an entire family or be used for multiple meals for one or two people, a little-known fact is that you don't actually have to buy the whole chicken. You can ask a meat department attendant to cut the chicken into halves or quarters instead, according to Epicurious. This is an especially ideal solution for people who heavily prefer white or dark meat.

You might not want to make this meal a habit (even if it is a great deal), however, because Costco's rotisserie chickens are loaded with sodium from salt water injections that keep them plump and juicy.

You can order pizza ahead of time

Coscto's free food samples may be popular with customers looking for a quick bite, but their food court is the holy grail for hungry shoppers. Food court prices are surprisingly low (you can get a hot dog and soda for $1.50 — the same price it's been since 1985 — and a huge slice of pizza for $1.99), and you can actually order their delicious food court pizza ahead of time.

As one of the largest pizza chains in America (yes,really), Costco food court lines can get pretty long during peak hours on weekends during mealtimes. Luckily, you can call your local Costco's pizza hotline to place an order ahead of time and skip the line. Check the Costco warehouse locations map for your local pizza hotline contact information.

Unfortunately, Costco will not actually deliver their famous pizza to your home, but fingers crossed that that becomes a new policy in the future!

Know when the sales run

Any Costco shopper worth their salt knows that manufacturers' coupons can't be used at Costco. But that does not mean Costco is immune to the sales cycle. It always pays to know exactly when Costco's monthly sales run, Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com, told The Kitchn. He said Costco's in-house sales are issued in a monthly coupon book. "The sale will normally start on a Thursday and run for about two-and-a-half to three weeks," Elledge said.

That means that for approximately one or one-and-a-half weeks per month, Costco will not be running any of sales at all. That's definitely not when you want to go, so keep an eye out for any sale price cycles.

The best part about Costco sales is that you don't actually have to clip coupons to keep up — even though they advertise them in a "coupon book." The deals are automatically applied to your total at checkout, so no one misses out.

You can return Costco products at any time (with a few exceptions)

Costco is well-known for its very lenient return policy. Legend has it, you can purchase a mattress, decide that you don't want it anymore, and return it years later without an issue, at least according to a Reddit thread from Costco employees.

But whether or not moldy mattress returns are actually honored, Costco's reputation for easy returns is actually corporate policy and not just a rumor. According to their official return policy — which you can read here —  Costco "will refund your purchase price" on any item except electronics (which have a 90-day policy), diamonds, cigarettes, alcohol, products with a limited life expectancy, and special orders.

Bizarre Costco return stories sometimes even make the news, like one woman who allegedly successfully returned a Christmas tree this year because it died… 10 days after Christmas.

"I can't make this stuff up," Scott Bentley, who took a photo of the transaction in the refund line, said in the original post that went viral on Facebook.

Mondays are the quietest time to shop

The worst part about grabbing so many bulk deals during a Saturday afternoon Costco shopping trip is the seemingly never-ending checkout line. Having to wait behind dozens of customers who seem to have splurged on about a year's-worth of groceries can be incredibly frustrating.

But just like most big box grocery stores, the worst time to shop is on the weekends. Try heading to the store on a Monday after work (or on your day off) to avoid crowded parking lots, long lines at the cash register, and crazy competition for popular low-priced items.

The Krazy Coupon Lady seconds this suggestion, saying that the lowest-trafficked times at the big box retailer are weekdays between 3 and 5 p.m., but if you're working a regular 9-5 shift, you can always try squeezing in a Costco shopping trip about 45 minutes before they close, which is another low-traffic time. 

Buy electronics at Costco to get free tech support

Before you head out to Best Buy or the Apple store to pick up a new laptop or flat-screen TV, you might want to check out the electronics aisle at Costco first. Even though it might not be your first instinct to shop for electronics at a warehouse store, it's a smart bet. All electronics purchases from Costco come with free tech support (no extra fees or protection plan purchases necessary).

Each gadget you buy at Costco comes with an on-call concierge phone hotline that you can contact any time between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week, excluding holidays, for free tech support, according to Good Housekeeping.

That means that if your brand-new laptop won't start, you can call Costco instead of bringing it into a repair shop. Just remember that Costco's quasi-unlimited return policy does not extend to electronics, which need to be returned within 90 days for a full refund.

You can buy some weird stuff there

Costco's warehouses are huge for a reason. If you've ever been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of products offered at the wholesale club, you probably have only begun to scratch the surface of what you can actually purchase with your membership. Some of the more unusual items for sale at Costco include cars (which can be rented or bought through their Auto Program Services), exotic vacation packages to places like Europe and Africa, and — morbidly enough — coffins and decorative urns.

You can also purchase giant, eight-foot-tall teddy bears, gym memberships, vending machines, and wine cellars online or in stores if you're really feeling adventurous.

The average Costco shopper will probably feel more comfortable just sticking to economy-sized packs of paper towels and olive oil.  But it's comforting to know that you could buy a sports car with your Costco membership if you really wanted to.