Secrets Costco doesn't want you to know

What can't you buy at warehouse nirvana Costco? Famed for it's generous treatment of employees, members flock to Costco stores to sample a plethora of gratis nibbles, while they stock up on everything from gallon vats of organic coconut oil to Disney vacations. (And if the vacation doesn't go so well, you can even buy a casket.)

But how much do you really know about the big box super store?

You don't always have to be a member to shop

While you're required to show a membership card at checkout, there are a couple of tricks to buck the system when it comes to enjoying Costco's famed low prices without being a member.

The easiest way to take a peek beyond the metal gates is to walk right in. That's right. While there are gatekeepers who seemingly want to check your ID card, they aren't exactly hyper-vigilant about it. Plus, you might be there to use the pharmacy (prescription drugs must be available to the public per federal law,) or even visit the eye doctor (though you'll need a membership to purchase eyeglasses.) Liquor can also be had without a membership in states where the law requires it, which means you don't need to be a member to nab the Kirkland vodka that famously tastes like Grey Goose. Grab a hot dog and a soda from the snack bar while you're there — the snack bar doesn't check for membership.

If you want to score retail goods, you'll need to tag along with a member. That means you can come in as your friend's guest, and even make selections, provided your friend pays for your purchases at checkout and you pay your friend back. Prefer to shop at your own schedule? Ask your member friend if they'll buy you a pre-filled Costco Cash Card. Non-members are free to shop at any U.S. Costco store with a Costco Cash Card.

You can return things anytime

In comparison to most retailers, Costco's return policy is pretty sweet. Costco's satisfaction guarantee covers a majority of the merchandise they sell, meaning even that sensible navy blue parka you bought last year and removed the tags from can be returned for a full refund. No receipt? No problem — the customer service desk can look up the purchase for you using your membership number. Opened food items can even be brought back to the store, which makes a great case for trying out something new.

There are, of course, a few exceptions to the rule. Costco is legally prohibited from accepting returns on alcohol and cigarettes in most states. They are also free to decline a return on a "limited life" product, like batteries, and require an inspection of diamonds over a carat in weight before issuing a refund. Major electronics, like appliances, televisions, and cellular phones must be returned within 90 days of purchase.

A return policy this forgiving no-doubt attracts its fair share of mooches who try to push the envelope. Some of the most insane returns Costco employees have ever seen attempted? Try opened packages of underwear, a 15-year-old pressure washer, and plants that died after being neglected. There was even the woman who brought back a piece of fish she'd had in her freezer for 13 years — and successfully returned.

They will refund your membership at any time

You can return practically everything else, so why not your membership status? Costco's generous return policy extends to memberships as well — they will refund 100 percent of your membership fee at anytime. That means if you were really determined to score the savings on a major item, like a television or refrigerator, you could join, snag your item, and then cancel your membership for a refund. You could even shop for 364 days of the year, and then take a visit to the customer service desk to get those membership bucks back. Of course, this also makes you kind of a jerk… so proceed with caution.

For a more honest way to take advantage of your membership dollars, consider upgrading a regular, Gold Star Membership to Costco's Executive Membership. It clocks in at double the price, but offers two percent cash back on many qualifying purchases, plus loads of additional goodies and coupons. You'd need to spend about $5,500 per year to make the card pay for itself — but here's the best part. Though it's not advertised on the website, many shoppers report that Costco has offered them a trial of Executive Membership in their first year. In the event that they didn't earn back at least the cost of the upgrade, Costco would refund the difference. Check in at your local store to see if you can grab this deal.

They change the location of items on purpose

Ever wondered why the toilet paper and laundry detergent at your local Costco store always seem to be placed in a new aisle? This tactic is completely intentional, and known by the top brass of Costco as the "treasure hunt." The search for your intended "trigger" items is going to lead you on a carefully orchestrated path past seasonal items, clothing, bestselling cookbooks, and of course, those tantalizing food samples. About a thousand of Costco's items on any given day may be goods only available temporarily, so it's up to you if they are bargains that are truly too good to pass by. The best advice for avoiding temptation? Make a shopping list, and stick to it!

They've been accused of selling fake Tiffany rings

It might seem like Costco carries almost everything under the sun, but there is definitely one thing you won't find in their stores anytime soon — genuine Tiffany diamond engagement rings. The famed jewelry store won a lawsuit against Costco in 2016, arguing that Costco intentionally infringed upon the Tiffany name by selling inferior diamond engagement rings labeled as "Tiffany." Costco argued that the term refers to a commonly accepted setting for a diamond, but the jury wasn't having it, awarding Tiffany over $13 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

But that didn't stop Costco from dazzling their members with diamond engagement rings. The upscale engagement rings on offer have been cleverly rebranded as the "Audrey" collection. Breakfast not included.

Their eggs may come from questionable sources

When the above video leaked in June of 2015, depicting the inhumane and vile conditions at an egg factory farm that supplies eggs from caged hens to Costco, people got fired up — including celebrities like Bill Maher and Brad Pitt. Referencing a vague promise Costco had made in 2007 to transition to cage-free eggs in all of their stores, the celebs argued that Costco was taking their sweet time in actually implementing the switch.

Costco responded to the backlash with a renewed commitment to sourcing cage-free eggs, promising work toward being completely cage-free. But it seems even their cage-free operations have been met with some scrutiny. The New York Times reported in October of 2016 that an undercover video obtained by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere shows the conditions in a California cage-free facility that supplies eggs for the Costco Kirkland brand are not all that much better than a caged factory farm. The video, depicting chickens roaming in filth and walking over dead carcasses, was criticized by the egg producer as "being staged for production effect." Costco, in response stated, "We have reinspected the barn and other operations of this supplier, and based on these inspections and prior audits, we are comfortable with the animal welfare aspects of the operation."

The secrets to Costco pricing

"Costco expert" Len Rapoport shared his knowledge of Costco's unique pricing structure — which he gained in his years as an Ebay power seller, unloading items he bought for steep discounts at Costco. The secret, he says, lies in examining the cent amount at the end of the price.

According to Len, items ending in 99 cents are regular, full-priced items. Same goes for prices that end in 49 cents, 59 cents, and so on. If the end of the price reads 97 cents, however, you're looking at goods that have been marked down. Costco is not quick to disclose this the way some stores will, but if you want to know precisely how much the goods have been marked down, Len says you can ask a manager. If an asterisk also appears on the upper right corner of the price tag, this means the item will not be restocked, so what they have currently available in the store is all they plan to have. You may also see prices ending in .88 or .00. Len says those are manager specials and markdowns, and are often goods that have been returned to the store, or end of inventory items.

One of the best ways to ensure you get the absolute best price? Costco will price match an item for up to 30 days, so if you see it drop in price, bring your receipt to customer service and get a refund of the difference. If you see it drop in price, and it has been more than 30 days, Len advises you to purchase the item at the new price, and then to use your old receipt to return the newer item.

Members have some gripes

Members' love of the warehouse giant make Costco one of the top three retailers in the US, according to a 2016 Global Powers of Retailing Report. But with that much going for it, there are bound to be some haters. What are the chief complaints most often heard about Costco? According to Consumer Reports, many members aren't crazy about Costco's limited selection, long checkout lines, customer service, and absence of fitting rooms.

Costco does not offer plastic bags, or bags of any kind, at the register. Customers can opt instead to reuse the cardboard boxes found near the checkout aisle, but this policy can become frustrating not only for shoppers, but also for employees, who are pressured to keep boxes at the ready. Costco, unlike competitor Sam's Club, does not offer delivery or installation services, which can be quite the dilemma when you've just nabbed that outdoor patio set and gazebo deal before your Memorial Day barbecue.

Other stores may price match a Costco deal

If you spot a too-good-to-pass deal at Costco, but still can't wrap your mind around paying the membership fee, there is one more way to score the Costco price. Kyle at Rather Be Shopping has comprised a handy list of all the retailers who will price match Costco, or Costco.com items. The list includes big names like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart, to name a few. Home Depot and Lowe's will even do you one better. Both stores promise to beat the price by 10 percent, provided the price of the item at Costco is the regular price, and not a manager special or liquidation.