The untold truth of Sam's Club

If you're a fan of buying things in bulk, you're probably familiar with Sam's Club. The Walmart-owned store boasts savings for its members and include some pretty great perks, but is Sam's Club really worth the membership fee? If you're thinking about purchasing a Sam's Club membership, you'll want to know all of the facts. Here are some things you probably don't know about the warehouse store, so you can decide for yourself.

Whether or not you save is complicated

Whether or not you're actually saving money… well, it's complicated, so let's start with what Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, has to say. After you pay that membership fee, you start looking for ways to justify it. There's a weird thing that happens, and it's our tendency to spend more and buy more because we think we're getting a good deal — it's a "justification mentality", he says.

Benjamin Glaser, an editor at DealNews, says stores like Sam's Club aren't shy about tricking customers into spending more than they intend, and they do it by advertising just how much you're saving. Ever gone to Sam's Club for toilet paper and walked out with a new television? You didn't get a good deal on toilet paper, you bought a TV! He also says buying in bulk is a potential pitfall, especially considering an average family wastes around $1,800 a year in groceries. It doesn't matter how good a price is if things spoil before you can use them, but we forget that when we're faced with a good deal.

Shop smart and you can save, though. It's tough for most of us to do, and even though Sam's Club prices are 33 percent lower than standard supermarket chains (better than Costco or BJ's), there's still a lot of temptation you'll have to navigate through.

Not everything is a good buy

If saving money is the reason you're shopping at Sam's Club, Go Banking Rates has compiled some expert opinions you're going to want to hear. Not everything on their shelves is a good deal, and if you want to get the best deal possible on things like everyday cuts of meat and fresh produce, you should know they're usually available at a supermarket for a better price.

Other things you want to stay away from are those in such large quantities you're going to be throwing most of it away. That's stuff like condiments, cereal, and coffee… unless, of course, you drink enough coffee to go through a 2-pound bag before it goes questionable. That's the rule of thumb for most perishables you can get at Sam's Club, so just remember to shop smart and not get blinded by that amazingly good deal that'll just end up in the garbage.

There are secret codes on their price tags

You can never go shopping armed with too much knowledge, and according to Kyle James of Rather-Be-Shopping.com, knowing what all those price tag codes mean is the key to getting a good deal. Sam's Club hasn't confirmed any of this (via ABC News), but it's fascinating food for thought that just might save you some cash.

He says on his blog that a price ending in 1 means it's a sale price, and that the letter on the top right of the shelf tag can give you even more valuable info. If it's an A or an N, that means it's something they always carry and always try to have in stock. Something with a C means it's a canceled item they're going to get rid of, so you can definitely watch for this one to go on clearance. An S means it's a seasonal item and might only be there for a short time, but it's the O that's hugely important. That means it's a one-time buy, so once it's gone, it's gone. Stock up on this one if you find something you like, because it's not coming back.

They don't treat their employees as well as the competition does

Sam's Club has been criticized for the treatment of their employees, especially in comparison to their biggest rival, Costco. Costco not only provides a larger percentage of employees with health insurance but also pays them more money on average.

Costco has cut down on the products they offer in order to keep their workers happy while Sam's Club has cut corners by laying off employees. That's a big difference.

They have their own line of wine

Stores releasing their own line of products is nothing new but Sam's Club made a splash with their Member's Mark wine. Generic store brands are usually cheaper than name-brand products, and Sam's Club wine keeps true to that pricing model with a $7 white wine that actually tastes pretty good.

The company has announced that they plan to add other wines to their lineup, including Cabernet, prosecco, and champagne.

You can buy alcohol without a membership

If you want to try out Sam's Club's wines for yourself (or just take advantage of their other adult beverage deals) you don't have to dish out for a membership in order to do so. Thanks to laws regulating alcohol sales, Sam's Club's alcohol section is open to the public. Go to your local Sam's Club and tell them you're just there for the booze and you'll be free to enter the store.

You can dine in their food court without a membership

Looking for a pizza to go with that six pack you just scored a deal on? After you buy booze from Sam's Club's liquor store you can swing by their food court for a snack. This is another area of the store you don't need a membership to get access to, so you might as well take advantage of it. You should be warned, though. Once you try it you might get hooked. Sam's Club food is surprisingly tasty and reasonably priced.

You don't need a membership to use the pharmacy, either

Is your nearest pharmacy inconveniently located inside a Sam's Club? You can still use it, whether or not you're a member of the club.  It turns out that is yet another part of the store that you can go to without having to pay membership fees.  There are no extra fees for using the pharmacy without a membership, so you'll be getting the same price as members.

You can sometimes score big shopping their online auctions

You don't even have to get off the couch to get some seriously good deals from Sam's Club. All you need to do is check out their online auctions, bid from the comfort of your own home, and see what kind of treasures you can find.

There's no guarantees about what you're going to find there, but that's half the fun. You can browse by category, keep an eye on auctions ending that same day, and watch others count down through the final minutes. Whether you're in the market for some outdoor furniture, a new computer, or a bulk pack of shower gel, you need to check it out.

Their CEO was criticized for promoting diversity

In late 2015, Rosalind Brewer, then the CEO of Sam's Club, caught flak for comments which some thought implied discrimination against white men. Business Insider reported that in an interview Brewer gave to CNN's Poppy Harlow, her dedication to diversity drew criticism.

"Just today we met with a supplier and the entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males," said Brewer. "That was interesting. I decided not to talk about it directly with [the supplier's] folks in the room because there were actually no female, like, levels down. So I'm going to place a call to him."

In spite of the controversy, Walmart stood by Brewer and reaffirmed their commitment to diversity. CEO Doug McMillon said, "For years, we've asked our suppliers to prioritize the talent and diversity of their sales teams calling on our company. Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business. That's all there is to it and I support that important ideal."

They're against unions

Walmart and Sam's Club are against worker's unions and actively discourage employees from forming them. Leaked training materials show the tactics the company uses to squash any thoughts of unionizing. When the meat department at a Texas Walmart unionized in 2000, Walmart eliminated butchers from nearly 200 stores.

"People are scared to vote for a union because they're scared their store will be closed," Barbara Getz, a Walmart employee, told The Atlantic.

They're pretty big in China

Sam's Club is quite popular in China. The country has several Sam's Club locations, including one of the company's top-selling locations which is in Shenzhen. The store has become so influential that it has changed how its members shop. Instead of shopping for fresh food daily as many Chinese people do, members are now stocking up in bulk and visiting the store less than once a week.

There used to be a Más Club

The Houston-based store was the only Más Club location. Set up much like other Sam's Club stores, Más Club's main difference was that it carried more Hispanic merchandise for its members. The Más Club opened in 2009 as a test, before the company realized the community would be better served by simply expanding product offerings in their traditional Sam's Club locations. The store announced its closing in 2014, after four years in business.

Members have a lot of access to perks

There are a lot of perks available to Sam's Club members. Small business owners can purchase insurance through Sam's Club for their employees, a service that was extended to individuals in 2016. The store also provide packages which provide assistance with payroll services and legal solutions.

Members can also get help with their taxes through Sam's Club and are guaranteed the maximum refund possible. Accounting services are available for both individuals and small businesses. 

They're targeting higher-income customers

If you've noticed a difference in the food options you're seeing at Sam's Club, you're not imagining it. In 2016, Sam's Club went after Costco by taking aim at another portion of the market: higher-income customers who generally headed to the competition.

According to Fortune, they did this by starting to carry trendier foods, by installing teams of regional buyers to select local, gourmet, organic, and natural foods, and opening more stores in more affluent areas.

They revamped and consolidated their private food brand

Member's Mark is Sam's Club's own private brand, and in 2016 the entire line got a complete makeover. According to Food Business News, it was no small endeavor that saw all 21 separate, previously-existing private brands revamped into Member's Mark products in an attempt to standardize the line. Included in the overhaul were 300 new products hitting the shelves in 2017, around 600 slated for revamping in 2018, and a plan to continue adding around 300 new items to the brand every year going forward.

The official Sam's Club press release tells the lengths the team has gone to, sourcing ingredients from all over the world and from some of the industry's top performers stateside. There are regional favorites — like Member's Mark All Natural Pulled Pork, made with guidance from the Kansas City Barbecue Society — and other tasty goodies like handcrafted caramels, fair trade certified K-Cups, and honey sourced from a beekeeping co-op.

Their Sensory Lab decides what goes on the shelves

Not everything makes it through the rigorous testing program Sam's Club uses to decide what's going on their shelves, and The Recipe Girl got a firsthand look at their Sensory Lab in Bentonville, Arkansas. When Lori Lange toured the facility, she says she was most impressed by the 9-point scale all food products are rated on. Anything that gets less than a 7 doesn't make it onto the shelves, and distributors are allowed to make adjustments to their product based on feedback and resubmit for testing.

According to 5 News Online, the Sensory Lab panel is made up of anywhere from 65 to 100 people who sample and rate four different foods every day. They're rated on things like taste and texture, and in 2012 they evaluated nearly 1,700 items. That includes regional favorites for Sam's Club locations across the country, and Vice President of Communications David Tovar says only about 15 percent of foods tested make the cut.

They have a connection to Duck Dynasty

Sam's Club made its first acquisitions in 1987, purchasing 24 SuperSaver Wholesale Warehouse Club stores in Louisiana (via the Cleveland Banner). Prior to their shift to Sam's Club, those stores were owned by father-and-son business partners Alton and John Howard. If you're familiar with the reality show Duck Dynasty, you know John's daughter, Korie.

Only a year prior to selling to Sam's Club, John Howard talked to NewsOK about how much better his stores were. He cited things like higher ceilings, wider aisles, uniformity across all stores, and the need for store members to meet hand-picked criteria to belong to the club.