The truth about what products are cheapest at Costco

When Costco first burst upon the scene, back in Ye Olde Ancient 1980s, everyone was still like, "What the what? Why should I pay to shop in your store?" After all, Sam's Club was also in its infancy at the time, and BJ's was still but a gleam in some entrepreneur's eye. As time went on, though, Costco and the rest of the warehouse babies grew up to prove the odd truth that consumers really do place a higher value on something they must pay for. After all, any old riffraff can shop at Safeway or Kroger, but in order to shop at Costco you need to join an exclusive "club" and undergo an esoteric initiation ritual that involves ponying up $60 each year.

And of course once you fork over the big bucks, it's totally got to be worth it, right? Numerous bloggers and online reviewers really, really want you to believe it's so, possibly so they can justify taking a tax deduction for the cost of their own membership fees. But are all of Costco's amaaaaazing products and services really all that? Maybe so, maybe no. We're not saying any of the following items are necessarily worth the price of admission if you're not already a Costco member, but if you've already joined the cult, er, club, you might want to check some of these out next time you're strolling the aisles prowling for free samples. Other items? They might be best to avoid.

The olive oil is good enough for a celebrity chef

With all due apologies to Popeye, one of the most popular olive oils around is sold by Costco under its Kirkland label. Not only is Kirkland Signature extra virgin olive oil priced fairly low ($16.99 for a 2 liter bottle, as opposed to $27.16 for a similarly-sized bottle of Bertolli from Amazon), but it also gets rave reviews for its taste.

In fact, there is actual scientific evidence corroborating Kirkland Signature's oil quality: A 2010 report released by the University of California-Davis found that Kirkland oil was the only one of 19 imported extra virgin olive oils tested that met taste standards set by the International Olive Council and United States Department of Agriculture, meaning that it was free of any "defective flavors such as rancid, fusty and musty." What's more, Kirkland organic extra virgin olive oil even got a shout-out from celebrity chef Samin Nosrat, who declared it to be her favorite olive oil for everyday use. (Wonder if she noshes on Costco's free samples while she's stocking up on it?)

You might be disappointed with the new house brand of vanilla

A former favorite of many Costco shoppers was the Kirkland Signature vanilla extract. Today picked it as one of Costco's top 10 items, something the staff said they'd "never stop buying." Well, sometimes "never" comes a little sooner than we think, since Costco evidently stopped making the Kirkland brand vanilla.

Costco now offers a different, unbranded type of vanilla extract as the store's generic, but some disappointed bakers feel it to be a very poor substitute. Money still recommends Costco's vanilla as "worth seeking out," but only for its relatively low price — around $35 for a whopping 16 ounces (definitely a steal compared to favorite Nielsen-Massey which runs $16 for just 2 ounces). When it came to the quality though, they had nothing to say.

If you're really, really into vanilla, or DIY, or just dropping a whole lot of money, you can always make your own extract using Costco's Gourmet Vanilla Beans, unbranded, but prominently billed as being a product of Papua, New Guinea. They cost $21.99 for a whole five beans, but this isn't such a bargain. You can buy those exact same beans on Amazon for around $16. Although, to be perfectly fair, joining Prime costs nearly twice as much as a Costco membership, and doesn't come with any free food samples.

Their bacon really is the best

It's got to be pretty rough working for Consumer Reports. In 2013, those poor hard-working defenders of the American food shopper took it upon themselves to taste-test 15 different kinds of bacon. That test must have been sheer hell (on their LDL cholesterol levels), but somehow they persevered, chowing down on thick cut, thin cut, cured, uncured, low sodium, high sodium, regular sodium, and even turkey bacon.

What were their findings? Well, according to the summary of the report CR published, they revealed — ta da! — that the only bacon they'd given an "excellent" rating to was Kirkland Signature, which "crisped up nicely and consistently had balanced fat and meat flavors complemented by wood smoke and a hint of sweetness." They did have to spoil the fun somewhat by reminding us just how unhealthy bacon is, but hey, it's not like any of us non-Consumer Reporters get paid to sit around and scarf down mass quantities of the stuff.

The house-brand booze is better than you might think

Although in the prohibition-prone U.S. it often seems like the government is trying to restrict access to alcohol, 14 states have made it illegal to require a membership to purchase booze. What's this got to do with the price of riesling? Well, if you live in one of these states, you can shop Costco's liquor department without a card. If you live in the other 36 states, and you want to know whether Costco's liquor selection alone is worth a membership, it depends on what you're looking for.

When it comes to name brands, Costco does typically beat the prices at your local discount Boozemart. Where the real bargains are to be found, though, is with Costco's Kirkland Signature-branded wines and spirits and, as it turns out, these may be pretty darn good. Tastings, the website "powered by the Beverage Testing Institute since 1981" (if that means anything to you), has rated 17 different Kirkland Signature wines and five different spirits as Gold Medal Exceptional at 90+ points (we think that means they got an A). 

What's more, Vice interviewed a number of bartenders who all claimed a secret (or not-so-secret) passion for Costco-branded booze, one even advising the readers to "…take off your pants and pour yourself a tall glass" of the stuff. Umm, okay, but please close the curtains before you do the pants thing, okay? We don't need to see those Costco undies on display

The maple syrup is still a pretty sweet deal

Ahhhh, maple syrup. It smells like… money. Specifically, Canadian money. No, seriously, the newer (2011+) Canadian dollar bills do smell strongly of the nation's favorite product. One thing's for sure about the actual syrup, though, is it tends to cost quite a lot of money, whether it's the fragrant Canadian kind or good ol' scent-free U.S. greenbacks. 

Costco to the rescue. When Consumer Reports tested eight different brands of dark maple syrup, they chose Kirkland Signature organic maple syrup to be among their top picks, despite the fact that it was significantly lower-priced than the other brands. At the time of CR's taste test in 2017, a 33.8 ounce bottle of Kirkland syrup retailed for 75 cents per serving, as compared to the next lowest brand at 95 cents, and other syrups priced up to $2.14 per serving. Even at the 2019 Costco price of $13.29 per bottle, this syrup is about 79 cents per serving — still cheaper than the competition.

But how does this syrup taste, you might ask? And Consumer Reports might answer you: "Clean [and] complex… with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors, roasted/toasted notes and a hint of molasses." Epicurious, which also taste-tested maple syrups and chose Kirkland as their first runner up, provided their review in English instead of Gourmet-ese. They commended the syrup's "balance of sweetness and maple flavor," and described it as "not too thick and not too thin." So there you go. It's good stuff, eh?

Getting your prescription filled at Costco may or may not save big bucks

Yet another area of Costco you may be able to visit even without a membership is the pharmacy, although it's a bit unclear as to whether this practice is allowed throughout the U.S. According to Costco's website, their pharmacies are "open to non-members where required by state law." As no one seems to have published a handy list of those states, it's probably best to call your local Costco pharmacy to check whether your state might be among the lucky ones.

As to whether Costco meds are such a great deal, well… maybe. If your prescriptions are covered by insurance, your copay will be what it'll be. If you have to pay retail for your prescriptions, whether Costco is your best option may depend upon your time frame. A 2018 Consumer Reports study revealed that Costco did tend to have the lowest prescription prices of any brick-and-mortar pharmacy. If you have time to use an online pharmacy and wait a few days for delivery, though, meds from Healthwarehouse.com were quite a bit cheaper than those from Costco. The five meds Consumer Reports shopped for (generics of Actos, Celebrex, Cymbalta, Lipitor, and Plavix) averaged a total of $105 at Costco, whereas the same drugs from HealthWarehouse.com came to only $66. For comparison, though, at both CVS and Target the drugs cost a whopping $928 so, yeah, it pays to shop around.

The cheese selection may surprise you

Cheese is one of those products that frequently makes the "best buys at Costco" lists (that this is totally not another one of). Both Money and The Kitchn went all googoo over Costco's Parmigiano-Reggiano (priced around $12 per pound), similarly remarking that it costs about half of what you'd pay at Whole Foods. Well, duh, what doesn't? They did disclose, however, that this Parmesan isn't the easy sprinkle kind — it's a honking big wedge that you'll need to shred yourself. (Insert "Make America Grate Again" pun here.) Should you wish to branch out and explore different types of cheese, Yahoo Finance commends the wide variety carried by Costco and reminds the reader that even if you're forced to buy in bulk to get a great (or grate) deal, most cheese is easy to freeze.

And good news for cheese-loving brides — Costco also sells a bargain-priced 24-pound wedding cake made entirely of cheese, too. At $440 it is a pretty great deal for a whole wedding cake. Who would buy such a thing, you may ask? Low carb dieters get married, too, as do people from Wisconsin. It's shipped to you as a DIY kit, five separate wheels that you'll need to stack and decorate with your own garnishes. Although Costco's website shows the cake decorated with fresh flowers, we think it would look even better topped with these adorable little quackers, er, crackers.

The sheet cakes really will feed a crowd

If a cake made of cheese isn't your thing, Costco is also known for the standard type of sheet cake. In fact, these cakes are so basic, they only come in two flavors. None of your trendy elderflower/lemon, champagne/strawberry, or passionfruit/guava flavor combos at Costco — here you get chocolate or vanilla, straight up. Not even anything so wacky as marble. What these cakes lack in flavor variety, though, they make up in size, weighing in at a whopping 9.5 pounds (Costco is sure to note that the industry standard is only 6 pounds), 2 pounds of which is filling (vanilla cheesecake for the vanilla cake, and chocolate truffle mousse for the chocolate). Needless to say, when it comes to cost, Costco blows competitors out of the water. Taste of Home reports that a half sheet cake from Costco (which feeds 48) is about the same price as a quarter sheet cake from Walmart.

According to the order sheet (which you cannot complete online, since Costco actually makes you go and fill out an order form in person), you can choose to have your sheet cake decorated with any of 27 different designs. These include balloons, flowers, flags, sports equipment, and a dinosaur which totally isn't at all satanic despite being the subject of a 2014 viral hoax.

The famous $4.99 rotisserie chicken is meant as a loss leader

One thing Costco is justifiably famous for is its $4.99 rotisserie chicken. Ummm, not such a big deal, you say? You may have seen rotisserie chickens for sale for $5 and under at your local grocery store or even at Walmart, and chickens cost less than $5 at Sam's Club as well. Well, what sets Costco cluckers apart from the rest of the flock is their size. For your five spot, you're getting at least 3 pounds of chicken, while those other retailers' birds tend to come in at 2 pounds or less.

Costco CFO Richard Galanti, interviewed by The Seattle Times in 2015, made a pretty a big deal out of his company's alleged altruism in keeping its chicken cheap. It turns out that the company policy of not raising rotisserie chicken prices over the past decade is losing poor Costco $30 to $40 million per year. Don't you feel bad for them? Not like they're not making it up with that $60 cover charge or anything. Still, Galanti did admit that the chicken sales have been driving a lot of foot traffic. 87 million chickens were sold in 2017, and what's the likelihood that any of those chicken shoppers walked out without buying anything else? Some frozen mashed potatoes, a bag of salad, perhaps a giant tub of ice cream for dessert… cha ching! Costco wins again.

Costco outsells Whole Paycheck on organic produce

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Costco products? Maybe something slightly obscene, like a monster tub o' mac and cheese? Well, prepare to be shocked when you find out that Costco is also one of the nation's top retailers of oh-so-healthy organic foods. By 2015, Costco's organics sales figures showed them outselling even Whole Foods, a company which is admittedly more closely associated with all things organic.

So how did Costco go organic while keeping its prices relatively low? For one thing, it sure helps to be competing against Whole Paycheck, where organic berries would have to be sold singly in order to be considered even remotely affordable. In one comparison by The Kitchn in 2018, Costco consistently beat Whole Foods on the price of organic produce, from a few coins to a dollar or more per pound.

Costco, though, is being pretty proactive — perhaps even aggressively so — in pursuit of a continuing supply of organic produce. They've been buying up land to convert into their own organic farms, since owning the farms where it gets its produce should not only save them some money, but could, presumably, save them the embarrassment of having to recall imported organic produce linked to disease outbreaks. Any future infected produce will at least be domestically grown.

The tire service will try your patience to the max

While some of those deals and savings blogs, such as Clark, unreservedly recommend purchasing tires from Costco, saying boldly, "Costco will beat anyone on tire prices — hands down," others, like Saving Advice, list cons as well as pros. When Today compared the "big four" retailers offering cheap tire installation packages, they rated Costco above Walmart and Sears, but below Sam's Club. The one standout thing about Costco seems to be that they inflate the tires with nitrogen instead of plain old compressed air, so… okay? Popular Mechanics says this is basically a Good Thing, although not really a must-have, and they ought to know, being mechanics and all.

Where things get tricky, though, is with the often asked, yet seldom definitively-answered, question: "Can I still get my Costco tires serviced if I let my membership lapse?" There have been several Reddit threads devoted to discussing this, with Redditors who have been Costco customers and/or employees delivering a mixed verdict of yes/no/maybe as to whether Costco will honor the tire warranty for non-members. One thing Redditors do seem to agree on, though, is that Costco's tire installation wait times really do suck. It's up to you if that low, low price is worth the wait.