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Warehouse shoppers: Do you save enough to justify the trip?

Bulk-buy spending at food 'clubs' doesn't always lessen your outlay.

By Sarah More McCannCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2008

Bulk buyer: Donnie Wolosenko, who shops at a Costco in Everett, Mass., often buys low-price produce. Studies show low prices and club memberships may lead shoppers to make unnecessary purchases.

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Even on a muggy day in July, its unusual to see nearly every shopper leaving a grocery store with a watermelon.

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But at a Costco in Everett, Mass., the $5.99 deal on the tantalizing fruit was just too good to pass up.

Or was it?

Those shoppers might have been surprised to learn that a nearby Shaw's supermarket was selling watermelons for – you guessed it – $5.99.

During this year of sky-high food and energy prices, the only sweet spot in the food retail sector seems to be warehouse clubs such as Costco, BJ's Wholesale Club, and Sam's Club. Such stores have seen sales grow as consumers tighten their food-budget belts. Low prices helped make the 1,149 warehouse clubs in the United States a $107.5 billion industry by the end of 2007. And with consumer prices jumping 5 percent in the past year, warehouse clubs benefited, especially as consumers turned to the clubs for gasoline.

But while these clubs offer significant savings, experts say the warehouse experience can also incite unplanned spending, a situation many shoppers hope to avoid during an economic downturn.

"People like to get a deal," says Larry Compeau, associate professor of consumer studies at Clarkson University's business school in Potsdam, N.Y. "A deal has value above and beyond the money saved; there's a psychological effect," which can inspire consumers to overspend, he says.

Omar Magnusson of Malden, Mass., didn't buy a watermelon at the Everett Costco, but he did leave the store with a crate of apricots he didn't intend to purchase, admitting he regularly overbuys perishable food items.

"The salad is great – it is the best deal," he says, "but you can't eat it all in a couple of days before it starts wilting."

While Mr. Magnusson's spending may be moderate, the average amount spent in a visit to a warehouse club is $93, higher than the $38 Americans typically spend at a grocery store, says Brian Todd, president of the Food Institute, a nonprofit in Elmwood, N.J., that provides information on the food industry.

There are many reasons for this, Mr. Todd says. First, such trips are less frequent: Consumers averaged 11 trips to warehouse clubs in 2007, versus 59 trips to grocery stores. Some shoppers only make the trip to stock up on bulk items, or businesses may load up on products that they'd otherwise need a supplier to deliver. For others, he says, "There's an entertainment value to it. It's kind of an experience."

Mr. Compeau says the club's ambiance often generates the excitement over a perceived deal.

"It's very stark, open, and nothing upscale. It conveys the notion that 'We're on the cheap here' and if you walk in thinking it will cost $2,500 for a plasma TV and you see one for $1,800 – bingo – the deal is too good to pass up," he says.

Customers also understand that those deals may not be around for long.

"Wholesale clubs buy a shipment of an item and once it's gone, it's gone.... It's the opportunity to lose that deal which pushes up the time limit" and inspires some people to buy on the spot, Compeau says.

Often, prices are cheaper per unit at warehouse clubs, he says. But they aren't always less, and customers may overspend because it's difficult to comparison shop between wholesale clubs and regular grocery stores.

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