On my way into Sam's Club in Orlando, Fla., I am greeted with an offer on keys. Today, the enthusiastic young woman explains, someone will cut and program copies of my keys while I shop.
It's not an offer I usually encounter, but that's sort of the nature of wholesale clubs. The shopping experience is for people who are serious about getting stuff done and saving while they do it.
Warehouse or wholesale clubs date back to the 1970s. The format of the stores is a bulk outlet where buying items in greater quantities affords discounted prices. Customers must pay membership dues in order shop.
While the idea was popular in the 1980s, the U.S. now only sports three big players in the world of big buys: Seattle-based Costco, BJ's Wholesale Club and the Walmart-owned Sam's Club. I paid a visit to each of them to find out exactly what you can expect to get for your membership fees.
BJ's Wholesale Club
The first detail that popped out to me about BJ's was the aisle signs laying out exactly what merchandise was where. The size of these stores is a little overwhelming to a first-timer and this little bit of wayfinding made BJ's that much more approachable.
Of course, not all the merchandise is on an easily identified aisle. As with all the stores, some of it is piled into a middle section like a cross between a rummage sale and a bazaar. This is mainly where you'll find clothing, outdoor furniture, books and other odds and ends. Learning what is being sold in the middle is one of the tricks of savvy consumers.
"I come for the nice selection," said shopper Veronica Mann. She has had a membership to BJ's for years, though she couldn't be sure how many. "There's good variety and prices."
While Mann also carried a membership to one of the other stores (she refused to specify which one), "I always come back to BJ's," she said.
BJ's felt the most like a quaint, personalized store to me. Well, as quaint as 72,000-113,000 square feet can feel. But beyond the signage, there were a few cozy details.