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Smart Buying

4 Ways Warehouse Clubs Are Better Online

Avoid the herd mentality at your local warehouse club by looking for deals online.

It's every warehouse club customer's nightmare, especially for those who live near large cities and shop on weekends: You race for a parking space. You struggle to navigate the plus-size cart through a maze of merchandise and bargain hunters. You wait in long lines at the register and at the exit as a clerk checks off your receipt. Then you pack the haul into your vehicle as though it's a real-life game of Tetris. Yes, you earn your discounts, one trip at a time.

That's four good reasons right there to like shopping at the warehouse-club Web sites instead. BJ's Wholesale Club, Costco Wholesale and Sam's Club match the low prices at their brick-and-mortar stores with the no-hassle convenience of online shopping (as long as you're mindful of shipping costs). Here are four more advantages to buying your bulk and big-ticket items online:

1. You'll save time and money with valuable online tools and benefits for members only. Pull up previous orders to recall and re-order favorite values, create shopping lists, and submit rebates online to streamline the entire shopping process.

The big three warehouse clubs offer a variety of membership packages. Top-tier membership has its advantages, especially if you're a big shopper. But only Costco and Sam's extend the frequent-shopper rebate programs for top-tier members to your online purchases.

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You'll pay $100 per year for Costco's Executive membership, which comes with a 2% rebate of up to $500 per year on purchases online and in stores. So spend $5,000 in a year and the membership pays for itself. You'll need to spend $8,929 in a year with the $100 Advantage Plus membership at Sam's to earn a rebate large enough to cover the membership fee.

Non-members can buy items on warehouse-club sites if they pay a surcharge in addition to the listed price. Costco charges nonmembers a 5% fee, Sam's 10% and BJ's 15%. Use price-comparison sites, such as PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com and MySimon.com, to figure out whether it's worth buying goods from the warehouse club online or going with another Web retailer.

2. You'll find a much wider selection. A warehouse club's Web site typically carries 80% more products than the local store does -- though not the perishables like bananas and salad that are a big draw at the warehouse itself. Each club has a different approach, so pick the one that's right for you. BJ's specializes in consumer goods. Sam's Club caters more to entrepreneurs by providing special supplies for small businesses. Costco's strategy is to have a smaller inventory of higher-quality products and eclectic items, such as a gray-marble pet urn from R&S Design ($80). "Costco tends to be more creative than its counterparts in the items it stocks," says Michael Clayman, editor of the industry newsletter Warehouse Club Focus. Prices on the Web sites usually reflect the prices you find on items that are sold in stores, plus whatever you pay in shipping costs.

3. You can stock up discreetly. We're talking about products you mightn’t want to be carting out of the store in quantities of 48 or 96. For example, Costco sells prescription drugs online (it’s the only one of the Big Three warehouse clubs to do so). In a survey of pharmacies last year, Consumer Reports found that Costco had the cheapest prescriptions. Costco also sells wine online, and is the biggest retailer in the world of Dom Perignon champagne. A bottle of Dom Perignon 1999 sells for $120, which is the lowest price we found on price-comparison sites. (Some online retailers sell the champagne for $285 per bottle.) But Costco.com only sells wine to be delivered to addresses in California, New Mexico, Oregon or Washington.

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4. You always have access to warehouse-club coupons online. Each warehouse-club site has a section for items that are on sale that day, no clipping necessary. Among recent offers that beat other top online deals by at least $20: at Costco.com, a Hoover SteamVac Dual V Carpet Cleaner for $150, with shipping included; and at BJs.com, a Toshiba 1 gigabyte mini-notebook computer for $340 (including shipping). Clubs also send coupons to members directly through mailers and company magazines. Those coupons can be used online.

Caution: Mind the shipping fees. Before you judge the value of any online bargain, take a look at how much you'll pay for shipping. "Shipping costs add to the confusion about shopping online at warehouse clubs," Clayman says.

The sites don't provide you with a transparent way of figuring out how much shipping will cost before you add the item to your online cart -- sometimes the price includes shipping, and sometimes it doesn't. Some coupon offers waive shipping fees. That seems especially true for furniture deals at BJ's. Bigger items and fragile products require additional shipping costs. As is usually the case with online shipping, you can save if you are willing to wait longer for delivery.