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All Contents © 2018The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| Updated March 2017
Years back, retailers got wise to the ways of store brands. You know the drill: Grocers stock their shelves with food items packaged just for them, from pasta sauces to pinto beans. For most, gone are the days of those products signaling to customers that yes, they’re less expensive than national brands -- and less tasty. I’m looking at you, old-school A&P with your Ann Page line of goods. Rest in peace.
Even warehouse clubs are mastering the game, none better than Costco with its Kirkland Signature line, which includes traditional grocery-list staples as well as non-traditional items such as clothing and luggage. In fact, high marks from readers on the quality of Costco’s store brands helped the bulk retailer place sixth in Consumer Reports’ supermarkets ratings, behind Market Basket, Fareway, Trader Joe’s, Publix and, the No. 1 chain, Wegmans.
Costco has turned on its head the notion that a store brand is a notch below a national brand by using its coast-to-coast strength to strong-arm suppliers to put quality as well as value into its Kirkland Signature offerings. We took a closer look at several Kirkland Signature products getting accolades from customers and critics. You should check them out, too.
Note: In March 2017, we added three more Kirkland Signature bonus items to this story, in addition to the 10 original products we recommended from Costco.
Consumer Reports actually ran a “bacon test program” and saved Costco’s bacon, so to speak. The respected publisher and product tester awarded its highest score, based on flavor and texture, to the Kirkland Signature brand of regular sliced bacon. In Consumer Reports’ own words, the sliced bacon you can find at Costco “crisped up nicely, with a balance of fat and meat flavors, complemented by wood smoke and a hint of sweetness.”
Oscar Mayer’s thick-cut bacon finished a distant second in testing.
We’ve long recommended buying batteries in bulk at warehouse clubs for the simple reason that you’ll pay a lot less per battery than you would buying smaller packages at supermarkets or drugstores. You’ll save even more at Costco if you opt for its store-branded batteries. While the Kirkland Signature AA Alkaline batteries tested by Consumer Reports didn’t beat out Duracell or Rayovac on quality alone, Costco batteries did earn the coveted “Best Buy” rating, which is based on a combination of quality and value.
Yup, beer. And beer aimed right at my sweet spot: light. Kirkland Signature Light Beer is your basic watery light, with a hint of plain ol’ light beer taste, without Bud Light’s off-putting (in my opinion) aftertaste. We’ve seen it at very nice prices in 30- and 48-packs. Yes, please.
In fairness, Costco’s heartier craft brews such as its Kirkland Signature India Pale Ale score higher with beer enthusiasts on such websites as RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com. Prices get high marks, too. We wandered over to a pallet filled with variety packs of 24 12-ounce bottles of Kirkland craft beers. The cases were selling for $19.99. Nearby, a Goose Island Flight Case of 24 12-ounce bottles was going for $28.99.
Consumer Reports plugs Kirkland Signature Colombian Supremo whole bean coffee as a “Best Buy,” noting the medium-dark roast has a chocolate edge, with a “hint of dried fruit and some burnt notes.” The review went on to say that the coffee is “moderately bitter” (a good thing) despite exhibiting “a trace of woodiness” (a bad thing, apparently). They already lost me at bitter.
A handful of Colombian coffees scored much higher on taste, including a couple of coffee lines from Whole Foods, but none could compete with Kirkland’s price.
Photo by Bob Niedt
Not every Costco has a gas station adjacent to it, but the club locations that do have them see steady, and strong, business. What gives? The savings. A Costco in Northern Virginia recently was selling regular Kirkland Signature Gasoline for $2.13 a gallon. Nearby Sunoco and Shell stations had regular priced at $2.39 and $2.41 a gallon, respectively. So an 11-gallon fill-up at Costco would save you about $3 – not bad if you’re heading to Costco anyway. (You can check gas prices near you on the GasBuddy website or app).
Factor in how valuable your time is, though. Even on a weekday afternoon, at least 20 vehicles were waiting in line, sometimes for 20 minutes or longer, to get to Costco’s gas pumps. That’s a lot of idling.
Golfers got giddy over Costco’s new line of golf balls at the end of 2016, so much that they sold out, were restocked – and sold out again right before Christmas. What’s the what? Kirkland Signature Four-Piece Urethane Cover Golf Balls were getting compared by the pros to the vaunted Pro V1 golf balls from Titleist, according to Golf Digest and others. And at $30 for 24 balls from Costco, versus the $40 you'd pay for a 12-pack of last season’s Titleist Pro V1 golf balls at Dick’s Sporting Goods, the Kirkland golf balls were a steal.
The bad news: Costco no longer stocks Kirkland golf balls -- it ran out -- though you might be able to find some second-hand on websites such as eBay. The good news: A new line of Kirkland golf balls should show up on store shelves eventually. Costco has been tight-lipped about a release date, but the U.S. Golf Association has approved a new Kirkland ball dubbed "Performance One." (The original Kirkland ball was called "Tour Performance.")
“Sour cream notes and slightly chalky texture,” opined Consumer Reports in its comparison of Kirkland Signature Greek Yogurt (plain, nonfat) to like brands, and noted it was the “best tasting nonfat.” It landed a “Best Buy” label. Fage scored higher than Kirkland on taste, but you’ll pay nearly twice the price for the brand-name yogurt.
If you’re a Walmart shopper, the big-box retailer’s Great Value Greek Yogurt trailed Kirkland yogurt only slightly in both taste and cost.
At $11 for two half-gallons, it’s a bit pricey in my world considering you can usually find a leading ice cream brand such as Breyers on sale at the supermarket for a lot less. Coupons can bring down the supermarket price even more. (Costco doesn’t accept manufacturers’ coupons.) Still, Costco’s Kirkland Signature Super Premium Vanilla Ice Cream earned a “Best Buy” rating from Consumer Reports, which called it “full and dense with big dairy flavor and complex vanilla-extract flavor,” though “sometimes slightly gummy.”
Vanilla ice creams from Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs scored far higher than Kirkland’s, based on flavor and texture, but you’ll shell out a lot more for both of those brands. Further proof that you get what you pay for: Even though you can find it cheaper, Breyers scored much lower than Kirkland in taste testing.
We’ve already sung the praises of Costco’s whole bean coffee, in terms of taste and value. It turns out that fans of those ubiquitous Keurig single-serve coffee makers can get in on the action, too. We found a box of 120 K-Cup pods of Kirkland Signature Pacific Bold dark roast coffee selling for $39.99, or about 33 cents per pod. Match that up against a box of 72 Dunkin’ Donuts medium roast K-Cup pods selling for $42.99, or about 60 cents per pod, and you can see where the bargain lies.
A tip for pod people who aren’t Costco members: You can find Kirkland K-Cups for sale on Amazon, though you will be pay a premium for your order.
Costco’s olive oil rises to the top, notes the University of California, Davis, which conducted a chemical and sensory study of olive oils. Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil was one of only a few imported oils that met international and U.S. standards for extra virgin olive oil. The many brands that fell short in the testing were diluted with cheaper oils and exhibited problems with quality and flavor.
When my wife finally weaned me off creamy (and delicious) Jif peanut butter and into the world of peanut butter made without sugar (just peanuts; maybe some salt), my snacking world changed.
Our go-to brand has been Nature’s Promise organic creamy peanut butter from Giant, but after diving into Kirkland Signature Organic Peanut Butter, that, too, has changed. It’s just as good as Nature’s Promise, maybe even better, and there’s no arguing with the price. You get two 28-ounce jars of Kirkland peanut butter for $9.99, while a 16-ounce jar of Nature’s Promise is $5.19.
I’ll put it up front: While I eat no fish or seafood (or much meat, for that matter), friends and family swear by the freshness, taste and bargain price (compared to Whole Foods and elsewhere) of Kirkland Signature Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon. The fillets come individually wrapped, and a three-pound package of salmon runs about $29. A recent check found wild caught Coho salmon fillets selling for $17 a pound at a Whole Foods in Northern Virginia.
Wine snobs are already familiar with Kirkland Signature wines, but spirits snobs might still be in the dark about Costco’s store-brand booze. Costco isn’t allowed to sell liquor in all its stores; many states limit the warehouse club to beer and wine. But some states do give the green light to Costco selling liquor, and its vodka is a hands-down winner, raves Bon Appetit.
I stumbled upon Kirkland Signature Vodka while shopping at a Costco on Florida’s Gulf Coast last fall. Not that I’m so into vodka, but I do know good from bad. Kirkland’s vodka ranks up there with my American fav, Tito’s.
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