Smart Money

Which Is Cheaper: Amazon or Warehouse Stores?

Both Amazon and warehouse stores offer great prices but let’s compare which one offers the best deals.

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I’ve always been a bit of an Amazon junkie. On any given day, you’re likely to see at least one cardboard box with blue Amazon Prime tape gracing my front steps. We use it to order just about everything, from winterizing plastic for the windows to vitamins for the baby.

Since said baby was born, I’ve been using Amazon Prime even more than usual. Shortly after we brought him home, I realized we were running low on a bunch of basics: shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant. Since we do most of our grocery shopping at Aldi, we have to make a separate shopping trip for the brand-name essentials we prefer.

Related: We All Buy Groceries -- Here Are the Cards That Give Cash Back for Them

Not wanting to drag my infant out, I decided to put together our first Amazon Pantry box. It was generally a great experience, and it got me wondering where I could get our essentials for the lowest possible price.

Let’s do some price comparisons to see which wins: Amazon Pantry, Amazon Subscribe-and-Save, or the warehouse stores.

What Amazon Offers

Besides its normal Prime offerings, Amazon offers Prime Pantry and Subscribe-and-Save options. Here’s how these options work:

Amazon Prime Pantry offers a limited number of basic needs items. These include canned goods and nonperishable foods, baby formula and diapers, personal care items, and household cleaning products. Only certain brands are available, but most categories have a fairly wide selection of options.

When you buy from Prime Pantry, you are buying a whole pantry box. This is a huge cardboard package filled up with all your pantry items. Amazon tells you what percentage of your box each item takes up. For instance, a large can of Similac Advance Infant Formula takes up 4% of a Prime Pantry box. A 12-pack of Quilted Northern toilet paper takes up 14.8% of your box.

Prime Pantry boxes ship for a flat rate of $5.99, but you can often get free shipping if you buy certain special items. These items change periodically, but I’ve found that enough of them fit my needs that I can always qualify for free shipping.

What I love: I love that Prime Pantry makes it easy to shop for things I actually need, and would need to go to the grocery store for. Many of the prices are discounted, and are better than typical grocery store prices. It’s nice to get those essentials delivered right to my doorstep, which saves me from making an extra trip to the store.

What I don’t love: Filling your Prime Pantry box is a bit of a game. My goal is to come as close to 100% full as possible, which usually has me adding a few items that we’ll use but don’t necessarily need. Prime Pantry shopping is also a good time for me to stock up on on-sale items that fill in the gaps in my box. This is fine if I’ve got the budget for it. If I don’t have extra money to spend, though, it can be difficult to come in under budget but with a full box.

Amazon Subscribe-and-Save works for similar items as Prime Pantry, but the items are shipped individually. Subscribe-and-Save options are even more limited than Pantry options, but there are still thousands of items that are eligible. Basically, when you purchase a qualifying item, you’ll sign up for regularly scheduled deliveries of that item. You can plan for items to be delivered monthly, bimonthly, or even less often, depending on the item.

Subscribe-and-Save items come with discounts, and those discounts stack to add up to extra savings. The more items you add to your monthly Subscribe-and-Save shipping date, the more you’ll save. And you can cancel, change, or skip shipping months at any time through your Amazon account.

What I love: To be honest, I haven’t actually tried Subscribe-and-Save yet. But it’s a great concept for items I always forget to stock up on, or that I know I’ll need on a regular basis. Plus, the stacking discounts could mean some serious savings on certain items.

What I don’t love: Trying to figure out which will save more (Pantry or Subscribe-and-Save) can be a bit hairy. Plus, the monthly shipping date could get dangerous if you forget to account for that automatic charge in your budget!

Comparing Prices with Warehouse Stores

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how Amazon’s services work, let’s look at some actual prices. We’ll take a brand-name item from several different categories to compare pricing from Amazon Pantry, Amazon Subscribe-and-Save, Sams Club, and Costco. To keep things on par, we’ll look at per-unit pricing.

Remember, you may get different deals depending on when you shop, since all of these options come with frequent sales. And I’m looking at online pricing for the warehouse stores, so in-store pricing could vary in your local area.

Quilted Northern Ultra Soft & Strong

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - $6.47 for 12 double rolls (equivalent to 24 single rolls) = $.27/roll
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - $21.05 for 24 supreme rolls (equivalent of 96 single rolls) = $.22/roll (with full 15% discount, $.18/roll)
  • Sams Club - $21.48 for 36 bonus rolls (equivalent of 125 single rolls) = $.17/roll
  • Costco - Exact Product Not Available

Winner - Sams Club squeaks in as a slight winner on this one, but it doesn’t beat out Subscribe-and-Save’s 15% discount by much. Costco carries the Ultra Plush option, but it’s not exactly the same, so I didn’t compare it.

Folgers Coffee

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - Country Roast: $6.88 for 31.1 ounces = $.22/oz
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - Country Roast: $9.84 for 31.1 ounces = $.32/oz (with full 15% discount, $.28/oz)
  • Sams Club - Classic Roast: $9.98 for 48 oz = $.21/oz
  • Costco - Classic Roast; $11.99 for 48 oz = $.25/oz

Winner - If you’re looking for specific roasts, it can be hard to compare these options, as they don’t all carry the exact same products. But if you’re just looking for cheap, brand-name coffee, Amazon Prime Pantry wins for this round.

Dove Conditioner

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - Nutrive Solutions Daily Moisture: $3.52 for 12 ounces = $.29/oz
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - Nutrive Solutions Daily Moisture: $3.52 for 12 ounces = $.29/oz (with full 15% discount, $.25/oz)
  • Sams Club - Damage Therapy Daily Moisture: $6.88 for 40 ounces = $.14/oz
  • Costco - Product Not Available

Winner - Once again, we run into the issue of stores not offering the exact same items. But, as you might guess, the Sams version of this conditioner with the huge pump bottle is much cheaper than the smaller bottles. And on Amazon, it’s a wash unless you put five items in your Subscribe-and-Save card to get the full discount.

Seventh Generation Natural Liquid Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - Product Not Available
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - $24.87 for 80 ounces = $.31/oz (with full 15% discount, $.26/oz)
  • Sams Club - $28.78 for 150 ounces = $.19/oz
  • Costco - $28.79 for 150 ounces = $.19/oz

Winner - Sams Club and Costco come out much cheaper here, even compared with the Subscribe-and-Save discount. Again, it looks like things that come in plastic packaging are just going to be cheaper when you can buy them in extra-large bottles!

Tidy Cats Litter, 24/7 Performance

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - $5.52 for 14 pounds = $.39/pound
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - (LightWeight version) - $17.30 for 14-lb equivalent = $1.23/pound (with full 5% discount, $1.17/pound)
  • Sams Club - (LightWeight version) - $19.88 for 42-lb equivalent = $.46/pound
  • Costco - Product Not Available

Winner - Sams Club wins out once again. I think what we’re seeing is that items in larger, heavier, harder-to-ship packages are going to be cheaper from big box stores. Keep in mind that Costco has its own Kirkland brand for many of these items, including pet supplies, that may be much cheaper than your favorite name brands.

Huggies Diapers (Size 5)

  • Amazon Prime Pantry - (Little Snugglers) - $9.90 for 20 diapers = $.50/diaper
  • Amazon Subscribe-and-Save - (Little Snugglers) - $45.95 for 124 = $.37/diaper (with 20% discount offered by Amazon Family, $.30/diaper)
  • Sams Club - (Little Movers) - $39.98 for 140 diapers = $.29/diaper
  • Costco - (Little Movers) - $42.99 for 150 diapers = $.29/diaper

Winner - Costco and Sams Club win out here, too, but for a penny a diaper, the Subscribe-and-Save option could be worthwhile!

Multi-Grain Cheerios

Winner - Amazon Prime Pantry is the clear winner here, although the Subscribe-and-Save option is a good deal, too, if you go through tons of cereal in your house!

The Overall Winner

As you can see, there’s not a clear overall winner for these four shopping options. Generally, larger, heavier boxes are going to be cheaper from warehouse stores, while lighter-weight items that are easier to ship may be best bought online.

Keep in mind that with Amazon, you may be partially paying for the convenience of having someone drop everything off at your home. Sams Club does offer shipping, but it’s not always free.

Resource: Save Time and Money With These Grocery Delivery Services

Another thing to consider is that the quantities available at warehouse stores may not fit all that well into your home. If you have a smaller space, Amazon sells regular-sized options, usually at a discount from what you’d find in the grocery store.

As a busy working parent, I have to admit that the Subscribe-and-Save option is tempting, since it just shows up at my door without any effort on my part. However, it’s obviously not the best money saver for all of these options.

And finally, you run into the idea of brand name items. Many of these items are probably cheaper as off-brands from Costco or even grocery stores like Aldi.

Whether your goal is convenience or saving money, your best bet is to check out individual items you’re most likely to buy, and then compare them across options like these. When calculating savings, take into account the cost of a warehouse store membership versus an Amazon Prime membership, and don’t forget to account for the convenience factor!

Abby Hayes

Abby Hayes

Abby is a freelance journalist who writes on everything from personal finance to health and wellness. She spends her spare time bargain hunting and meal planning for her family of three. She has a B.A. in English Literature from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, and lives with her husband and children in Indianapolis.

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