Costco vs. Gordon Food Service

It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday!  It’s also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, so you might want to check out last year’s suggestions for Lenten fasts that help the environment or my musings on vanity and seeking help.

I’ve been a member of Costco for some time, and the money we save by buying some things in larger packages there more than makes up for the $50 annual fee.  Last year, I found out about another store that sells things in big packages, GFS Marketplace (Gordon Food Service), which doesn’t require membership; anyone can walk in and buy things there.  Which store is the better deal?  It depends on what you’re buying.

Last month, I bought the food for 115 Girl Scouts for a weekend at camp (I’m no longer a troop leader, but I accepted a call to volunteer as their food buyer and drive the car full of food to camp), and this gave me an opportunity to compare Costco’s and GFS’s prices more extensively than I ever had before.

I did the shopping in these steps:

  1. Saturday, six days before camp, I went to GFS and bought all the foods that didn’t need refrigeration and had prices I considered thrifty based on my mental price points.  (I am a data manager by profession and can keep a lot of this stuff in my head!)  I also bought items GFS had that I was pretty sure Costco didn’t have.  I wrote down prices for perishable foods and items I wasn’t sure were a good value.
  2. Saturday, I also went to Costco and bought other nonperishables and compared prices to those I had written down at GFS.
  3. Friday, I went back to Costco first because it’s on the way from my house to GFS.  I bought perishables that were lower-priced there than at GFS.  I had intended to make a second trip to GFS, but fitting everything into my little car took longer than I’d expected, and the GFS that’s on the way to camp is accessed by a lot of local roads; I was afraid of getting stuck in rush-hour traffic and/or having trouble finding my way to the highway.  Instead,
  4. I went to the regular supermarket (Shop ‘n’ Save) and Family Dollar store near Costco to pick up the remaining items.

I’m only citing actual prices for the items whose prices I wrote down.  For the other “better prices” I mention here, either I bought the item at GFS and later checked the price at Costco and saw that I’d saved a non-trivial amount, or I rejected the item at both GFS and Costco and then found it cheaper at Shop ‘n’ Save or Family Dollar.

Costco has better prices on fresh fruits and vegetables:

  • Bananas were 49c/pound at Costco, 67c/pound at GFS. (67c is an unusually high price even in regular supermarkets, locally.)
  • Oranges were 77c/pound at Costco, 85c/pound at GFS.
  • Apples were 80c/pound at Costco, 96c/pound at GFS.
  • Celery sticks were $1.89/pound at Costco, $1.93/pound at GFS.  (Small difference on that one!  Both had the leaves trimmed off, so only edible celery is included in the weight.)

GFS has better prices on canned fruits and vegetables in gigantic cans:

  • peaches
  • applesauce
  • fruit cocktail
  • corn
  • spaghetti sauce

GFS has better prices on big containers of condiments:

  • peanut butter
  • ketchup
  • mustard
  • pancake syrup

Costco has better prices on these items:

  • bread and hot-dog buns.  I didn’t write down the bread prices, but the buns were 12c each at Costco, 16c each at GFS, and when you’re buying hundreds of them, that really adds up!
  • 100% juice in individual servings (These were for the snack to eat on the way home.)
  • Parmesan cheese

These foods were very similarly priced at Costco and GFS:

  • breakfast cereals
  • coffee (GFS happened to be having a sale on Maxwell House; their regular price is similar to Costco’s)
  • chocolate bars
  • graham crackers
  • assorted chips in individual servings (These were for the snack to eat on the way home.)

GFS has some items Costco just doesn’t carry:

  • Pasta in 5-pound bags and 20-pound boxes.  Costco only sells multi-packs of 1-pound boxes, which is just stupidly wasteful even if you’re buying for a small family, since pasta stays good for a long time even in an open package.  My family buys 5-pound bags at GFS (they even have whole-wheat pasta!) and transfers the pasta to repurposed containers.  Costco’s pasta is name-brand and much more expensive.  Another disadvantage of having many small boxes, when you’re cooking for a crowd, is that you have to open each one!
  • Big bags of beverage mix–lemonade and fruit punch.  (If I were the cook at camp, I’d make real lemonade, which costs the same or less and is healthier, but I wasn’t the cook, and they’d asked for “bug juice”.)
  • Big bags of hot cocoa mix.  So much less trash than a bunch of boxes filled with little packets, and much less expensive!
  • Big cans of pudding.  The only pudding I could find at Costco was packaged in individual servings.

Then again, Costco has some things GFS doesn’t (after the first two, these are not things I was buying for camp but things my family likes):

  • Salad dressing in large-sized normal bottles, instead of gigantic jars from which it would have to be transferred (messily!) to serving containers.
  • Canned tuna that doesn’t look suspicious.  I forget what the label on the GFS brand said about the grade or source of tuna, but I just didn’t trust it!  Costco’s is a name brand and about the same price.
  • Delicious frozen spinach ravioli and pierogies.
  • This scrumptious granola which is organic, lower in sugar and higher in protein than many granolas, reasonably priced, and so delicious that every member of my family eats it almost every day!  The bags are kind of small (two bags inside the box) but if you shake out the crumbs they are great for freezing food in–so you get a second use out of them.
  • Health-and-beauty items: toothbrushes, ibuprofen, and many vitamins and supplements at better prices (and with less packaging per unit) than you usually find in drugstores.

These are the things I bought at the smaller stores:

  • Foods I needed only in small quantities because the menu didn’t call for much: cinnamon, sugar, vanilla extract, mayonnaise, grape and strawberry jelly, cream cheese, non-dairy whipped topping.
  • Carrots weren’t available from either bulk store at a price I considered reasonable, and Costco only had baby carrots–it sometimes has had a good deal on 5-pound bags of whole (organic!) carrots, but not that week.  I bought my 16 pounds of carrots in 2-pound bags at Shop ‘n’ Save.
  • Lettuce looked expensive and not so fresh at the bulk stores.  Sure enough, at Shop ‘n’ Save it was about the same price but fresher.
  • Cookies.  I just wanted some big packs of ordinary cookies, like sandwich cookies.  Costco seemed to have only expensive individual servings.
  • Marshmallows.  I don’t know why, but although I looked hard for these in GFS and Costco, they just don’t seem to sell them!  Family Dollar had them cheap.
  • Cheap, mass-produced, squishy “bagels.”  My family only buys real, boiled, chewy bagels, but I knew that for camp I wasn’t supposed to spend that much money on this alternate breakfast option.  I was surprised that Costco didn’t have the pseudo-bagels.  Shop ‘n’ Save did.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned milk, eggs, or meat, it’s because of my environmentalism!  I drive a compact car and haven’t bought meat (other than fish and that one batch of ham) in years.  Once I saw how much space the nonperishables filled in my little car, I realized I was not going to be able to fit all the food in there, so I arranged for someone else to buy and transport the milk, eggs, and also orange juice.  I still needed to buy the meat, and unfortunately I didn’t do such a great job with that, due to my lack of meat-buying savvy:

  • I didn’t shop around enough for frozen, pre-cooked sausage.  It’s probably available at a better price somewhere!  GFS didn’t have it, so I bought it at Costco, and it was the most expensive single item in this project!  I spent $120.89 just on sausage!  This was for two meals, and the camp director had estimated we needed 400 pieces, which was 11 bags; they were annoyingly puffy and took up a lot of space in the car.  She told me afterward that it was 2 bags too many . . . sigh . . .
  • All-beef hot dogs were 22c each at GFS. Then at Costco, I couldn’t find hot dogs anywhere.  While doing my family shopping during the week, I noted that hot dogs in the supermarket cost significantly more, so I figured I’d get them at GFS on my second visit there.  Then, when buying perishables at Costco, I did see the hot dogs (they’re in the general refrigerated section, not in the meat department!), but I calculated that they were 31c each, so GFS still won.  But then I wound up not going back to GFS.  I bought hot dogs at Shop ‘n’ Save for 35c each.  Sorry, Girl Scouts . . . but maybe they were a better quality?  (Note that to get that price at GFS, you have to buy a pack of 40 hot dogs!)
  • Ground beef cost less per pound at Costco than the supermarket (GFS only had frozen hamburger patties), but Costco sells it only in 5-pound packs.  My shopping list called for 7 pounds (to be added to half of the spaghetti sauce), so I probably would have saved money by buying the right amount at a slightly higher price per pound instead of buying so much extra.

Overall, the meats were so expensive that I began to understand how my family spends less than average on groceries!  Maybe next year’s Winter Camp menu could use some beans?  Canned beans are a great deal at GFS! (Costco has only kidney beans in the big cans and at a higher price than GFS, which also sells pinto and black beans.)  I buy their big cans, use some beans in one meal, and then freeze the rest in small plastic bags for later meals.

Shopping at Costco and GFS works for me!  I don’t ever shop at Sam’s Club, though.  I’ve been boycotting Walmart for 21 years, and the reasons to continue just keep piling up!  (Yes, I am aware that Walmart and Sam’s are now stocking some enviro-friendly products and greening their stores.  Costco is doing that, too.)  Costco treats its employees better and is a more ethical corporation.  Here’s what Consumer Reports says about Costco vs. Sam’s.  Furthermore, I’ve been given some gifts by friends and relatives who do shop at Sam’s, and the only one of those that was reasonable quality was a set of books; the others worked poorly or fell apart quickly, and the food products just tasted cheap (watery, ineptly seasoned, etc.) when they weren’t already moldy or rancid!  The only reason I can see to shop at Sam’s or Walmart is if you’re in a place where there truly are no other options, which I realize is true in some parts of America.  I’m lucky to have better choices.

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

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