Grocery

The 15 Best-Kept Costco Secrets You Didn't Know About

Our warehouse whisperer Katie Workman gives us the lay of the land.

May 13, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Walking into Costco for the first time can feel overwhelming, I think it’s safe to say. I have a vivid memory of my first time shopping there: My then-boyfriend, now-husband of a ridiculous amount of years (she said lovingly) brought me to the Costco in central Massachusetts, near his family’s home. I spun around in a dazed joy, eyes pulled upward to the towering stacks of...stuff. So much stuff. I remember discovering the largest can of tomato paste I had ever seen in one of the aisles and holding it aloft as I ran toward Gary shouting something like, “Oh my god, would you look at this?”

The man next to us leaned over and said kindly, “First time at a Price Club, huh?”

Now, many years later, I consider myself somewhat of a Costco pro. I know what products I like, what I will use in Price Club quantities, and which items will just take up too much space in my fridge and go to waste.

But, like yoga or mediation, we'd be wise to consider Costco shopping a practice to be dedicated to, and to be filled with ebbs and flows, always presenting a chance to learn something new. Here are some of the things I've discovered in the past few months though assiduous shopping, research, and conversations with Costco employees:

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1. The cents in the prices may not be arbitrary. I had heard the rumors, but Assistant Manager Lori at a Costco in Connecticut confirmed this very useful tidbit: If you see an item with a price ending in ".97" that means it’s marked down and going out of stock, possibly for a long time, maybe even forever. You’ll see this often on seasonal items, like gardening merchandise or holiday decorations. It’s a very subtle way of putting things on clearance, though the prices may or may not not drop all that dramatically. You should definitely buy the product if you want it, and if it’s something you use a lot of and it’s nonperishable, stock up. Prices ending with ".00" or ".88" also indicate something is on sale, for any number of reasons, usually because there is a small amount of the merch that needs moving. These are usually sale prices set at the store level, versus nationwide.

2. Look for the star (aka asterisk) on the price card. Rob in the electronics section of the store explained this to me, and Lori corroborated: A star means that this item has been deleted from the inventory, and is on its way out. Again, it may come back someday…or it may not. The takeaway: If you like it, buy it.

3. Beyond cheddar. Costco has lots of your more basic cheeses, like cheddar, fresh mozzarella, Gouda, and shredded Mexican blends. Goat cheese, Brie, and Parmesan come in a whole bunch of varieties and are very well priced, as well. But if you were looking to put together a more sophisticated cheese board, take a closer look at the cheese section. On my last trip they had authentic Italian DOP Taleggio, P’tit Basque cheese from France, and Le Pico cheeses (also from France), sort of like a Camembert-style cheese made with goat’s milk. Prices are terrific: In my store I saw the Taleggio for $6.99 a pound and the Le Pico was two for $7.99, where you might pay double that at a cheese shop or counter.

Try using these cheeses in:

4. Vacations and cruises. Lori said do not miss the cruise offerings. Cunard, Royal Carribean, and Uniworld River Cruises from Alaska to Denali to Europe...the offerings are vast and there are some great deals to be had.

5. Anyone can use the pharmacy. No card needed, and the prices are highly competitive.

6. Plants. Lori also said that their deals on plants are pretty spectacular, especially in late spring. I would make one trip to see what they have, then plan out your plantings, and return with a list. As always with Costco, make your turnaround time tight—inventory changes fast.

7. If an item goes on sale after you bought it, you can get the difference refunded. As long as it’s within 30 days, bring your receipt if you have it, but basically since you used your Costco card when you bought it, they can track previous purchases and will have a record in their system. Without a receipt you will get the lowest sale price refunded, so that’s a good reason to keep your receipt. Apparently, a little known fact is that you don’t even have to bring in unsatisfactory produce to get your money back—just the receipt.

8. Consider the Executive Membership. I started with a basic membership, but once I listened to a particularly persuasive cashier’s pitch, I upgraded to the Executive Membership level. Here’s why: The regular membership is $60, and the Executive membership is $60 more. The main perk is that you get a refund of 2 percent on all of your purchases at the end of the year, so if you're a regular shopper and think a $3,000 annual total might be in your sights, then go for it (P.S. if you're contemplating any big purchase, whether a TV or a vacation, it’s definitely something to think about).

Also, you get lower pricing on things like auto insurance (another thing Costco offers!), plus free roadside assistance and discounts on check printing (yet another service!). But here’s why you can’t lose: If by the end of the year you haven’t spent enough so that you make up the upgrade fee of $60, they will give you back the difference. NB: You do have to make a note to ask for it.

9. Back to the food: organic poultry and meat. If you compare prices with other organic chickens or meats sold at markets or butchers, you’ll see that Costco’s prices are terrific. Prices on all meat at Costco fluctuate with the market, but they are always very competitive. I love buying organic chicken thighs to make my Greek Roasted Chicken Thighs, chicken breasts for my Chicken Stir-Fry with Peanuts, or ground beef for my Deviled Burgers.

10. More chicken thoughts. That Costco's rotisserie chickens are delicious and a bargain at $4.99 is not a secret. What’s kind of interesting, though (and definitely makes you feel like a smart shopper), is the fact that they actually lose a bit of money on each cooked bird they sell. Their rotisserie chickens are what are known as “loss leaders,” which means items that are intentionally sold at a great value for the customer, even though they don’t make a profit for the store. The big reason Costco (and other merchandisers) do this is because, well, look at your cart! Not many people go in for just a roast chicken and leave with that single item—there’s plenty of profit in those other items for the store. And listen while you shop: When you hear a bell ring, that means they're putting fresh, hot rotisserie chickens out for sale.

11. Even more good news in the chicken department. Sure, you can buy one of their inexpensive birds and shred the meat yourself to use in all kinds of recipes. Or—especially if you're a fan of white meat—you can buy a package of hand-pulled shredded chicken breasts from their rotisserie chickens with all of the work done for you. The chunks are nice and substantial. Plus: $15.89 for a big 42-ounce package. I like to buy these packages to make any number of meals, like ramen, quesadillas, and chicken Caesar salad wraps.

12. Organic produce is a very good buy. Lettuces, berries, carrots—Costco has a huge range of organic products, many with recognizable and trusted brand names (Earthbound Farms, Driscoll’s), and their prices are excellent. According to several sources, Costco is the leading seller of organic produce by volume in the U.S. so that bulk purchasing power translates to savings for us.

13. Order a whole cooked pizza when you know you have about 20 minutes left of shopping and checkout time. Won’t you feel like a smarty-pants when you sail from the checkout line to the food court to pick up your hot and waiting pizza? Then either sit with the fam and dig in, or bring it home to the waiting, cheering crowd.

14. Check out their coupon book. Anything from microwave popcorn to laundry detergent to a grill might be on sale. At the time of this writing, a KitchenAid 8 burner gas grill was on sale from $1,999.99 to $1,499.99—a $500 savings! The discount is applied automatically at checkout, no coupon clipping necessary. The Costco mobile app will show you what’s on sale if you forgot to check the coupon book you should have received in the mail, and there is signage posted throughout the store highlighting their coupon offerings as well. Sales offerings change often.

15. No card? No problem (sort of). In some states you can shop in their liquor store without a card. And if you have a friend with a card, then they can buy you a Costco gift card, which will get you in just like a regular membership does (because you’ll just use it to pay). Some stores may limit the number of times you can do this per year, so check your store first.

What are your Costco secrets? Tell us in the comments below.

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Author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and themom100.com blog. A New Yorker, cook, and mom, I don't sit still very much.

101 Comments

Kassie October 8, 2019
I second (or third?) Costco pharmacy for pet meds. My sweet girl needed an extended release version of a very common generic anti-anxiety med. Walgreens charged me $127 for a 30 day supply. I decided to do a price check when shopping at Costco one day. $11 for a month’s supply. I actually repeated the medication twice because I was sure the tech was quoting the wrong one. Nope.
 
Mitwocents July 28, 2019
Pillows, Towels, sheets, ( king size microfiber 6 piece set was 12.99 yesterday) wrapping paper, tape, school supplies, batteries, trash can liners, jewelry. All are well worth a look! Location: West Ox , Fairfax VA.
 
Kt4 June 16, 2019
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norma June 16, 2019
Costco has changed their kosher meat section to only selling frozen kosher meat instead of ffresh. They changed their supplier from Solomon Kosher (fresh) to TEVA (frozen). When purchasing London Broil in two separate Costco stores, both timnes when defrosting the frozen London Broil, I ended up with 6 skinny pieces of meat (like cheese steak slices) INSTEAD of 1 solid London Broil.l It is unconscionable that this supplier cheats the buyer into thinkinbg they are buying a nie London Broil and winds up with 6 scraps of meat which is inedible and unable to be grilled as well.
 
DC's P. July 30, 2019
Don’t forget, Costco has an outstanding return policy, which is that one can return anything if disappointed with a Costco purchase.
 
cosmiccook June 5, 2019
The New Orleans Costco has gone WAY down-hill since it opened 4 years ago. Initially, they carried fresh wild mushrooms (never to be seen again). Our organic options have dwindled. I used to be able to get different organic sugars, now its just Kirkland's cane. I've spoken at length w managers and they've given me two excuses/reasons. Organic items don't sell well at our store (BS most people's carts are filled with them. What our store carries is dependent on the REGION our store is associated with regarding warehouses and buying. In this case, Texas, which I find hard to believe doesn't have a huge organic buying base. When I visited the Deerfield, Chicago Costco I was blown away by the amount and variety of items they carried! Don Julio 1942 Tequila for $99! Our Costco does sell a great local boutique gin for 5-7 less than other local stores.
 
mary June 4, 2019
I've been to various Costco's throughout the land (the US anyway) and there are definitely regional differences. For example, the P’tit Basque cheese from France you mention above is unfortunately not available in most stores. Klarbrun water in Cincinnati doesn't mean it's in Indianapolis. How oh how do I get my costco to carry products I've seen in other stores?
 
Juliebell June 4, 2019
This is from Kansas. The Costco that I frequent has a suggestion box and Customer service seems amenable to listening and passing info along. We see differences within the area so if we cross the state line into MO there are different products. Good luck!
 
Juliebell May 29, 2019
We like the Kirkland balsamic, I often cook it down to drizzle on salad, strawberries with pepper and pizza. Work out clothing is often good quality. I buy name brand tennis shoes for my husband to wear while doing yard work. Bagels are good. Paper goods, foil, plastic wrap and parchment are great products. We have good luck with the berries although the comments about Driscoll are concerning. Laundry and cleaning products are much cheaper.
Starbucks coffee beans and K cups are a good buy. The Kirkland frozen shrimp has always been a good buy along with most frozen fruit and veg. I have read that the prime meat is not top quality so I stick with the choice unless I see something that has exceptional marbling. I don’t buy that much beef. The kosher meats are good and the Kirkland whole chickens are good. I buy the packages of organic drumsticks and wing when the grandkids are here and the savings is significant. We buy both the lamb chops and the boneless leg of
lamb. Gas is less. We’re in KS so no liquor but the MO store is not that far. The book and magazine selection can be good at times.
 
Molly F. May 27, 2019
One of our favorite items is the Chicken Tikka Masala by Sukhi's Gourmet Indian Foods. It's gluten free and delicious. I'm weird about chicken, but have not once gotten any gross chicken by-product in it. It makes a quick, easy meal. All you have to do is cook some rice.
 
Mo W. May 27, 2019
Is it frozen?
 
Molly F. May 27, 2019
No. At our store, it's located in the refrigerated area of perishable foods like soups, quiche, spreads and other quick meals. It is so good. These are the coolers closer to the deli area. I hope you can find it.
 
Nick May 25, 2019
So to get fuel in Massachusetts you must be a member. In NJ anyone can buy fuel. I don’t know about the other states.
 
Molly F. May 27, 2019
You need to be a member in Michigan, too.
 
Amanda October 7, 2019
You need to be a member to buy fuel in Ohio.
 
Smokymtngirl May 25, 2019
Our Costco is an hour and half away, but we make a run every couple of months. I especially buy many of their exotic cheeses in bricks, triangles or whatever and then shred them and put them in freezer bags or sealed bags (depending how much it makes after shredding) mark the date and type of cheese. So much cheaper than buying plain ole shredded cheddar or mozzarella . We love Tillamook cheese, comes from Oregon. We buy many of our dry goods there, but love their chicken and frozen Tortilla Crusted Tillapia (which I make fish tacos with) I buy the laundry and fabric softener in the big containers then just fill my small containers I saved from previous purchase, the big containers are too heavy for me to handle. The pine nuts!!! I roast those and but them on everything...lol Love our Costco that's for sure.
 
Susan C. May 24, 2019
Rotissere chickens at Costco in Canada are 7.99
 
Rick July 29, 2019
Costco roasted chickens are also very big birds! The value is exceptional...
 
Mo W. May 24, 2019
Whenever Costco has the seafood festival, I buy the the 4 lb bag of their jumbo shrimp for $9.99 a lb. $39.99 total. I get a bag that is really frozen and take it straight home. Then I take out however many I want to serve on any given night. Set them in warm water for 5 minutes then peel them. If you like shrimp cocktail, boil them for 2 minutes then chill them with ice. If you like grilled shrimp, just dress them with whatever oil and spices you like. They are firm and every time I serve them everyone raves about them, especially for shrimp cocktail. You will never settle for soggy limp shrimp again. A 4 lb bag can last a few months. Makes excellent shrimp scampi too.
 
C B. May 25, 2019
Thawing food in warm water would make the health dept cringe.
 
cosmiccook June 5, 2019
Try steaming your seafood--you retain so much more flavor. Fortunately, we are able to get fresh seafood--at least until we started getting all the flood waters. Crab season has been destroyed. I wish Costco's King Crab legs didn't skyrocket in price. Last year they were $18 an Lb, now they're 23!
 
Rick July 29, 2019
...and, ultimately, can change flavor and integrity...
 
Mo W. May 24, 2019
I also just discovered, in the frozen food section, Japanese Soba noodles with fresh veggies. There are 6 packages (servings) in a box. The can be microwaved in 3 minutes. The same Japanese company makes fried rice that comes also in a 6 pkg. box. It is excellent. Also ready in 3 minutes. Company name is Yakisoba for the noodles and Yakitori for the Chicken Fried Rice. Less than $13 a box. Great for lunches.
 
Mo W. May 24, 2019
I just discovered that I could use my Costco membership to rent a car in the UK. We are getting a mid-range car for 2 weeks for $306. It was a far better deal than I got anywhere else.
 
Molly F. May 27, 2019
Wow! Good to know!
 
Noreen F. May 24, 2019
The nearest Costco is an hour away, so I've never felt I'd shop there enough to make the membership worthwhile. I might try it for a year, though, and see if I save enough.
 
Smokymtngirl May 25, 2019
Ours is an hour and half away. but we make a run every couple of months, we take our coolers and you can buy a bag of ice and place in the cooler, we just don't buy ice cream...lol. we love our Costco.
 
emVee May 24, 2019
Among my Costco favorites: Kirkland Toscana Extra Virgin Olive Oil (dated with the year of harvest, and usually available only for a few months after the beginning of the following year) — a nice, peppery low-acid oil most years. Excellent prices on most nuts, but especially the 1.5 lb bag of organic pine nuts for $23.99 ($1/oz)! Their Vantage brand seltzer. And last but certainly not least, Kirkland paper towels are the only brand I’ve found to be the equal of Bounty, and cheaper but actually *better* because of the perforations that let you use a smaller sheet.
 
Marilyn May 24, 2019
You can take the rotisserie chicken off the list. Our Costco in Katy TX said Costco has discontinued the chickens and the bagged white meat from the rotisserie chickens. Costco explained that they stock items regionally and will often discontinue an item after 3-6 months, moving it to another region. Sometimes they will bring back an item if the customers are clamoring for it, but not always. I am now forced to the local grocery as the fresh bagged white meat was perfect for sandwiches, quick meal prep, etc...
 
Dee July 28, 2019
I always had a rotisserie chicken in the house to make quick and delicious meals. However, my husband started peritoneal dialysis for his failing kidneys and was told by his dietician to stop eating those chickens because they are injected with phosphorus. The phosphorus will cause him bone weakness, etc. I now have to buy whole chickens, injection free ( Mary's chicken) and roast them myself :(
 
Ginny L. September 16, 2019
Mine carries ALL THE TIME. I count on it!
 
Kathie H. May 24, 2019
Though not all produce is fresh many prepack have a variety of ripeness so small families can use over a few days. Some are set up for immediate use and some for delayed use. Looking is another box just underneath the top box may surprise you. Most are on the verge of flavor burst freshness. Check out the fruits that will bring your fruit to freshness faster.
 
Tim K. May 24, 2019
great dog food, vegetables not as good as supermarkets that purchase from local distribution, much less local farms. 15 years of disappointment, not worth trying again on fruits and vegetables [and costco quality generally while still good to excellent, is slipping, not improving.]
 
Molly F. May 27, 2019
I look for their organic produce and stick to that. Local is best, but sometimes price is a factor. Organic apples, for example, that cost about 2.50 a pound at our local coop, I could buy for 1.60 a pound at Costco. We're getting older and have to pinch our pennies more, so pretty much stick to watching the dirty dozen and clean 15 for us.
We save the truly best food for when our kids/grandkids come. Then I try to get organic/local as much as possible.
 
Tim K. May 24, 2019
meat, usually pretty good, sometimes execellent. vegetables, not fresh, never ripe. cheese great. fish, always frozen, sometimes not bad for frozen. meat and cheese, no more.

 
Kathie H. May 24, 2019
Combination favorite - the marinated cooked shrimp from the deli shelves over the bagged salads from produce - each family member has their own favorite salad mix -It is though a terrific last minute salad for a gathering. Also the Fisher Fair Scone Mix available intermittingly is amazing with a number of add ons. Our family favorite is Bosc pear cubes and dried ginger bits.