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4 expert tips for getting the most out of a bulk buy

  • Written by Megan Phillips, Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Retailing, Auckland University of Technology
4 expert tips for getting the most out of a bulk buy

Multiple delays[1] and a NZ$60 entry cost have done little to quench enthusiasm for New Zealand’s first Costco, with New Zealanders lining up for more than 90 minutes recently for a chance to buy a membership to the store[2].

A members-only warehouse retailer, the store will sell a wide range of products including food and grocery items, clothing, electronics, furniture and more. Commentators and people familiar with the brand have claimed the store will disrupt the duopoly[3] that currently dominates New Zealand’s grocery sector.

But to enter the warehouse you must pay a membership[4] fee, set at $60 a year or $55 if you own a business.

Just going by what is currently open – the petrol station – shoppers would need to spend $1,494 on petrol to gain enough savings to make up for the membership. A saving of 10 cents per litre on a 60 litre tank will require ten fills. That said, in the US, replacing one tyre[5] would allow you to break even.

Considering the upfront cost for shoppers, will Costco actually be worth it?

Are prices really cheaper?

Research shows[6] that club store prices can be 22.5% lower than traditional supermarkets.

Already, Costco’s store-adjacent petrol station in Auckland, which opened in April, has had a significant impact on fuel prices[7] in the neighbouring community.

As the world’s third largest retailer[8], Costco has significant buying power to support its everyday low pricing strategy.

Read more: What's really driving the future of retail?[9]

Costco buys in bulk, allowing the store to achieve economies of scale creating savings which can then be passed on to members. The company limits the mark-up on merchandise to between 14 and 15% above costs[10]. In comparison, department stores typically mark up their products by 30% or above[11].

Costco also has a no-frills self-service store environment and an extremely low marketing budget – which save around 2% a year in costs[12].

But shoppers will need to get used to a smaller range of each product. Instead of eight brands[13] of toothpaste offered by Countdown online, for example, you might only find four in Costco. Fewer brands in a category allows Costco to buy more of a single product and push for discounts from suppliers.

Inside a Costco warehouse
Costco, the world’s third largest retailer, is set to open its first New Zealand store later this year. John Greim/Costco[14]

Costco will push a behaviour change

Costco differs from traditional supermarkets in that it is a warehouse-style shopping experience where you shop from pallets and buy in bulk. Package sizes are often three times[15] larger compared with traditional supermarkets. So, instead of a 405 gram jar of mayonnaise, Costco sells a 1.8 kilogram jar.

Kiwis typically visit the supermarket one to three times per week[16]. Costco members shop on average every two to three weeks[17] to stock up on bulk items.

Shopping in bulk might not fit with our current shopping culture. The Costco way of shopping will require behaviour changes to make sense.

Read more: How the future of shopping was shaped by its past[18]

The company also pushes the use of grocery coupons, common in the United States but less so in New Zealand[19].

People go crazy for Costco

Overseas, Costco is a destination store and research suggests that travel distances can be almost 12 times longer[20] compared with traditional supermarkets.

Once at the store, people usually spend considerable amounts of time to do their shopping. There are no in-store signs or directories and shopping can feel like a scavenger hunt[21].

That said, Costco has a massive following. One fanatic [22] even tattooed the Costco’s private label brand (Kirkland Signature) on himself, and other loyal shoppers have proposed[23] or even tied the knot[24] in the warehouse.

The adoration seems to be building in New Zealand with 70,0000[25] followers on a local fan page.

How to save

To get the most out of the membership, shoppers are likely to visit the store more frequently[26] and more visits can mean more money spent. If you decide the opportunity for bulk buying is worth the joining fee, here are some tips for resisting the urge to splurge.

Shopping trolly filled with bulk grocery items
Big warehouses encourage bulk buying, but the average New Zealand home may not have the space to store the items. Getty Images[27]

1. Buy only what you need

The chance to buy in bulk is a novelty for many Kiwis, so try to temper the temptation by making a list and sticking to it. Remember, whatever you buy you have to store somewhere and will need to use before it expires.

Kiwi fridges and pantries tend to be small compared to US storage space. The standard New Zealand fridge, for example, is 60 centimetres wide[28], while the average fridge in the US is 90cm wide[29].

The long travel distance[30] for some is a sunk cost, so shoppers will buy more than they need to ensure the visit is worthwhile.

2. ‘Limited time only!’ offers aim to empty your wallet

The highly edited assortment that is only offered for a limited period creates a sense of urgency – buy now or it will be gone tomorrow.

Of the 4,000 products available at a typical Costco warehouse, 25% are considered treasure hunt[31] products. These are seasonal or speciality items that are constantly changing.

An interesting part of this strategy is the sense of scarcity it creates. Shoppers are more likely to buy if they realise goods are not going to be on offer the following week. This can be exciting and enhances the treasure hunt feeling, but it can also lead to increased spending.

Read more: Turning supermarkets into public utilities could be the solution to New Zealand's grocery problem[32]

3. Beware of impulse buying

Although prices are very low, a study[33] found that people who shop at Costco-like stores don’t necessarily reduce their total spending. The savings from planned purchases usually free up budget to be spent on impulse items.

Licensing theory[34] suggests that once shoppers have made progress toward their goal (maybe finding what they need), they then give themselves permission to indulge in a treat.

4. Take the savings and stick to what you will actually use

The larger product sizes can lead to greater purchase quantities. Larger families and heavy buyers[35] are more susceptible to this. Buying more than you need can accelerate consumption. It might also lead to food waste if you don’t consume it all before it expires, especially fresh food items such as a massive bag of salad.


  1. ^ Multiple delays (
  2. ^ buy a membership to the store (
  3. ^ the duopoly (
  4. ^ membership (
  5. ^ replacing one tyre (
  6. ^ Research shows (
  7. ^ significant impact on fuel prices (
  8. ^ third largest retailer (
  9. ^ What's really driving the future of retail? (
  10. ^ 14 and 15% above costs (
  11. ^ products by 30% or above (
  12. ^ 2% a year in costs (
  13. ^ eight brands (
  14. ^ John Greim/Costco (
  15. ^ often three times (
  16. ^ one to three times per week (
  17. ^ every two to three weeks (
  18. ^ How the future of shopping was shaped by its past (
  19. ^ less so in New Zealand (
  20. ^ almost 12 times longer (
  21. ^ scavenger hunt (
  22. ^ fanatic (
  23. ^ proposed (
  24. ^ tied the knot (
  25. ^ 70,0000 (
  26. ^ more frequently (
  27. ^ Getty Images (
  28. ^ 60 centimetres wide (
  29. ^ 90cm wide (
  30. ^ long travel distance (
  31. ^ 25% are considered treasure hunt (
  32. ^ Turning supermarkets into public utilities could be the solution to New Zealand's grocery problem (
  33. ^ study (
  34. ^ Licensing theory (
  35. ^ Larger families and heavy buyers (

Authors: Megan Phillips, Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Retailing, Auckland University of Technology

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