10 Things You Should Consider Before Paying For Any Retail Membership

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Memberships, once the exclusive domain of warehouse clubs like Costco and BJ’s, are officially hot right now. From Amazon Prime and Walmart ShippingPass to subscription boxes (like Birchbox) and membership programs from retailers including Bed Bath & Beyond and Restoration Hardware, companies aren’t content until they’ve turned occasional shoppers into loyal members. But should you join? Will it be worth the money? How will you know if a membership program is right for you? We break it down.

There are basically four main categories of memberships. They offer a variety of services and perks for a yearly or monthly price and are not to be confused with “rewards programs” that cost nothing to join.

They are:
• Warehouse clubs offering groceries in bulk
• Online retail programs that offer free or low-cost shipping on a variety of items, and may offer other add-on perks
• Retail brands that offer free shipping and discounts on their goods
• Subscription boxes that arrive at your door on a regular schedule with products curated for each customer

Type Examples Who might like this?
Warehouse club Costco, Sam’s Club Shoppers who have a lot of storage space for bulk items, families, people with cars
Online retail programs Amazon Prime, Walmart ShippingPass People who live in apartments that accept packages; late-night shoppers who make impulsive decisions, people who like add-ons like streaming video, people who do not have cars, people who want an extremely large selection of items, people who want to automate regular purchases
Retail brands Bed Bath & Beyond’s Beyond+ Loyal customers who often purchase items from the same store throughout the year who may be interested in special discounts or members-only sales
Subscription boxes Birchbox, StitchFix People who like discovering new things; shoppers who want curated monthly offerings tailored to their tastes, people who like surprises

With all these new options out there, how do you know which are right for you? It can be confusing, but there are some questions you can ask yourself before taking the plunge and paying for any membership.

1. Am I Actually Getting Value?

If it’s a discount club that sells items in bulk, ask yourself: Will you actually use that industrial-sized vat of honey or are you buying it just because you can? Look at the unit price of something to see if you’re really saving on the per oz/lb/g price, and if that saving is significant enough to merit the yearly fees and other hassles.

Or perhaps you’re interested in paying $100 a year for, say, a Restoration Hardware membership, which offers various discounts and additional savings on all sale items, a complimentary interior design service, concierge service for orders; a “preferred” financing plans on the RH Credit Card; and early access to clearance events.

Do you regularly shop there and purchase home goods throughout the year, or did you stop in once and buy a table you saw online? Will you take advantage of that complimentary interior design service and clearance events? The more you shop with a brand, the more likely it is that you’ll get a good bang for your buck with a paid membership, especially if there are discounts involved.

For monthly subscription boxes, ask yourself if you would really be spending that much on the items you get, or are these just adding to items in your closet or pantry while shrinking your bank account.

At the very least, you should be able to make back what you had to pay — if you had to pay — to join the club or service.

2. Does The Selection Fit My Tastes?

Whether you’re shopping at a warehouse store or online with Amazon, know that you won’t be able to find absolutely every brand of product in every size. With Costco, for example, you may have to learn to love jumbo everything, or resign yourself to variety packs of some items.

There are also limits on what retailer-specific memberships may offer. If there’s a brand of bath towels you are dedicated to that isn’t offered by Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, or you aren’t keen on the idea of getting a box filled with one company’s coffee every single month, these kinds of memberships might not be for you.

3. Where Will I Store All This Stuff?

This question is especially important when you’re considering a membership to a warehouse club. After all, not everyone has a large pantry, endless freezer capacity, or plentiful closet room to stash 10 pallets of cat food at a time.

If items are coming via mail, you should think about issues like your tolerance for lost or delayed shipments, and delivery drivers who take out their frustrations on packages.

4. Do I Understand The Fee Structure & Policies?

This is an area that can get confusing, and quick. A few things you can ponder:
• Is “free” shipping totally free, or do you have to spend a minimum each time? For example, Amazon Prime Pantry includes free shipping, but only once your virtual basket contains at least five “qualifying” items.
• Is there a minimum you have to spend in a month/year to keep your membership?
• What is the company’s renewal policy? Unless you want to be surprised by a big charge on your credit card or bank account, you should look into whether or not your membership will renew automatically after a set period of time, which would mean you will have to take action to cancel it. If you’d rather not be bothered by having to remember to cancel and don’t want an auto-renewing membership, you may want to reconsider.
• If you’re interested in a subscription box service that sends multiple items you might like, with the option to return those you don’t, is there a time window you have to abide by in order to avoid being charged for unwanted products?

5. What About My Privacy?

Unless you don’t care what companies do with your personal information like your email address, shopping habits, and other data, you should read the terms carefully:
• Does signing up for a membership entitle the company to use your data in ways you’re okay with?
• Will you start receiving unwanted marketing emails? Some customers might like personalized coupons in their inbox tailored to their past shopping habits, while others might find it creepy and intrusive.
• Is the company saving your payment information and other personal details securely?

6. Can I Pay With Whatever Method I Want?

• Some warehouse clubs only accept certain forms of payment, for example, Costco now only takes Visa credit cards, though it does accept any Visa or MasterCard debit cards.
• If you’re signing up for a store’s membership program, can you only shop with that retailer’s card, or are discounts only available when using that kind of payment?

7. Is It Actually Convenient?

Memberships shouldn’t be work — they should make your life easier, so make sure you’re factoring convenience into the equation.
• If it’s a physical store, is it near your house or work? If it’s not, you’re less likely to make a visit as often as you would otherwise. Some wholesalers, like Costco, don’t provide shopping bags, either, so you should be prepared to bring your own — or have a car full of loose items on your trip home.
• Do you have an address where packages can be delivered easily, even while you’re at work? Having a doorman, friendly neighbor, or accommodating workplace is key if Amazon is going to be shipping you packages multiple times a week.
• Do you have to pay for certain amount of months in advance, or is it a monthly membership you can use on demand?

8. Will I Take Advantage Of The Extra Perks?

It’s not always about free shipping or the ability to buy mayonnaise in bulk — many memberships dangle other perks out there to lure shoppers in. For example, warehouse clubs often offer savings on non-traditional items: travel, insurance, auto repair, gasoline, optometry, and prescriptions (though you don’t have to be a member to get those filled).

Likewise, Amazon Prime has benefits that people may not be using, like free books, and music, while REI’s Co-Op membership offers special pricing on classes, rentals, shop services, and REI Adventures, which connects members to local guides when they travel.

9. Can I Try Before I Buy?

Some wholesalers may offer day passes or trial memberships so you can get the real experience of what it would be like to shop there. For example, Sam’s Club offers one-day passes for prospective members: shoppers can go into a Club and ask for one, or get one online.

This isn’t an issue for services like Amazon Prime and Walmart’s ShippingPass as you can see what’s readily available on the site without being a member in any premium plan. But for example, the Costco site is not an accurate representation of the in-store experience.

10. Is Breaking Up Hard To Do?

Nothing lasts forever, so keep the end in mind when you sign up for any membership.
• Can you cancel at anytime without risking a fee?
• Do you have to take action to cancel your membership at the end of its term, or will it simply run out?
• If you have to take action, how complicated is it — sending an email, calling customer service, writing a letter?

Above all, make sure you’re being realistic. We all have good intentions, but you shouldn’t be paying a monthly or yearly price for something you just intend to use. If a membership is going to provide a seamless, easy shopping experience, that’s a good thing. If not, just walk away.

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