When wholesale giant Costco opened its first store in Melbourne last August, I paid a visit and found that for some tech items, it was definitely offering good bargains. A bit over a year later, the savings are still there if you pick the right categories.
Costco's expansion in Australia is going slowly. A Sydney store in Auburn is planned but won't open until 2011. Apparently it's an expensive business; recent news reports suggest the chain lost $14 million in its most recent reported year of Australian operation.
When I returned to Costco this week, there were plenty of shoppers in evidence, but the crowds that filled the place in its opening week had unsurprisingly thinned (the biggest queue was for buying cheap food in the cafe). It probably helped that it was a weekday morning; I imagine weekends are a tad uglier. After signing in as a visitor (take photo ID if you want to have a look around before deciding if a $60 membership is actually worth it), I hit the warehouse floor.
My first target is iPods, given that these were much cheaper than Apple's own store for my last visit. That proves to be the case again. This time around, Costco has an 8GB iPod Touch for $269.98 (Apple charges $289), or a 64GB model for $459.99 (Apple charges $499). The 8GB Nano is $179.99 ($199 from Apple). Those are good savings, though on their own they wouldn't offset the $60 joining fee.
There are also a stack of cards for iPod Classic and old-style iPod Touch models, but no indication of what the pricing is. I'd be shopping around for those anyway, given that many stores are clearing old stock following the latest model releases.
The laptop range is broader than when I first visited, and (unlike last year) seems cheaper in many instances than a quick search on staticICE would suggest. That said, there's no room to negotiate on prices, which isn't the case with many other laptop sellers, who'll either drop the price or throw in other freebies.
Some areas have dropped in price. At opening, standard photo prints cost 12 cents each; that's now dropped to 9 cents. However, not every category is cheaper than elsewhere. A 16GB SanDisk Cruzer USB stick was on offer for $41.99, a price you can pretty easily match or beat.
Other items look cheaper but need careful consideration. The one display of software I could find offered Norton Antivirus 2011 for $39.49, or the broader Norton Internet Security 2011 for $59.99. However, both were single PC licence versions; for around $80, you can pick up a 3-licence deal for NIS, which is a better option for any household with more than one machine. (That's possibly the only instance I've seen of Costco not selling the most bulk-oriented version of a product.)
Assuming you can already justify a Costco membership for other reasons, the most sensible tech-buying strategy would be to take your mobile phone with you and do some searching if a deal looks appealing. It's tempting to just dive on what looks like a discounted buy, but while Costco seems to be doing well in this area, it isn't invariably the cheapest option.
I also checked out pricing on some of Costco's food items, given that one suggestion for the Mastercheap project was to utilise Costco. Mastercheap itself didn't aim for bulk buying for reasons I've already explained, though it's definitely a wise strategy if you're on a budget but can access the funds for larger buys. If that applies to you, then there's certainly savings to be had: 4 kilograms of margarine for $7.69 is way cheaper than anything else on offer at a standard supermarket.
It clearly wouldn't work if you were stuck on a tight weekly budget (that margarine would have been almost a third of the $25 I had to spend). Even if you shop on a monthly basis, a little caution might be sensible. For instance, six 2-litre containers of UHT milk for $12.89 ($1.07 a litre) are only marginally cheaper than standard one-litre UHT containers from any supermarket (typically $1.08), and a lot less flexible if you're cooking for one.
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