If you ran into me at Costco Wholesale, you would probably find me standing in the middle of the aisle staring down at my smartphone. Why? Because I need to know: Should I spring for the name brand, or is the Kirkland Signature brand Costco sells just as good? I live my life based on ratings. I try to keep in mind that ratings are subject to user entry, and sometimes people don't have any idea what they're talking about (like that one Yelp reviewer that gave my favorite restaurant a one-star review because she couldn't find the front door).
Regardless of my good sensibilities, I tend to snap the UPC of any product and give it a quick rating search on Amazon.com. The problem is that the mega online store doesn't really sell Kirkland Signature brand because it's only available to Costco members. So how am I supposed to know if I should spring for the national brands or if the Kirkland Signature label makes the grade?
After many trips to Costco stores and scouring the internet to identify the best-of-the-best, it turns out that Kirkland products are usually a good bang for your buck. No more wondering, no more clogging up the aisle with my smartphone searches, just a cart piled high with more items than I really need (but really, I need them all).
The Lowdown: Generic vs. Name Brand
Costco buyers come to the wholesale store for plenty of reasons, whether it's to shop new products for less and to scope deals on everything from outdoor furniture to pet foods to office furniture to the foods market. Private label products are not necessarily cheaper than brand-name products. In general, name brands cost more because they have to put more money into branding, marketing, and development costs.
Private labels like the Kirkland brand don't have to do any of that: you're already in their store, so they don't have to go out of their way to get you to look at their product. Sometimes name brands are less expensive due to coupons, but you don't have to worry about that at Costco. They don't accept manufacturer's coupons because they have their own discounting structure.
The Quality Difference
Is there a quality difference? Maybe, but maybe not. It's a common misconception that the generic is made from a cheaper brand. Sometimes the generic is made overseas with inferior products, but a lot of Kirkland Signature products are actually the exact same product as the name brand product.
Sometimes, they're even manufactured in the same facility! In a blind taste test, store-brand foods often rated as better quality than their higher price brand name counterparts. The same goes for other store's generic products, too. Walmart and the Equate brand are consistently one of the top sunscreens on the market in the United States, and Target's own brand has a killer ground coffee line.
Kirkland Signature Brand
Speaking of quality, Consumer Reports places Costco's private-label products as sixth overall in the nation (the list tops with Wegmans and Trader Joe's). These off-brand items are not only tasty and delicious, but they have a high quality that stands up to their more expensive counterparts.
1. Ice Cream
At $11 for two half-gallons, I wouldn't exactly call Kirkland Signature Brand's ice cream "cheap," but it also doesn't taste cheap. Their vanilla ice cream is creamy and has real vanilla flavor.
In blind taste tests, it blows Breyer's out of the water and competes in flavor (and price) with Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's. And since I have to buy it in two half gallons at a time, that means there's plenty available for everything from root beer floats to ice cream sundaes! That's an easy way to get it out of the house.
2. Olive Oil
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According to the University of California Davis' chemical and sensory study of olive oils, Kirkland Signature Brand is one of the best imported olive oils you can buy.
Unlike other inexpensive olive oils, the Costco brand isn't diluted with cheaper oils. They found it demonstrates a superior quality and flavor than its other store brand counterparts.
Kirkland Signature tops the charts on Consumer Reports bacon rankings. In fact, it was the only bacon to rate "Excellent" on the report. It performed better in blind taste tests than the second most popular bacon, Oscar Mayer.
The drawback (if you see this as a negative) is that you have to buy four pounds at a time. Not a problem in my household, but if you're not a glutton like me, it's worth noting that bacon freezes exceptionally well.
4. Peanut Butter
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Kirkland Signature Organic Peanut Butter is the creamiest of the crop (sorry, that pun was both terrible and intentional).
This store brand product is not only organic, but it's also made with minimal ingredients (just peanuts and salt). You can't find an organic peanut butter anywhere close to their price.
You're going to have to buy the biggest bag you can imagine, but the deal comes from buying in bulk. Costco's Kirkland Signature brand of pistachios, cashews, almonds, and peanuts is unmatched for a price as compared to any other brand or any other store. Period.
6. Toilet Paper & Paper Towels
I can't remember the last time I bought name brand paper products. It was probably before I got my Costco membership! Kirkland Signature toilet paper is just as soft as its name brand counterpart but rings in at a mere 12 cents per 100 sheets.
Their paper towels also rate well in Consumer Reports absorbency tests, although they are not as strong as some of the more expensive paper towels on the market.
7. Laundry Detergent
Kirkland Signature Free & Clear laundry detergent costs half- to a third-as-much as the brand name competitors. At only 11 cents per load, you might expect this soap to fall behind in its ability to clean.
Consumer Reports testing finds it's just as tough on grass and blood as Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release, which rings in at 25 cents a load.
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The minute someone mentions Costco and alcohol, you might be thinking of that Grey Goose rumor you heard years ago. Whether or not it's true is up for debate, but rumor has it that Kirkland Signature vodka is made in the same facility as Grey Goose. Costco has never confirmed or denied this fact.
Either way, everyone knows that buying alcohol in bulk is where Costco really shines, especially for large-scale events, like a barbecue or a tailgate. What's especially perfect about Costco, too, is that the big name brands they carry are also priced lower than normal. Tito's Handmade Vodka, we're looking at you.
Bonus: Kirkland Gasoline
Not every Costco has a gas station, but if it does you should be buying your gas there. Gas at Costco is on average $0.27 cheaper than the closest gas stations, which could save you $3-$5 a fill depending on the size of your tank.
Do keep in mind, though, that these gas stations are always packed. You may need to wait an extra five minutes to get through the queue of cars to get up to the pump.