Considering the stark surroundings and somewhat limited selection, there's only one thing that attracts consumers to warehouse clubs: price.
"The good thing about a wholesale club is you know you are getting a good price. It saves time to go there rather than shop around for sales," said one shopper, who is a member of Utah's two warehouse clubs, Price Savers and Costco.Following a strict merchandising formula, warehouse clubs can offer discounts of 50 percent or more on a wide range of consumer goods. Warehouse operators say their outlets are becoming popular because consumers are fed up with chasing sales and running into bait-and-switch promotions.
The typical warehouse club shopper spends $75 or more during a single visit. But the appealing low prices and large expenditures by club members shouldn't imply that all consumers are happy about this new breed of discounter.
The most common complaint among shoppers is a warehouse club's limited selection of goods. While a club may offer low prices in electronics or appliances, the consumer doesn't always have a wide selection to choose from.
"I wish they had more stuff and had it more regularly," said Price Savers member Larry Weist, bringing up another complaint that warehouse clubs will often carry an item at a great price just once and never again.
Some owners initially pass the complaint off as the "fun" or "surprise" element of warehouse club shopping. But they also concede that providing a wide selection is not an easy thing to do.
The first problem is that stocking a limited selection enables warehouses to keep costs down and offer low prices. Warehouse clubs zealously keep a tight grip on costs and only under rare circumstances would even consider carrying items that would squeeze profit margins.
But for those items they do want, sometimes they just can't get them. "It's hard to get top quality merchandise. We struggle every day to get name brand items," said Tom Grimm of Price Savers.
Because warehouse clubs buy direct and don't use distributors, manufacturers have difficulty dealing with a club without violating agreements with their distribution networks. Also, some manufacturers tend to shy away from discounters like warehouse clubs for fear of "bastardizing" the name brand label.
That's not to say warehouse clubs have been left out in the cold when it comes to high quality merchandise. Both Costco and Price Savers boast of the name brand items they are able to carry.
Manufacturers do sell quality items directly to warehouse clubs during times of production overruns or other special circumstances. And many manufacturers are recognizing the large market warehouse clubs are gathering and looking at it as a legitimate outlet for their products.
Costco's Salt Lake general manager Steve Reese said he has seen food manufacturers in the past few years change their packaging to accommodate the warehouse club industry's needs for large volume, easy to handle bulk packages.
Both Price Savers and Costco claim about 60 percent or more of their business comes from wholesale business members, such as restaurants buying bulk food items and small businesses in need of office supplies.
Grimm and Reese said the public would be surprised at how many local restaurants and caterers buy pre-made frozen food at local warehouse clubs and zap it in the microwave before serving.
Another Salt Lake warehouse club, Home Club, specializing in home improvement and construction products, claims 30 percent of sales go to business owners and contractors and the rest to group members and the general public, said vice president of marketing Scott Richards.
Home Club's figures are opposite the traditional warehouse because of its narrow niche in home improvement and because of the company's policy of allowing anyone to shop there or buy a membership.
Warehouse club members are typically middle-income families, making Utah a hot market. But, the customer base continues to expand.
"One day I saw 11 Mercedes in the parking lot and I said to Tom, `We have arrived,' " said Doug Hansen, vice president of personnel and marketing for Price Savers.