On the Money

Are you a member, and do you need to be? How to find out if retail memberships are for you

Retail memberships

The holidays are just around the corner, a time when many Americans gather together with family and friends to exchange gifts. Finding the best bargains usually entail scouring the Internet endlessly, or hunting for coupons.

For some, however, the best deal of all may be found in the form of a retail membership.

Companies like Amazon, Sam's Club, REI and Costco have been offering memberships for years. Members pay an annual fee, and in return are offered perks like discounted prices, free shipping, and other benefits. Retailers get money upfront—and hopefully gain their customers' loyalty.

Brands such as Walmart, Restoration Hardware, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Land's End are just a few of the retailers hopping on the trend, which is growing popular with consumers. Investment firm Piper Jaffray estimates that nearly half of all U.S. households subscribe to Amazon Prime.

Mary Beth Quirk, managing editor of Consumerist.com told CNBC's "On the Money" in an interview that consumers need to assess if the value is worth the price.

"You want to make sure this pays for itself. You don't want it to be like that gym membership you get on January 1st and then you never use it again," said Quirk.

How can customers determine if the membership is worth it? Quirk said there are several questions customers should ask themselves.

First, determine if the membership offers convenience: Find out if the store is physically near your home or office which would make you more likely to stop there.

If not, does it offer free shipping and can take advantage of it? Do you live in a building that has a doorman to accept packages or can you ship packages to your office?

Second, take a look at the value proposition. Will the discounts outweigh the membership fee?

Third, look at the perks. For example, after paying $99 for an Amazon Prime membership, members can get free two-day shipping on many of its products, as well as access to its video and music library. Other retailers offer their own set of perks as well.

"Restoration Hardware offers an interior design service that's complimentary, REI [lets] you hook up with a travel guide, and they call it 'REI Adventures'."

She added, "It's not just about buying things, they want you to have an experience with their brand."

Yet there are caveats, so read the fine print.

For example, know the fee structures and company policies. Is there a minimum amount you need to spend to get the free shipping? Will your card be automatically charged for a renewal?

If privacy is a concern, does signing up entitle the retailer to use your data in a way you are comfortable with? Finally what payment method do you have to use to access the deals? Can you use any credit card or does it have to be the store card?

In the end, Quick recommended consumers ensure they benefit fully from the fee they intend to pay—or not sign up at all.

Clarification: REI, a retail cooperative, has offered membership to clients for years.

On the Money airs on CNBC Saturdays at 5:30 am ET, or check listings for air times in local markets.