They have very different market capitalizations, but investors have assigned about the same per-share value to Costco Wholesale (COST -0.62%) and Ulta Beauty (ULTA 2.23%). Paying roughly $500 will get you a single share of either retailer at the moment.

Yes, there are significant differences in their selling models. Costco generates most of its earnings from the fees it charges members for access to its wholesale clubs. Ulta Beauty earns a higher premium for sales of its more focused lineup of makeup, skin care products, and spa services.

But which is the better stock at today's prices? Let's take a look.

Costco delivers stability

Costco's stock brings more stability to an investor's portfolio, and not simply because of its massive sales footprint. The retailer sells a high proportion of consumer essentials, which insulates the business from a downturn in any particular niche.

Costco also sells to a large base of highly engaged shoppers. Its membership renewal rate recently set a new all-time high of nearly 92%, potentially indicating the type of customer loyalty that would be valuable if a recession were to develop over the next few quarters.

And the fees associated with these steady renewals power Costco's growing earnings. While its 3% operating profit margin is much lower than Ulta's 16%, investors don't have to worry about profitability swings driven by changing demand trends.

Ulta Beauty is for growth

Ulta Beauty will look attractive to more growth-focused investors. The chain just passed $10 billion of annual sales (compared to Costco's $230 billion) and could enjoy many more years of expansion ahead.

Ulta's comparable-store sales in 2022 rose 16% on top of the prior year's 38% spike. "We remain optimistic about the strength and resiliency of the beauty category," CEO Dave Kimbell said in a March press release. Ulta's 11% customer traffic increase last year is a clear signal that it is winning market share in a large and growing industry. Yet investors are taking on more risk in owning this stock due to the company's dependence on the beauty products category.

The better value

Ulta is also a potentially riskier stock due to its valuation. Investors are paying 2.5 times sales for the business today, or more than double Costco's price-to-sales ratio of 1.

Yet Costco seems more expensive relative to more comparable peers. Walmart is valued at 0.7 times sales, for example, while investors are paying over 3 times sales for Five Below.

In that context, Ulta Beauty looks like an excellent growth stock candidate for investors who can stomach a period of weaker results ahead if a recession develops. Such downturns don't threaten the bullish thesis for a large, profitable business like this.

Costco shares don't offer as much growth potential, but you're also much less likely to regret buying this stock if consumer spending drops in the next few quarters. If anything, its earnings are likely to expand after the company rolls out its next membership fee increase, regardless of the wider selling environment. Investors should earn solid returns with either business, depending on their appetite for risk.