How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart explores the interesting formula for success that CEO Jim Sinegal has implemented at the nation’s fifth-largest retailer: Sell a limited number of items, keep costs down, rely on high volume, pay workers well, have customers buy memberships and aim for upscale shoppers, especially small-business owners. In addition, don’t advertise – that saves 2 percent a year in costs.
5 lessons revealed in the article:
1. Take care of your employees.
Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.”
Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands.
Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said. And Costco’s customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers’ expense. “This is not altruistic,” he said. “This is good business.”
2. Keep prices low.
He also dismisses calls to increase Costco’s product markups. Mr. Sinegal, who has been in the retailing business for more than a half-century, said that heeding Wall Street’s advice to raise some prices would bring Costco’s downfall…
At Costco, one of Mr. Sinegal’s cardinal rules is that no branded item can be marked up by more than 14 percent, and no private-label item by more than 15 percent. In contrast, supermarkets generally mark up merchandise by 25 percent, and department stores by 50 percent or more.
“They could probably get more money for a lot of items they sell,” said Ed Weller, a retailing analyst at ThinkEquity.
But Mr. Sinegal warned that if Costco increased markups to 16 or 18 percent, the company might slip down a dangerous slope and lose discipline in minimizing costs and prices.
Mr. Sinegal, whose father was a coal miner and steelworker, gave a simple explanation. “On Wall Street, they’re in the business of making money between now and next Thursday,” he said. “I don’t say that with any bitterness, but we can’t take that view. We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now.”
3. Pay attention to the customer, not the competition.
But it is the customer, more than the competition, that keeps Mr. Sinegal’s attention. “We’re very good merchants, and we offer value,” he said. “The traditional retailer will say: ‘I’m selling this for $10. I wonder whether I can get $10.50 or $11.’ We say: ‘We’re selling it for $9. How do we get it down to $8?’ We understand that our members don’t come and shop with us because of the fancy window displays or the Santa Claus or the piano player. They come and shop with us because we offer great values.”
4. Focus on a few core options.
A typical Costco store stocks 4,000 types of items, including perhaps just four toothpaste brands, while a Wal-Mart typically stocks more than 100,000 types of items and may carry 60 sizes and brands of toothpastes. Narrowing the number of options increases the sales volume of each, allowing Costco to squeeze deeper and deeper bulk discounts from suppliers.
5. Use surprise to create excitement.
Mr. Sinegal, who is 69 but looks a decade younger, also delights in not tilting Costco too far into cheap merchandise, even at his warehouse stores. He loves the idea of the “treasure hunt” – occasional, temporary specials on exotic cheeses, Coach bags, plasma screen televisions, Waterford crystal, French wine and $5,000 necklaces – scattered among staples like toilet paper by the case and institutional-size jars of mayonnaise.
The treasure hunts, Mr. Sinegal says, create a sense of excitement and customer loyalty.
Related: Costco CEO Finds Pro-Worker Means Profitability [ABC News]
His philosophy is simple, he said. “We have said from the very beginning: ‘We’re going to be a company that’s on a first-name basis with everyone,’” he said.
That also includes answering his own phone. “If a customer’s calling and they have a gripe, don’t you think they kind of enjoy the fact that I picked up the phone and talked to them?” he said.