The Costco Model

Costco is a household name in America. It’s not an exaggeration that some even call it a cult. The company is a warehouse-styled chain of giant stores where young people and families shop on a weekly basis. To be able to shop at Costco, shoppers have to pay an annual fee from $60 to $120 for the privilege. How does Costco convince shoppers to shell out that money in advance when there are various other alternatives? Somehow throughout its history, Costco managed to establish a resilient and great operating model that combines scale, low prices and customer services. Shoppers know that by shopping by Costco, they can save money because of the low prices and the savings should be more than enough to justify the annual fee up front. As more people sign up and shop at their stores, Costco leverages the scale to negotiate low prices with suppliers. The low prices, while quality is maintained, drive shoppers to Costco and the virtuous cycle keeps going. It sounds easy, but it’s not. The model presents a chick-and-egg problem. To replicate Costco and convince folks to pay upfront for the privilege, a retailer would have to offer low prices, customer services and adequate quality. Those things aren’t cheap and the retailer in question would need enough shoppers to make the scale operable. In that case, it would have to take a lot of losses on its chin and there is still no guarantee that it could be another Costco.

Costco's membership tiers
Figure 1 – Costco Membership Tiers. Source: Company Website
Costco model
Figure 2 – Costco Model

Costco in numbers

More than 97% of Costco’s annual revenue comes from net sales while the rest is from membership fees. In 2020, the company’s revenue reached $167 billion, $3.5 billion of which came from membership fees. On a year-over-year basis, Costco’s revenue grew around 7-9% a year. On a comparable net sales change basis (excluding the impact of foreign current and fuel), it outperformed Walmart US and Sam Club US for the last 4 years. Retailers use comparables’ data without fuel to better show the changes every year in its core operations. It’s particularly helpful in removing the impact of new or closed stores when evaluating performances.

Costco's revenue breakdown
Figure 3 – Costco’s revenue breakdown
Costco's YoY revenue growth
Figure 4 – Costco’s YoY revenue growth

Costco is essentially a low margin business. Its net sales gross margin is less than 12% while its operating margin is a low single digit. If we look at Costco’s gross margin and its SG&A share of revenue, it’s safe to say that membership fees are responsible for most of the company’s operating margin and profit. The good news for Costco is that part of the business seems to be growing healthily. The number of members grew at more than 5% every year and the number of the more lucrative Executive members grew at an even faster rate (6%)

Costco's comparable net sales
Figure 5 – Costco’s comparable net sales
Costco's member count
Figure 6 – Costco’s member count
Costco's executive member count
Figure 7 – Costco’s executive member count

I think about Costco’s membership fees as a customer retention tool, not a customer acquisition tool. Nobody ever comes to Costco because they want to pay $60 or $120 upfront for the privilege. They come thanks to the brand’s appeal and the word of mouth. As they buy in with the annual fee, the switching cost becomes high and they are more incentivized to shop ore to justify the fee. Because Executive Members “generally shop more frequently and spend more than other members”, the fact that the higher tier base grew faster than the overall member base goes to show that shopper buy in this concept more and are willing to pay extra for the privilege. And it is reflected to some extent in the growth of comparables net sales, especially in comparison with Walmart US and Sams’ Club. That kind of brand, trust and relationship with customers is a powerful competitive advantage that even money can’t buy.

I came across two stories about how Costco went out of their way to improve their customer service and satisfaction

So how did we arrive at this point? It all started in 1987 with a salmon fillet and a mission to offer customers the highest possible value for the lowest price. The following anecdote is well known within Costco as the “salmon story.” It is regularly re-told and held up as an example of the company’s dedication to continually striving for improvement. It goes something like this:

When Costco first established its meat department in 1987, a team was dedicated to creating a quality salmon fillet. The first product was a high-quality, skin-on fillet for $5.99 per pound — an excellent value — but the salmon team saw room for improvement. In stage two, excess parts of the fish were removed and even though the quality was improved, the price was reduced to $5.29 a pound.

Later, the buying team found another way to enhance the product by offering a fully trimmed, skinless, and boneless fillet — and lowered the price to $4.99 a pound. In stage four, the team found that buying in bulk from Chile and Canada enabled them to lower the price even further, to $4.79. In stage five, the quality was further improved through certain trimming, but Costco maintained the same price.

At each point in this story, Costco could have raised the price for the improved product, but chose not to. This continues today as Costco goes to great lengths to improve its product offering while providing greater value for its members.

Source: MG2

When Costco president W. Craig Jelinek once complained to Costco co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal that their monolithic warehouse business was losing money on their famously cheap $1.50 hot dog and soda package, Sinegal listened, nodded, and then did his best to make his take on the situation perfectly clear.

“If you raise [the price of] the effing hot dog, I will kill you,” Sinegal said. “Figure it out.”

Taking his words to heart, Jelinek—who became Sinegal’s successor in 2012—has never raised the price on Costco’s hot dog. Incredibly, it has sold for the same $1.50 since the retail club first introduced the dogs to customers in 1984. The quarter-pound, all-beef tube and 20-ounce soda combo appears to be inflation-proof and immune to the whims of food distributors.

Source: Mentalfloss

When you have thousands of employees on your payroll and $166 billion in revenue a year, having the culture and the discipline to stick to your operating model is nothing short of incredible. It is among one of the toughest capabilities for any competitor to replicate and overcome. Rivals can read as much as they want about how Costco operates, but if they can’t maintain the culture and discipline year after year, they won’t be able to copy the Costco model.

I don’t think Costco is 100% risk-free. Companies come and go. There is no telling what will happen in the future, but if it can preserve its culture like it does now, the company has a bright outlook in the near future.

Disclaimer: I own Costco, Amazon and Walmart stocks in my portfolio.

P/S: if you are a fan of Kirkland, Costco’s signature private label, here is a quick look at its importance to the company.

Kirkland's net sales and as % of total sales
Figure 8 – Kirkland’s net sales and as % of total sales

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