Weekly reading – 16th Jan 2021

What I wrote last week

The Costco Model

Business

The latest memo from Howard Marks, just like his previous, doesn’t disappoint. He mentioned all the common senses in his memo which a lot of analysts and investors don’t seem to remember, myself included.

An informative interview by Patrick on an expert in the food industry

Neil struck it again with a sensible post on Apple’s share buyback

Visa’s new study on worldwide contactless payments after Covid

Bill Gates: America’s Top Farmland Owner

Second Measure looked at retention rate for different cohorts of Disney+ subscribers. I have quite a few questions here. How much of the bundle base came from the 3-year subscriptions sold at D23? Does the Prime Video include Prime Subscription which automatically includes Video?

Technology

You will soon be able to unlock your BMW with an iPhone in your pocket

Apple’s M1 chip can help you train models faster

DuckDuckGo is hovering around 100 million users/a day now

What I found interesting

What it’s like to go through a dramatic career change

If you are a left-wing protester, you’re 3x more likely to be forcefully confronted by the police in the US. My guess is that except from the aggressive looters, left-wing protesters are peaceful and give an impression to the police that they can use force against the protesters. Right-wing protesters appear more aggressive and intimidating. Plus, I wonder if the results are skewed because there are more states with the GOP-controlled local authorities than those with Dems-controlled authorities.

Dire Wolves Were Not Really Wolves

European Union gave citizens the “right to repair

This video clip is about how much Swedes trust their government and believe that their high taxes are in their benefits through free healthcare, education, great infrastructure and a great living standard. It can’t be more different from the US. Here, every time social benefits are mentioned, a lot of people can’t call them “socialists” or “communists” fast enough. It’s super fascinating to see people increasingly pay more taxes (as %) compared to billionaires and are convinced that a little bit of saving on taxes every month is worth having a low living standard and paying a lot of money for everything else. There is a natural and inherent distrust in the government that is the root of so many problems around here

Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.

When that violence comes, the breakers will have to react. If they embrace it, they become the fascist faction. The Republican Party will be divided, at least for a time. One can of course imagine a dismal reunification: A breaker candidate loses a narrow presidential election in November 2024 and cries fraud, the Republicans win both houses of Congress and rioters in the street, educated by four years of the big lie, demand what they see as justice. Would the gamers stand on principle if those were the circumstances of Jan. 6, 2025?

Source: The New York Times

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

Weekly readings – 26th September 2020

What I wrote

Some data points and arguments in favor of Apple and its App Store guidelines

My review of the book: The Psychology of Money

Business

How Wegmans Keeps Winning

A bear case on Microsoft Azure

Innovation is rampant in the fintech world and this new idea for a credit card is one of them

An investigative piece on how Mark Zuckerberg responded to criticisms from his own ranks

The SaaS Financial Model You’ll Actually Use

Technology

The secret history of Windows on Surface Duo

Adobe introduced Liquid Mode in even Free Adobe Acrobat Reader! It makes changing a PDF’s content so much easier. Try it out!

What I found interesting

In the last 30 years, under-5 child mortality rate has dropped from 93 per 1000 children in 1990 to about 38 in 2019. A remarkable achievement

About a special Japanese citrus

South Korea managed to contain the pandemic while minimizing the impact on its economy. WSJ had an interesting piece on how it did so

Weekly readings – 15th August 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote a bit about Epic Games vs Apple, Goldman Sachs’ inroad further into consumer credit card world and the potential departure from California of the likes of Uber & Lyft

A historic day for America when Kamala Harris was named as Biden’s Vice President Candidate

My thought on Disney’s latest quarter

Business

Horace Dediu wrote a blog post answering some questions on Apple’s cash strategy

A long and informative deep dive into TikTok and what makes it great

Another deep dive by Turner Novak on Pinduoduo

Nick Sleep on Costco

Meet the Woman Who Got Joe Rogan and Michelle Obama to Spotify

Netflix Business Model & Economics 

A thread on why Avalara has real competitive advantages

Technology

Here’s why Apple believes it’s an AI leader—and why it says critics have it all wrong

How the government’s new real-time payments system could transform commerce

Apple wins a Patent for a Possible Dual Display MacBook Supporting a Virtual Keyboard & more

A potentially life-changing technology for visually-impaired folks

What’s going on with Apple Maps

What I find interesting

An inside look at a data analytics firm that Mike Bloomberg is using to help Democrats

The 19th-century entrepreneur who pioneered modern ice cream

A very long and interesting post on the bombing of Hiroshima and what was happening at the time based on recollections of a few survivors

Giant American Cars Don’t Belong on the Streets of the Future

How Taiwan’s Unlikely Digital Minister Hacked the Pandemic

Weekly readings – 9th May 2020

The decline in trust in governments shows no signs of abating. Everywhere you look, there is suspicion that measures taken by governments to combat Covid-19 will soon be used for mass surveillance afterwards. India is no exception. For A Billion Indians, The Government’s Voluntary Contact Tracing App Might Actually Be Mandatory

The pandemic doesn’t seem to affect spending on cloud infrastructure badly

The man feeding a remote Alaska town with a Costco card and a ship

Apple Watch detecting coronary ischaemia during chest pain episodes or an apple a day may keep myocardial infarction away

VP of Amazon resigned to protest the firing of workers who spoke out on the working conditions at Amazon warehouses

Looking Back on Four Years at The Times, in the words of their former CTO

Amazon pulled no punches in its public blog post on Microsoft regarding the JEDI dispute

Spotify should pay musicians more? Let’s talk more about how

Revenue and margin makers

What I noticed in many businesses is that there are revenue makers and margin generators. Revenue makers refer to activities that draw in the top line numbers in the income statement, but small margin. In other words, these activities can bring in $10 of revenue, but about $1 or less of gross profit (revenue minus cost of revenue). On the other hand, margin generators refer to activities that don’t bring in as much revenue as revenue makers, but act as the source of most margin. Usually. these two complement each other. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Apple sells their products and services that can only be enjoyed on Apple devices. Products bring in multiple times as much revenue as services, but products’ margin is much smaller than that of services. Take a look at their latest earnings as an example. Products’ margin is about 32% while services’ margin stands at 65%. Folks buy Apple devices mainly to use the services and apps that are on those devices. Apple continues to sell devices to maintain their own monopoly over their unique operating systems and ecosystem.

Source: Apple

Amazon’s eCommerce segment is a revenue maker. They warehouse the goods and ship them to customers. It generates a lot of revenue, but the cost is high as well. Built upon the infrastructure Amazon created for eCommerce, 3rd party fulfillment is a margin generator. In this segment, Amazon acts as a link between buyers and sellers to ensure transactions go smoothly without having to store and ship the goods itself. Margin is significantly higher than that of eCommerce. Amazon takes it to another level with Prime subscriptions and AWS. While trying to figure out how to keep their sites up and running 24/7 smoothly, Amazon came up with the idea of selling unused IT resources. Long behold, AWS is now a $40 billion runrate business and Amazon’s arguably biggest margin generator.

Costco is a household name in the US. Families go to their warehouse-styled stores to stock up essentials and groceries. Due to the volume they sell every year, Costco manages to keep the prices low, but thanks to the cut-throat nature of the industry they are in, the margin is low, about 2-3%. That’s their revenue maker. To compensate for the low margin, Costco relies on their membership fees. Whatever customers pay to be able to shop at Costco is almost pure profit to Costco. There is virtually no cost to process an application and issue a card.

McDonald’s essentially has two business segments: their own McDonald’s operated restaurants and franchising. The brand’s own operated restaurants serve as references to franchise owners for how good McDonald’s brand is as an investment. However, it offers the brand way lower margin than their franchised restaurants.

Airlines make money by flying customers, but there are a lot of costs involved such as planes, airport services, food and beverage, fuel, etc…Airlines can generate more margin with their branded credit cards. Many airline-branded credit cards come with an annual fee. Plus, card issuers may pay airlines a fixed fee for new issued cards and a smaller fee for renewals. Plus, there may be a small percentage for first non-airline purchases. Agreements vary between airlines and card issuers, but it brings a lot of margin to airlines.

Ride sharing apps are notoriously unprofitable. Uber and Lyft lost billions of dollars in their main operations. Recently, they tried to launch a subscription service and in Uber case, a credit card, hoping that these services could help generate the margin they need.

We all know the saying in business: cash is king. Cash can only increase, from an operating perspective, when margin increases. Revenue is crucial because, well, a business needs to convince folks to pay for products or services first. Nonetheless, a business is more robust and valued when margin increases.

Costco – An amazing business

Charlie Munger said that the only real threat to Amazon in retail in his opinion was Costco. I think he has a point. Costco has a remarkable business model.

This part in the 2018 annual report summarizes the business pretty well

We operate membership warehouses based on the concept that offering our members low prices on a limited selection of nationally branded and private-label products in a wide range of categories will produce high sales volumes and rapid inventory turnover. When combined with the operating efficiencies achieved by volume purchasing, efficient distribution and reduced handling of merchandise in no-frills, self-service warehouse facilities, these volumes and turnover enable us to operate profitably at significantly lower gross margins (net sales less merchandise costs) than most other retailers. We generally sell inventory before we are required to pay for it, even while taking advantage of early payment discounts.

We buy most of our merchandise directly from manufacturers and route it to cross-docking consolidation points (depots) or directly to our warehouses. Our depots receive large shipments from manufacturers and quickly ship these goods to warehouses. This process creates freight volume and handling efficiencies, lowering costs associated with traditional multiple-step distribution channels

The model can be illustrated as below

Costco’s customer base enables the retailer to buy goods in bulk and at discount from suppliers. The lower prices make Costco appealing to customers. The cycle keeps going on. Costco has every reason to keep the margin low so that the cycle is robust and going strong. To solve the margin issue, Costco resorts to membership fees which are mostly purely profit.

Source: Costco Q4 earnings

The graph above shows that the membership fees make up the most of the net income. It’s not unreasonable to think that the SG&A expense for memberships is minimal.

The membership fees give Costco breathing room in a cut-throat business. There is only so much that a retailer can do on a margin side given a litany of fearsome competitors. Plus, there are so many foreseen and unforeseen factors that can put Costco’s margin at risk. If Costco removed the membership fees and raised the margin, they would become less competitive.

Being able to convince shoppers to pay an annual fee is a competitive advantage. So is the freedom to laser-focus on keeping the costs low. An additional advantage of a membership fee is that Costco can have more cash for their operations. Operating in a business in which a lot of goods are moved around every day and plenty of capital is required for upgrade, openings and renovation, Costco benefits greatly from the instant dose of cash the members bring in.

Weekly Readings – 6th July 2019

Rising U.S. Inequality: How We Got Here, Where We’re Going

How Costco gained a cult following — by breaking every rule of retail. Costco is Charlie Munger’s pick as Amazon’s biggest threat. He may have a point here.

Student Loans Are Not A National Crisis. I am a bit reluctant to add this story to the post as I don’t really like the headline. However, his points are valid. So why not? In the summary, I agree with him that wiping out college debt does nothing to address the root issue. It’s about the system that leads to the current debt situation and the lack of personal finance knowledge.

The rise and rise of a Vietnamese corporate empire. FT pulled the curtains on one of the biggest corporations in Vietnam. Both the good and the bad.

Amazon in-sourcing nearly half of its parcel transportation needs. A look at Amazon’s transportation capabilities

Understanding Financial Statements. A very good primer on the fundamentals of financial statements.

Global App Revenue Reached $39 Billion in the First Half of 2019, Up 15% Year-Over-Year. A great study on app revenue and downloads in the first half of 2019 from Sensor Tower.

Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2019–2023. An interesting and informative report on global entertainment and media by PwC.

Making 5G pay. A look at how 5G can be monetized, how much consumers are willing to pay (an estimate) and how different 5G packages can be introduced for different needs.

All about Direct Listings. A great overview of direct listings by a16z