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7/18/2005

The anti-Walmart

The NY Times has an absolutely surreal piece about Costco; basically, the company is getting criticized for being "too generous" to customers and workers. Excerpts (emphasis added):
How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart

JIM SINEGAL, the chief executive of Costco Wholesale, the nation's fifth-largest retailer, had all the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old in a candy store as he tore open the container of one of his favorite new products: granola snack mix. "You got to try this; it's delicious," he said. "And just $9.99 for 38 ounces."

Some 60 feet away, inside Costco's cavernous warehouse store here in the company's hometown, Mr. Sinegal became positively exuberant about the 87-inch-long Natuzzi brown leather sofas. "This is just $799.99," he said. "It's terrific quality. Most other places you'd have to pay $1,500, even $2,000."

But the pièce de résistance, the item he most wanted to crow about, was Costco's private-label pinpoint cotton dress shirts. "Look, these are just $12.99," he said, while lifting a crisp blue button-down. "At Nordstrom or Macy's, this is a $45, $50 shirt."

Combining high quality with stunningly low prices, the shirts appeal to upscale customers - and epitomize why some retail analysts say Mr. Sinegal just might be America's shrewdest merchant since Sam Walton.

But not everyone is happy with Costco's business strategy. Some Wall Street analysts assert that Mr. Sinegal is overly generous not only to Costco's customers but to its workers as well.

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."

...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.

...Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, faulted Mr. Sinegal as being too generous to employees, noting that when analysts complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.

"He has been too benevolent," she said. "He's right that a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden."

...

"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?'

...

Tim Rose, Costco's senior vice president for food merchandising, recalled a time when Starbucks did not pass along savings from a drop in coffee bean prices. Though he is a friend of the Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz, Mr. Sinegal warned he would remove Starbucks coffee from his stores unless it cut its prices.

Starbucks relented.

"Howard said, 'Who do you think you are? The price police?' " Mr. Rose recalled, adding that Mr. Sinegal replied emphatically that he was.

...

Costco contributes generously to its workers' 401(k) plans, starting with 3 percent of salary the second year and rising to 9 percent after 25 years.

Its insurance plans absorb most dental expenses, and part-time workers are eligible for health insurance after just six months on the job, compared with two years at Wal-Mart. Eighty-five percent of Costco's workers have health insurance, compared with less than half at Wal-Mart and Target.

Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have.

...Workers seem enthusiastic. Beth Wagner, 36, used to manage a Rite Aid drugstore, where she made $24,000 a year and paid nearly $4,000 a year for health coverage. She quit five years ago to work at Costco, taking a cut in pay. She started at $10.50 an hour - $22,000 a year - but now makes $18 an hour as a receiving clerk. With annual bonuses, her income is about $40,000.

"I want to retire here," she said. "I love it here."

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