Inside Costco Business Model

Looking at this particular business model and how it is so successful. There maybe some lessons to be learned by small retailers and wholesalers alike.

Inside Costco Business Model

How Costco Makes Money

Costco Wholesale Corp. has been around for almost 40 years and has transformed the way Americans do their grocery shopping.

Costco is one of the largest wholesale brands in the world with 663 locations globally.

Costco’s dividends have grown year-over-year since the company began issuing them in 2004. So what is it about Costco that makes it successful?

Membership Fees

Costco runs on a “subscription business model,” that is, customers who want to shop at the store must buy a membership in order to do so. Memberships, make up for their cost by offering customers lower, wholesale prices for goods. But Costco wasn’t the first company to implement this business model. Newspapers, gyms, and telecommunication companies also earn their money from subscriptions.

Costco is different from other subscription-based businesses, however, because its customers aren’t subscribing for goods—they are subscribing for a service. The service that Costco provides is its ability to use economies of scale to bulk buy large quantities of goods at low prices in order to sell them back to customers for cheaper.

Unlike a good, a service is intangible. That means there needs to be a certain level of confidence about the service in order for it to be worth the cost.

Lower Prices Than Grocery Stories

Costco members know that the warehouse store has consistently lower prices when compared to traditional grocery stores. While other stores may have occasionally lower prices on their loss leaders, such as Walmart or Target, Costco has permanently capped its margins to ensure that members can justify paying for a membership.

What are capped margins? A capped margin is a maximum price markup that an item has.

The word average is key to that definition. Costco maintains its own brand, Kirkland Signature, that earns the retailer a higher profit margin because there are fewer middlemen involved in production. That means that Costco’s 11.4% profit margin actually isn’t quite right for many brand name products. In reality, the brand name products at Costco are sold at a much lower profit margin than the 11.4% average, but that average is offset by the Kirkland Signature products sold at a higher profit margin.

This distinction gets at how Costco maintains low prices — the company makes little to no profit selling brand name products while bolstering its business with the Kirkland Signature brand.

Word of Mouth Advertising

Regular grocery stores run their businesses on a loss leader strategy. You are likely familiar with this business model, even if it’s the first time you’re reading that term. At the end of the workweek, grocery stores typically send out a flyer with advertised specials and coupons. The end goal for grocery store owners is to bring shoppers into their store and sell them other items at higher price margins. That’s why turkey prices fall ridiculously low around Thanksgiving time, because stores are doubling the prices of sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

Costco, by comparison, doesn’t send out weekly flyers. Instead, the company uses word of mouth advertising to keep the same loss leaders week after week.

High Employee Wages

Costco is well-known for paying its employees’ high wages. As illogical as it sounds, Costco’s high employee wages are part of its cost-savings plan. With employees earning a decent wage, they are more productive and less likely to quit.

Employee turnover is a huge cost of business. Between being short-staffed and the associated costs of finding and training new employees.

Fewer Stock Keeping Units

Costco has a policy of carrying a lower number of products than traditional grocery stores. The benefit of having fewer Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) is twofold. First, having fewer products to order, track, and display means cost savings for Costco. Despite the sheer size of Costco stores, the space in their warehouses is actually fairly limited with goods often packed to the ceiling. In order to expand its product selection, Costco would need larger warehouse stores and more employees to organize, ship, and negotiate prices for the products.

The second reason that Costco limits its SKUs is to increase its purchasing power. Due to limited shelf space, suppliers must bid for Costco shelf space to get their products sold, which in turn drives down the price of goods. Brands are willing to drop their prices to get in the door of Costco because they know they may be the only brand of ketchup or toothpaste sold in the store. This lower price ultimately brings in more consumers looking to purchase the products for less money than they would spend at a traditional store.

The Bottom Line

Investors and analysts don’t turn to Costco because the company turns high profits — it doesn’t. They turn to it because the company fulfills a market niche. Ask yourself: how many retailers do you know of that make the majority of their profit by selling the right to shop? How many retailers cap their margins at just over 10% and build their business on consistent loss leaders? How many retailers pay their staff, on average, over $40 000 per year, plus benefits?

Published by Raffaele Felaco

I am an enthusiastic leader with strong background in direct and indirect sales with an exten- sive experience in both retail and wholesale business. I have been fortunate to have worked alongside teams in structured environments both in Italy and abroad over the last 20 years, en- abling me to develop strong leadership skills, a natural approach in effective communication, the ability of positively influencing others and master complex business negotiations.

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