Costco Wholesale Corporation, doing business as Costco, is an American multinational corporation which operates a chain of membership-only warehouse clubs. As of 2015, Costco was the second largest retailer in the world after Walmart, and as of 2016, Costco was the world's largest retailer of choice and prime beef, organic foods, rotisserie chicken, and wine. As of 2019, Costco is ranked #14 on the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue.
Costco's logo since 1997
Headquarters in Issaquah, Washington
|Traded as||NASDAQ: COST|
S&P 100 Component
S&P 500 Component
|Founded||July 12, 1976 (as Price Club)|
San Diego, California
September 15, 1983 (as Costco)
Number of locations
|United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, Japan, China, Taiwan, Spain, France, South Korea, Iceland|
|Hamilton E. James|
W. Craig Jelinek
(President and CEO)
Cash & Carry
Number of employees
Costco's worldwide headquarters are in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb east of Seattle; the company opened its first warehouse (the chain's term for its retail outlets) in Seattle 36 years ago in 1983. Through mergers, Costco's corporate history dates back to 1976, when its former competitor Price Club was founded in San Diego, California. As of December 31, 2019, Costco has a total of 785 warehouses: 546 in the United States and Puerto Rico, 100 in Canada, 39 in Mexico, 29 in the United Kingdom, 26 in Japan, 16 in South Korea, 13 in Taiwan, 11 in Australia, two in Spain, one in Iceland, one in France, and one in China. Costco is scheduled to open a warehouse in New Zealand in 2021.
Price Club and the birth of the retail warehouse concept
Costco's history began with Sol Price and his son, Robert, opening the first Price Club warehouse on July 12, 1976, on Morena Boulevard in San Diego, California, thus giving birth to a new concept: a retail warehouse club. The Price family placed Price Club Warehouse #1 inside a series of old airplane hangars previously owned by Howard Hughes; that warehouse, now known as Costco Warehouse #401, is still in operation today.
Costco opened its first warehouse in 1983 in Seattle on September 15, by James (Jim) Sinegal and Jeffrey H. Brotman. Sinegal had started in wholesale distribution by working for Sol Price at FedMart; Brotman, an attorney from an old Seattle retailing family, had also been involved in retail distribution from an early age. He began his retail involvement as a grocery bagger. A second store opened in Portland in October, and a third in Spokane in December 1983.
The "PriceCostco" merger
In 1993, Costco and Price Club agreed to merge operations themselves after Price declined an offer from Sam Walton and Walmart to merge Price Club with their warehouse store chain, Sam's Club. Costco's business model and size were similar to those of Price Club, which made the merger more natural for both companies. The combined company took the name PriceCostco, and memberships became universal, meaning that a Price Club member could use their membership to shop at Costco and vice versa. PriceCostco boasted 206 locations generating $16 billion in annual sales. PriceCostco was initially led by executives from both companies, but in 1994, the Price brothers left the company to form Price Enterprises, a warehouse club chain in Central America and the Caribbean unrelated to the current Costco.
Other company milestones
On April 26, 2012, CNBC premiered its documentary, The Costco Craze: Inside the Warehouse Giant.
In 2014, Costco was the third largest retailer in the United States. That year Costco announced plans to open an online store in China using Alibaba Group.
In the United States, Costco's main competitors operating membership warehouses are Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club. Costco employs 254,000 full and part-time employees worldwide. In 2016, Costco had 86.7 million members. In 2017, Costco had 90.3 million members. In 2018, Costco had 94.3 million members. In 2019, Costco had 98.5 million members.
Costco was the first company to grow from zero to $3 billion in sales in under six years. For the fiscal year ending on August 31, 2012, the company's sales totaled $97.062 billion, with $1.709 billion net profit. As of 2019, Costco is ranked #14 on the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue. The ACSI (The American Customer Satisfaction Index) named Costco number one in the specialty retail store industry with a score of 84 in 2014.
From December 2013, Costco's board of directors was chaired by co-founder Jeffrey H. Brotman and included James Sinegal, co-founder and director, and two officers of the company: president/CEO W. Craig Jelinek and CFO Richard A. Galanti. On August 1, 2017, Jeffrey Brotman died. As of August 2017, James Sinegal and W. Craig Jelinek remain on the board. Jim Sinegal stepped down in 2018.
For the fiscal year 2019, Costco reported earnings of US$3.659 billion, with an annual revenue of US$152.703 billion, an increase of 7.9% over the previous fiscal cycle. Costco's shares traded at over $205 per share, and its market capitalization was valued at over US$95.7 billion in October 2018.
A typical Costco warehouse carries only 3,700 distinct products, while a typical Walmart Supercenter carries approximately 140,000 products. If Costco feels the wholesale price of any individual product is too high, they will refuse to stock the product. For example, in November 2009, Costco announced that it would stop selling Coca-Cola products, because the soft-drink maker refused to lower its wholesale prices. Costco resumed selling Coca-Cola products the following month.
Lighting costs are reduced on sunny days, as most Costco locations have several skylights. During the day, electronic light meters measure how much light is coming in the skylights and turn off an appropriate percentage of the interior lights. During an average sunny day, it is normal for the center section of the warehouse not to have interior lights in use.
Although the brand engages in visible efforts to reduce costs, the stores themselves are expensive. In 2013, Costco spent approximately $80 million on each of the new stores it opened. The cost is partly driven by the cost of real estate, as each new store means that they need enough space to support a building of approximately 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2) in size, a large parking lot, and often a gas station.
The company's rule is that no item may be marked up more than 14% over cost and no Kirkland Signature item may be marked up more than 15% over cost. The company runs very lean, with overhead costs at about 10% of revenue and profit margins at 2%. Costco's annual membership fees (US$60/year for Gold Star, US$120/year for Executive as of 2019) account for 80 percent of Costco's gross margin and 70 percent of its operating income.
Costco has a frequently changing inventory and is known for carrying products for a time, then discontinuing them or using them as seasonal products. Over the years, Costco has gradually expanded its range of products and services. Initially, it preferred to sell only boxed products that could be dispensed by simply tearing the stretch wrap off a pallet. It now sells many other products that are more difficult to handle, such as art, books, caskets, clothing, computer software, fine wine, furniture, home appliances, home electronics, hot tubs, jewelry, perishable items (such as dairy, fresh baked goods, flowers, fresh produce, meat, seafood), solar panels, tires, and vacuum cleaners. Many warehouses also have gas stations, pharmacies, hearing aid centers, optometrists, eye and sunglass centers, photo processors, and tire garages. The produce items that require refrigeration are kept in a walk-in refrigerator, and several locations even have a walk-in refrigerator for dairy items.
Some locations have liquor stores, often kept separate from the main warehouse in order to comply with liquor license restrictions. In some states (such as Texas), the liquor store must be owned and operated by a separate company with separate employees. In 2006, Costco lost a lawsuit against the state of Washington in which it was seeking to purchase wine directly from the producer, bypassing the state retail monopoly. In Australia, Costco has to comply with regulations set by each state they choose to trade in; their first store in the state of Victoria benefits from some of the most liberal alcohol licensing laws in that country, with retailers permitted to sell alcohol on shelves within the store, in a manner similar to most European countries. In the Canadian province of Quebec, beer and wine are sold within the stores from pallets.
"Kirkland Signature" is Costco's private label. It is sold by Costco at their website and warehouses, and is trademarked by the company. Costco introduced Kirkland Signature as its private label in 1992, deriving the name from the location of Costco's then corporate headquarters, Kirkland, Washington (their HQ later moved, roughly 12 miles (19 km), to Issaquah, Washington). It accounts for almost a third of all Costco sales and is growing faster than Costco sales. Kirkland branded bottled water is produced by private label bottler Niagara Bottling.
The idea for the private label was to provide brand name quality products at discounted prices. To counteract the consumer confidence problem common in store-name branding, Kirkland Signature occasionally employs co-branding. According to Costco, while consumers may be wary of same-store branding, they are less likely to be wary of brands that they are familiar with and trust.
The Costco Connection is a magazine sent free to members of Costco; it can also be accessed online by anyone, free of charge. The magazine, established in 1987, features articles which regularly tie into the corporation along with business, celebrity features, cooking, entertaining, health, home improvement, and social articles, as well as coupons and ads. MediaPost reports: "While about 90% of the magazine's advertising is co-op, increasingly national advertisers such as Procter & Gamble are buying space, notes Roeglin -- presumably because of the pub's gargantuan reach and the data it has on its subscribers (whose average household income is $156,000 a year). 'We see about 56% of our subscribers a month buy something at one of our stores based on something they've read in the magazine,' says Roeglin." The magazine is the largest-circulation print monthly in the United States. Costco also publishes the Costco Household Almanac and a cookbook series.
Costco offers a free "concierge" service to members who purchase electronics, to help answer questions regarding setup and use and avoid potential returns due to not understanding how to use the products.
Costco acts as an investment broker and travel agent. Costco has an agreement with Ameriprise for auto and home insurance. In 2004, Costco offered an original artwork by artist Pablo Picasso on their online store; more recently a highly regarded 1982 Mouton Rothschild wine was offered as well as other rare wines in rotation.
Costco Photo Center is a multi-functional photography printing lab offering services at the warehouses as well as through their web site, costcophotocenter.com. The website provides free unlimited digital file storage with a current membership. Previous to May or June 2010, Costco had an agreement with Mypublisher.com for custom book and calendar publishing. Now, they print the photobooks and calendars themselves.
Costco Auto Program
As of September 2015, Costco was the second largest auto seller in the US, just behind AutoNation. Costco regularly teams up with various automobile manufacturers to offer special deals to customers, e.g., Polaris (a leading seller of powersport vehicles) in 4Q2015 and General Motors from October 2015 through January 2016. Addicted to Costco lists the following as some benefits of the Costco Auto Program:
- A low, prearranged price for Costco members
- All available national manufacturer incentives
- More than 3,000 dealerships nationwide, with specially trained employees to assist Costco members
Costco business services
On March 9, 2005, NOVA Information Systems (NOVA) partnered with Costco to market and support payment processing services to Costco Canada's Business Executive Members.
Costco Optical ranks as the fifth-largest optical company in the US, as of 2015. Optometrists working at Costco locations will see patients without Costco memberships, although a membership is required to fill a prescription at the optical department.
Costco Travel is a wholly owned subsidiary of Costco Wholesale and offers leisure travel to Costco members of the United States and Canada. The program was established in 2000 as a service to Costco members. Costco Travel's offices are located in Issaquah, Washington, adjacent to Costco's corporate headquarters. Costco Travel employs over 700 travel professionals, all of them Costco employees.
The program offers vacation packages to the Caribbean, Europe, Florida, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Mexico, and the South Pacific. Other products include car rentals, cruises, guided vacations, and theme park packages. Select products feature additional benefits for Costco Executive Members.
The program is marketed directly to Costco members through various Costco avenues, including the Travel Guide to Savings (found in all U.S. Costco warehouses) and in the Travel section of Costco.com.
Most (if not all) Costco locations have a food court. They can be indoors or outdoors, but the menu is essentially the same: hot dog with drink (one of the food court's most popular items), pizza, frozen yogurt, various drinks, baked items, and sandwiches. Sometimes, items are added to the menu seasonally. Costco offers a quarter-pound 100% beef hot dog and 20 US fluid ounces (590 ml) drink (with refills) for US$1.50, the same price since 1985. In Australia, the hot dog is made of pork and is sold with a large soda for AUD$1.99. In Canada, the price for a hot dog and soda with refills is C$1.50. In Mexico, the hot dog is made of 100% beef and includes a drink (with refills) for MXN$35. In the UK, the hot dog is also made from beef and customers also get a drink (with refills) for £1.50. Costco sold more than 137 million quarter-pound (113 g) hot dogs in its food courts in 2017.
Cheese, pepperoni, veggie, or combo pizza is also available in most locations, and can usually be ordered to go, making Costco arguably the 14th largest pizza chain in the U.S. in 2010. Frozen yogurt is also served in chocolate, vanilla, or swirl. Costco also offers fruit smoothies, latte freeze (without chocolate), mocha freeze (with chocolate), beef bake, chicken bake, turkey provolone sandwiches, twisted churros, chicken Caesar salads, beef brisket sandwiches, organic beef-based cheeseburgers, beef chili with beans, and in some locations, gelato. Various locations also began offering acai bowls in 2018. French fries are also offered in some locations. Some of the food court items are only available in certain countries. For example, the bulgogi bake is only available in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan; poutine is only available in Canada; and plokkari only in Iceland. There are, however, temporary menu items available exclusively in several countries, like the pizza al pastor in Mexico. The nutrition data for the Costco Food Court items is posted online.
Due to slow sales, in 2009, the pretzel was replaced by the churro. In April 2013, Pepsi replaced all Coca-Cola fountain drinks at U.S. locations because Coke had raised its prices; this helped keep the hot dog combo with soda at its original US$1.50 price.
Online photo site
In December 2005, Costco signed an agreement with PhotoChannel Networks Inc., whereby Costco could deploy the PNI Digital Media Platform to offer online photo printing for Costco members through the website.
On July 17, 2015, Costco disabled their online photo site. In common with other retailers, there is currently no confirmation about whether hackers had stolen Costco customers' photographs or data. As of August 1, 2015, Costco was estimating the website might return in mid August, after a four-week outage.
The domain Costco.com attracted at least 58 million visitors in 2008, according to a Compete.com survey. Costco.com is for United States members; costco.ca is for Canadian members, and other countries, such as Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and the UK, each has its own online Costco shopping website.
Instacart offers Costco delivery in a select number of states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. No membership is needed to order from Costco on Instacart, but Instacart charges delivery fees and the prices may not necessarily be the same as in a Costco warehouse. Similarly, in March 2017, Costco initiated a partnership with Shipt, an online grocery delivery service. Unlike Instacart, Shipt charges its own membership fee, $99 a year or $14 a month, in exchange for free delivery on orders over $35. As of November 2018, Shipt offers Costco delivery in select Florida markets.
While some former Price Club locations in California and the northeastern United States are staffed by Teamsters, the majority of Costco locations are not unionized although there seemed to be a move in 2012 to unionize some locations in Canada. The non-union locations have revisions to their Costco Employee Agreement every three years concurrent with union contract ratifications in locations with collective bargaining agreements. The Employee Agreement sets forth such things as benefits, compensations, wages, disciplinary procedures, paid holidays, bonuses, and seniority. The Employee Agreement is subject to change by Costco at any time and offers no absolute protection to the workers. As of March 2011, non-supervisory hourly wages ranged from $11.00 to $21.00 in the U.S., $11.00 to $22.15 in Canada, and £8.50 to £11.50 in the United Kingdom. In the U.S. as of 2005, eighty-five percent of Costco's workers had health insurance, compared with less than fifty percent at Walmart and Target. Health benefits include coverage through Aetna, remote primary care through Teladoc, second opinions and clinical navigation by Grand Rounds, and wellness coaching by Omada.
Product-demonstration (e.g., food samples) employees work for an outside company. In the western U.S., the company is called Warehouse Demo Services, Kirkland, Washington. Costco also uses Club Demonstration Services, based in San Diego, California. Demonstration employees receive a pay and benefit package that is less than that of Costco employees. As of August 1, 2017, demonstrations/samples are provided by CDS in Canada.
In 2014, The Guardian reported that Costco is a client of Charoen Pokphand Foods. Over six months, The Guardian traced down a supply chain from slave ships in Asian waters to leading producers and retailers. Costco has published a statement saying it has had a supplier code of conduct since 1999 which does not allow this practice, and that independent auditors check for violations regularly.
International locations and other centers
Warehouses outside the U.S. are similar to those in the US. Layout, signage, and even parking lot markings are generally identical to warehouses in the US. Food court menus are tailored to international tastes, with meat pies on offer in Australia, poutine in Canada, seafood-topped pizza in Asian and Mexican locations, clam chowder in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and plokkfiskur in Iceland and jacket potatoes in the UK. Additionally, Costco has led a strategic initiative within the past year to enhance their merchandise mix available within international warehouses to tailor products to local tastes, with a mix of both American and local products available.
In 2005, the world's largest Costco was located in Hillsboro, Oregon. In 2015, Costco completed an expansion in Salt Lake City, making it the new largest Costco at 235,000 sq ft (21,800 m2). In 2011, Costco's highest volume store was in Seoul, South Korea.
Costco Business Centers
Costco Business Centers are warehouses similar to regular Costco warehouses, and are open to all Costco members, regardless of membership type. Their merchandise, though, cater predominantly to enterprises, with a focus on small businesses. Business Centers do not carry most consumer items like clothing, jewelry, media, and tires, while carrying larger quantities and more options for the business products they do carry. They do not offer most of the consumer-oriented services found at regular Costco warehouses, but some locations do have a food court or a gas station or both. Also unlike regular warehouses, most Costco Business Centers have a Print & Copy Center which provides printing professional services. They have large parking spaces for trucks and are capable of delivering goods to businesses in bulk quantities. Finally, opening hours are shorter than regular warehouses (usually opening at 7:00 am on Mondays to Saturdays and closed on Sundays), while discounts and coupons for Business Centers are issued separately from regular warehouses.
As of August 2017, there are 17 Costco Business Centers in the United States, located in Orlando, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; California (Commerce, Hawthorne, Hayward, North Hollywood, San Diego, South San Francisco and Westminster); Denver, Colorado; Morrow, Georgia; Bedford Park, Illinois; Hackensack, New Jersey; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Washington (Lynnwood, and Fife).
The first Costco Business Center outside the U.S. opened in Canada in Scarborough, Toronto in spring 2017.
Like many other retailers vertically integrating their food supply chains, Costco has brought in-house poultry production for their rotisserie chickens, which are a major driver of customer traffic and sales. This is to allow keeping their pricing intact while maintaining a consistent quality control of its chickens as a result of annual growth of per-capita chicken consumption in the United States.
The first Costco Home warehouse opened in 1983, and was rebuilt / expanded in 2002, in Seattle. The warehouse's concept was to combine the value, setting and members-only elements of Costco's warehouse clubs with the product array one would find at an upscale home store, such as Fortunoff or Crate & Barrel. The Costco Home warehouses sold furniture, housewares, kitchen products and accessories from higher-end brands such as Lexington, Ralph Lauren and Waterford in a warehouse-club setting. Costco claimed that, similar to its main warehouses, it accepted lower margins in return for greater volume with minimal overhead.
Over time, the concept was adjusted to include home electronics, some major appliances, office furniture, and a large selection of outdoor furniture and window treatments. Costco also partners with Glentel subsidiary WIRELESS etc. to sell mobile phones and plans in Canada and Wireless Advocates in the US.
On April 2, 2009, the company announced that it would be abandoning its Costco Home concept, closing the two existing stores in Kirkland, Washington and Tempe, Arizona on July 3, 2009, and abandoning plans for a third store on the West Coast. The company cited cutbacks in consumer spending on home products and its interest in focusing on its core business as the main reasons.
In 2010, Mercy for Animals conducted an undercover investigation at Buckeye Veal Farm, a veal supplier to Costco. Immediately following the investigative release, Costco adopted a policy against purchasing veal from producers that use the crate-and-chain production method. The case prompted Ohio lawmakers to vote in favor of a veal crate phase-out in the state.
In 2012, Mercy for Animals conducted another undercover investigation at a pork supplier to major retailers such as Costco, Walmart, Safeway, Kroger, and Kmart. Before the public release of the investigation, Costco announced they would begin requiring their pork suppliers to phase out gestation crates.
In 2015, The Humane Society of the United States conducted an undercover investigation at an egg supplier to Costco. An undercover worker at Hillandale Farms, a major egg supplier to Costco, filmed conditions in which egg-laying hens lived in tiny, wire cages. Following the investigations, several celebrities including Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling publicly wrote to Costco to address this issue. Following efforts by animal protection nonprofits including The Humane League, Costco released an updated commitment to source exclusively cage-free eggs in its operations.
In 2016, a follow up to Costco's shift to cage-free eggs by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) reported cannibalism and high mortality at a cage-free Costco egg supplier. Costco denied the allegations, but the video sparked a discussion about animal welfare problems continuing to exist at cage-free egg farms. Writing in The Huffington Post, DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung argued that the new investigation, rather than suggesting that Costco should keep birds in cages, indicated that hens should have the right not to be raised for food or kept on farms at all.
In August 2017, a federal judge ordered a "deceptive" Costco to pay Tiffany & Co. $19.4 million for misleading consumers into thinking they could buy legitimate Tiffany merchandise at warehouse club prices.
Discrimination Against Asian Customers and Use of Caged Eggs
Costco have been criticised for the continued use of eggs from caged hens across their stores in Taiwan and Asia. They are the only hypermarket in Taiwan not yet publicly committed to going cage-free on eggs. Competitor RT-Mart is prioritising cage-free egg producers for the Taiwanese market . In November 2019, hypermarket giant Carrefour has committed to going 100 percent cage free in Taiwan.
Costco provides US and European customers with cage-free egg options, and claims to be committed to the ‘five freedoms of animal wellbeing’, which include ‘freedom from discomfort, and the freedom to exhibit natural behaviour’ . However, many studies have concluded that hens raised in cages cannot exhibit natural behaviours such as spreading their wings, or dust-bathing.
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