Tag Archives: Costco Wholesale

Good News For Costco, Bad News For Consumers !

We must be getting old, here at Routing By Rumor world headquarters, because we’re not spotting deceptive consumer practices as quickly as we used to.  If you’re a regular visitor to these parts, you’ve heard us complaining about manufacturers who downsize their products, and about manufacturer’s practices we’ve termed “deception engineering“.

Case in point…  When last month’s “Costco Connection” advertising and propaganda publication  arrived (they call it a “lifestyle magazine” –  believe that, and we have an “infomercial” we want you to watch), we found great news on page 52  (View the April edition of Costco Connection here).  Costco announced, in a two-page article, that while other brands of tuna fish were shrinking their cans from six ounces to five ounces, Costco was increasing the size of their  “Kirkland Signature” house brand of tuna fish, from six ounces to seven ounces.  You don’t read good news like that every day.  Sounds like they’re making an already good value even better.  Break out the mayonnaise and strike up the band.  Happy days are here again!

Or are they?

It turns out that it’s good news for Costco, but bad news for Costco members (and, we suspect, for those cute little tuna fishies).  While it’s true that they have increased the size of their Kirkland Signature tuna fish by 16.6%, to seven ounces, consumers are not getting more tuna for their money.  The article in their Costco Connection magazine somehow forgot to mention the fact that the price per can actually increased even more than the size of the can!  Bottom line: You get more tuna per can, but the price per ounce has increased.

Silly us.  We thought we might be getting more tuna fish for the same price.  In actuality, while the size of the cans was increased a whopping 16.6%, the price per can has increased an even more whopping 20%.  Packs of eight 6-ounce cans  had sold for $9.99 in area Costco Wholesale warehouses.  Now that they have introduced packs of eight 7-ounce cans, Costco has raised the selling price to $11.99, a 20% increase.  By the way, didja ever notice how most grocery items at Costco seem to be sized so that the average price per package is around $10 or $12 ?  Throw 9 or ten items in your cart, and you just spent at least $100.  But we guess that’s the whole idea of shopping in a “warehouse” club.   And why does the price of everything have to end in “.99”, ie: $9.99, $11.99, $14.99 ?  We realize that Costco didn’t invent that pricing strategy, but if you’re shopping in a place like Costco, which says it caps  it’s margin** (see below) at 14%, it seems like a suspicious practice to cynical little us.  Like maybe if their normal markup dictates a selling price of $12.35, it gets rounded UP to $12.99, just because someone at Costco likes the number 99, and rounding it up to an even $13.00 might seem, well, excessive.  Yes, we know that 13 is not an even number, but you get the point.  Besides, 1300 IS an even number, which is sort of odd, when you stop and think about it.  Then again, maybe we’re paranoid, and when they have an item that should sell for $12.35, they decide to give their members a break, and round the price down to $11.99.  Yeah, right.  All we know is that if you look at your receipt the next time you shop at Costco, just about everything except random-weight packages of meat, poulty, fish, etc., will end in “.99”.  But even those random-weight items will have a unit price ending in “.99”, such as $5.99 per pound.

But then, there are a lot of odd things at Costco, like the fact that they will accept any credit card in your wallet, as long as it is from American Express.  And the fact that they don’t offer grocery bags, so you end up throwing 500 loose items into your car in the parking lot.  And the fact that they won’t accept any manufacturer’s cents-off  coupons, unless they are distributed by Costco themselves.  And the fact that they have pretty limited hours of operation, especially for the lowest-cost membership holders. And the fact (according to this New York Times article), that Costco refuses to accept food stamps (now issued as debit cards) for purchases.  And the fact that you’ll find horrifically environment-unfriendly packaging of many small items (especially electronic items) at Costco, which doesn’t seem to be getting Costco members too upset.  We’re talking huge plastic blister packs (which can’t be recycled, at least where we live), or combination plastic and cardboard blister packs, so that these small items are less likely to be stolen.  In our opinion,  some of the terribly excessive packaging at Costco and other warehouse-type retailers qualifies as a crime against the planet, even if it doesn’t happen to be illegal.

Now, we’ll admit that we aren’t going to stop buying Costco tuna fish.  It’s actually excellent quality tuna.  It is quite possibly the best quality tuna we have ever found, at any price.  But those good folks in Seattle must think their customers are idiots.  To be sure, the price per ounce has increased only slightly, and it’s still a good value.  But shamelessly hyping the increased size of their cans of tuna fish, and not mentioning that it’s now more expensive and was actually a better value before they increased the size of the cans isn’t what we would consider good news or being straightforward with their customers .  In our opinion, it borders on deceptive advertising.  Of course, you can’t  expect that manufacturers will go out of their way to let you know when they raise prices, downsize a product, or substitute cheaper ingredients, either.  What we don’t like is the fact that, in our mind at least, Costco’s announcement paints a picture that it’s now a better value, when the opposite is actually true.

Since when is raising the price (per ounce, per pound, per gallon, etc.) of a product, while at the same time, forcing you to buy more of it at once, a good thing for consumers ?  What ever happened to the warehouse club concept that as package size increases, so does value ?

For us, the appeal of shopping at Costco isn’t so much about price, as it is about quality.  After all, shopping at Costco means an extra shopping trip,  an annual membership fee, not getting your groceries bagged, often waiting in long lines at the checkout, limited shopping hours and very limited product selection.  Indeed,we can buy many identical items for less at the local supermarket, especially when they’re on sale or if we use manufacturer’s coupons.  What we like most about Costco is that the quality of their private-labeled items, such as their tuna fish, is generally superior to not only the national brands, but any brand at any price.  Even Jimmy Kimmel shops at Costco.  Watch Jimmy shopping at Costco on youtube.  We never knew a trip to Costco could be so much fun.

An article entitled “Costco’s Artful Discounts” (Business Week, October 9, 2008), says this of Costco CEO James D. Sinegal… “he’s constantly pushing his buyers to find creative ways to lower prices and add value while getting his managers to crank up their efficiency efforts”.  It seems to us that Costco’s new 7-ounce cans of tuna have failed to deliver the lower prices or added value which Mr. Sinegal is so fond of.  What they do seem to have provided is a lot of hype for Costco’s marketing efforts, and very likely a higher profit margin because a product’s shipping and packaging costs (especially for canned items) decrease (on a percentage basis), as container size increases.  There is very little difference in the cost of manufacturing a 7-ounce tin can, compared to a 6-ounce tin can.  In fact, in the case of Costco tuna fish, the old and new cans use exactly the same size lid; but the walls of the can are slightly taller.  Costco is also very good at finding ways to minimize shipping costs, for instance, by having their vendors redesign packages so that more of them can fit onto a standard shipping pallet.  We wouldn’t be surprised if Costco’s next “improvement” to their Kirkland signature tuna will be to offer it in new and improved square cans.  Think of all the space that will save in the pantry, and the fact that you won’t have to worry about your can of tuna fish rolling away, should you drop it.  That’s always been a big problem for households that live in hilly areas.  Now, if the United States mint would only start issuing square pennies !

1919 Australian Kooka Square Penny

1919 Australian Kooka Square Penny

So, what have we learned today, class?  We’ve learned that you get less for your money when manufacturers shrink the size of their products,  and sometimes, you get less for your money when manufacturers increase the size of their products.  Heads, you lose.  Tails, you lose.

Dear Costco… May we please have our old 6-ounce cans of Kirkland Signature tuna fish back again?  They were a better value.

Then again, maybe we should just pay our money, eat our tuna fish (mercury content and torpedoes be damned), and keep our mouth shut.  Mother always said you shouldn’t speak with your mouth full, and now it’s 16.6% more full.

– Routing By Rumor

**  “Margin” is not the same as “markup”.  For instance, if you buy an item for $1.00, and sell it for $2.00,  your markup is 100%, but your margin (the percentage of the selling price that represents your profit) is only 50%.   We’ve always felt that putting things in terms of profit margin instead of markup, especially as markups become greater, has the effect of making a seller’s prices seem more reasonable.

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Not All Half-Gallons of Ice Cream Are Shrinking !

A Costco Wholesale location (image from schaperco.com)

A Costco Wholesale location (image from schaperco.com)

Amid the pandemic of shrinking products that is sweeping the nation, its nearly impossible to find a half-gallon container of ice cream that is still a full half-gallon, or 64 ounces.

First, manufacturers, including one of the downsizing leaders, Breyers (Unilever), shrunk their half-gallon ice cream containers to 56 ounces. More recently, almost all brands have downsized yet again, to 48 ounces (1.5 quarts). See our previous article about Breyer’s shrinking their ice cream containers. These days, the freezer at Routing By Rumor headquarters usually does without ice cream. Funny, but when we walk down the frozen food aisle in the supermarket and see the miniaturized containers of ice cream, we loose our taste for the product.

By the way, we realize that we may be jumping to conclusions by blaming the ice cream manufacturers for cheating us out of our hard-earned ice cream. It is entirely possible that this is what is actually going on.

But ice cream lovers (and lovers of value) rejoice ! If you shop at Costco Wholesale, you will still find full half-gallons of “Kirkland” ice cream. Sixty-four creamy, delicious, luxurious, decadent, fat-laden ounces. At about $4.50 per half-gallon, it’s less expensive than the anorexic-looking downsized containers of name-brand ice cream at the supermarket, which contain 25% less product. And Costco’s house brand of ice cream is available in any flavor you like, as long as it’s vanilla. That reminds us of what Henry Ford said about his Model T back in 1909. Poor Henry. He never knew the joy of shopping at Costco.

Henry Ford with his Model T Ford

Henry Ford with his Model T Ford

One of the tenents of shopping at Costco is that you sacrifice variety for value. You also have to buy a carton of two half-gallons at a time, but how many people are going to complain that they are forced to fill up their freezer with ice cream ?

One thing you won’t have to sacrifice is quality. Costco branded products have never disappointed us. We have found them to always be superior to the national brands in quality and/or value. Here’s a particularly stark example. Gallon containers of milk are $2.25 at Costco. Many local stores charge more for a half-gallon of milk than Costco charges for a gallon ! There are many items at Costco that are priced at less than half of what you’d pay at your local supermarket.

Lest you think that we are little more than shills for Costco, you’ll want to know that we aren’t crazy about everything at Costco. While many items at Costco might be slightly less expensive than your supermarket’s everyday prices, you’ll pay less, sometimes a lot less, at your local supermarket when it’s on sale. Meat and poultry are perfect examples of this. And when you consider that many items at Costco are sold in huge packages, it won’t be a bargain if you have to throw away half of it because you couldn’t finish it before it went bad. For instance, a 25 pound sack of flour, a gallon of mayonnaise, or a five gallon jug of vegetable oil are just a bit more than we need. An interesting thing about these institutional-sized packages is that in many cases, the price per pound/quart or whatever unit of measure is used, is not significantly different from your normal supermarket-sized packages. With some items, such as Del Monte or Libby ‘s canned vegetables, you sometimes end up paying more per can at Costco, despite having to buy a case of a dozen or so cans of peas or string beans, than you would if buying a single can at the supermarket. Same thing goes for cans of soda (“pop”, for our Southern readers). We think that in some cases (pun intended), Costco hopes you think you’re getting a bargain simply because you’re forced to buy such large quantities at a single time. Call it “warehouse club buying momentum”, if you will. When you get home and start calculating whether that two-gallon jug of mustard that will last you for the next twelve years was really a good buy, you start to have some regrets, even though it was only nine cents an ounce. The bottom line is that you have to keep your guard up at all times when shopping at a warehouse club. For us, we’re better off purchasing many items at a local supermarket.

When you factor in the obligatory ID check at the entrance to Costco, which is guarded by Cerberus himself (good doggie !), and the veritable strip search before they’ll let you leave, a trip to Costco isn’t a bowl of cherries (but it is arguably a bowl of vanilla ice cream). At least Costco doesn’t conduct a cavity search. We get enough of those when we visit our dentist.

Even if you don’t have a Costco membership, you can still do better when you shop at your local supermarket. While most supermarket half-gallon house brands of ice cream have shrunk to 56 ounces, they are still a better value than the 48 ounce containers that have become the new standard among the name brands, and the house brands are usually very good quality.

Now, if Costco can manage to keep their half-gallon containers of Kirkland ice cream a full half-gallon, why can’t all the the other brands manage to do the same ? That has to qualify as one of the great mysteries of the Universe.

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The Dirty Little Secret That Warehouse Clubs Would Rather You Not Know

We’ve had memberships to several membership-based warehouse clubs over the years. You can save money on many items, but there are often better deals on many items at your local supermarket, Walmart or Target. When you factor in the annual membership fees, which generally range from $50.00 to $100.00 or more, we’re not so sure that you actually save enough to make it worthwhile. That is, unless you own a restaurant, feed a small city, or really need to buy 50 pounds of rice, sugar or detergent at a time. They don’t bag your groceries for you. In fact, they don’t even have any bags (unless you want to buy 500 bags from them at a time).

Interestingly, at a time when other retailers are hurting because of an economy that is in deep recession, the warehouse clubs are enjoying healthy increases in membership and sales volume. Consumers desperate to stretch their dollars are flocking to these retailers in an effort to save some money. Check out this piece from CNBC that says Costco recently reported a 32% increase in quarterly profits, or this Forbes.com article that says BJ’s Wholesale Club saw a larger than 25% increase in profits in the first quarter of this year.

Many warehouse clubs open later and close earlier than supermarkets or other discount chains. In an effort to sell you their more expensive memberships, most of them offer expanded hours to only their premium membership holders, sort of like a caste system. By the time the doors swing open for the hordes of regular members, you just know that all the good stuff will have been snapped up by the privileged few who can afford the $100.00 premium memberships. All that will be left for everyone else will be the dregs. You might as well just drive ’round back and do some dumpster diving.

We’re also surprised they don’t have a little window by the entrance where you have to whisper the secret password before they’ll let you in. And some warehouse clubs limit your payment options. For instance, Costco won’t accept any credit cards except American Express. That’s unfortunate, since we’ve always felt that American Express offers the least consumer-friendly credit cards out there. And AmEx has probably deforested more of the planet than any other credit card provider, so that they can produce all the paper they stuff your mailbox with, trying to convince you to become a cardholder. We can’t believe the volume of crap we get from them. Maybe we should get a wood-burning stove. We could probably heat our home using nothing more than the American Express offers that our poor mail carrier has to keep delivering almost daily.

Then there’s the silly and demeaning entry and exit procedures at many warehouse clubs. You have to show your membership card (at least at Costco) to gain entry. After all, they can never be too careful about who they let in. I mean, God forbid a non-member might sneak in and try to buy something there. Then these places practically strip search you before you can leave with the shopping cart full of stuff you just paid for. If you think we’re overreacting to these policies, which seem to assume that everyone is a criminal, then you probably haven’t read this fellow’s rant on the subject. His discussion is much more eloquent than what the monkeys here at RoutingByRumor produce when they jump up and down on the keyboard to create each of these articles.

Here’s an account from a blogger who got the treatment at a North Carolina Walmart store, where he says he was briefly detained, then threatened by overly aggressive employees for declining to show his receipt.

Maybe we should put the warehouse clubs in charge of the U.S. borders and security at our airports. As an added bonus, they could sell club memberships to all the Mexicans that want to enter the United States, and the proceeds could go to the U.S. Treasury. Before they return to Mexico, they can stock up at Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s, thereby decreasing the U.S. trade deficit. Everyone benefits, and the illegal immigrants won’t have to risk their lives crossing deserts or rivers to get into the United States.

So what’s their dirty little little secret? In many states, certain departments in members-only warehouse clubs are required to sell to the general public without requiring membership. It seems to vary by state, but in general, product categories regulated by the state, such as pharmacy, alcohol and gasoline sales, are usually open to the public. Here’s an article at answers.com that lists which states require warehouse clubs to sell alcholic beverages to the public. This article from prnewswire mentions the fact that Sam’s Club pharmacies are open to the public. But don’t expect the warehouse clubs to advertise this fact. They would probably rather sell you a membership. Don’t even expect a straight answer if you walk thru the front door and ask the gatekeeper at a place like Costco. We did, and our opinion is that they like to play dumb. If you press them, they will acknowledge the fact that certain items must be sold to the public. This posting confirms our experience, and even mentions something called a “temporary alcohol shopping pass” available at Costco. Is this country great, or what ?

With all the big chains offering cheap generic prescriptions these days on a wide variety of medications, is it worth trying to get past the pit bull chained to the entrance at your local Costco, just so you can get some cheap medicine at their pharmacy? This New York Times article certainly seems to think so.

Another option is to ask for a “one-day pass”, which most warehouse clubs will provide. You may have to pay a 10% or so surcharge on any purchases you make, but if you don’t plan on being a regular shopper there, it’s probably a lot cheaper than buying a membership. Some clubs will even refund the surcharge or apply it towards their membership fee if you join within a few days. What wonderful people.

Even in places where the law does not require sales to the general public, there are loopholes that people use to save some money. Some people share their membership cards with friends and neighbors. This article explains how non-members can buy gasoline at Costco gas stations that are supposedly members-only.

As much as we hate Walmart, we think you can do better on most items at Walmart than at the warehouse clubs. We’ve never checked out prices at Walmart’s Sam’s Club stores, but somehow, we doubt that there will be much of a differential in prices between the two.

When you figure in the cost of membership, the extra gasoline you’ll probably burn to get there, the generally limited product selection, the inconvenience, the lack of shopping bags, limited payment options, the crowds, the long checkout lines, the often shorter hours and the obligatory strip searches at the exit, are the warehouse clubs really worth it?

– Routing By Rumor

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