Costs went up faster than sales; now its high-flying stock is tanking
Limited, steady inflation is the best thing since sliced bread, so to speak, for over-indebted companies, governments, and for debt-slave consumers – if wages rise faster than inflation, which they haven’t done in years. But it’s a vicious parasite for companies that cannot fully pass on their inflated input costs to the consumer. Sales rise due to inflation without having to sell a single extra thing, and analysts love that. But costs go up too, and at Costco, they went up faster than sales, and now its high-flying stock is tanking.
Costco, the second largest US retailer after Wal-Mart with 728 stores in nine countries, including 508 in the US and Puerto Rico and 94 in Canada, was considered one of the exceptions to the brick-and-mortar retail fiasco. But now that it released its earnings, it too is stirring up doubts.
Here are some of the salient numbers for the 12 weeks ended February 12:
- Sales rose 5.7% to $29.1 billion (in part based on price increases)
- Sales at stores that have been open more than a year rose 3% – not much higher than the increase in the Consumer Price Index for the period (2.5%)
- Membership fees rose 5.5% to $636 million (same annual fees, more members).
- Merchandise costs rose 6.0% to $25.9 billion
- Selling, general, and administrative expenses rose 5.1% to $2.98 billion.
- Operating income fell 1.4% to $844 million
- Operating margins declined to 2.8% from 3.0% a year ago and from 3.2% two years ago
- Net income (after net interest expense and income taxes) fell 5.7% to $515 million.
In short, sales rose 5.7% in part due to inflation, but net income fell 5.7% for the same reasons. Inflation works both ways.
Also note how critical the membership fees are. They brought in $636 million. That’s more than the entire net profit. In other words, without those membership fees, Costco would operate at a loss. Of course, that’s why consumers are willing to pay them.
Given how dependent the company is on these membership fees, and how rising costs are squeezing the profit margins, it decided to, well, raise those fees.
Effective June 1, it will raise the basic membership fee in the US and Canada by 9.1% from $55 a year to $60, and its Executive Membership fees from $110 to $120. For consumers, it will be another bitter data point in their daily struggle with inflation.
The membership fee increases were offered as consolation price to analysts in the hope of minimizing the damage of the disappointing results. It might have worked: Costco shares fell “only” 4.3% in afterhours trading, albeit from a near-all-time high.
This scenario shows how inflation can bite, consumers and companies alike. And inflation is accelerating.
Here are two of the many inflation measures: the core (without food and energy) Consumer Price Index by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the core Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The PCE index is usually lower than CPI. So when the Fed targets 2% inflation, it means 2% core PCE. By the time it gets there, headline CPI might approach 3% (chart by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives):
Which poses another challenge for retailers such as Costco – and why they have trouble willy-nilly jacking up prices to beautify their bottom lines: consumers are workers, the lucky ones, and workers’ incomes are not keeping up with inflation.
Sentier Research reported today that household incomes rose, but not as fast as inflation: and so real median household income (adjusted for inflation) edged down in January to $58,056 from $58,189 in December and from $58,635 in January 2016. That’s a drop of 1% year-over-year.
This is also below where it had been in January 2000 ($58,846). So yes, online retailers are eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar retailers, but everyone has to contend with the pressures of rising inflation, long stagnating or declining real household incomes, and therefore the inability by many consumers to spend more.
Costco, though showing the first signs of trouble, is still one of the exceptions in the painstaking and relentless collapse of brick-and-mortar retail. Read… So What Are We Going to Do with the Retail Malls?
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Costco has the same problem as all the other retailers: shopping has become unbearable.
Drive to store in traffic that is absolutely bonkers, w/ people texting and yakking on the phone running red lights, road rage, etc.
Park in immense lot surrounding a windowless concrete cube. Parking space seems like a mile from the store.
Select from a wide variety of incredibly cheaply made junk (I was just in Macy’s [going out of business] and the poor quality of high priced goods was eye-opening).
Dodge surly customers and ‘security’ giving you the eye.
Pay too much for the junk: prices must always rise so the (so-called) ‘margin’ on overpriced goods can be used to retire legacy debt.
Re-wind the driving process all the while being depressed over how ugly and inhumane the entire process has become. Shopping = working in Dickens’ Satanic Mill of the 19th century.
Only shopping worth doing to these days besides food = thrift store
That’s it! The buying of cheap crap made in China or elsewhere gives you no reason to buy anything. The clothes are ugly and made of thin fabric. I know lots of women who want to buy clothes, but cannot find something worth buying.
The stores bought cheap stuff to increase their profit margins. People stopped buying it, now they are paying the piper.
That is the same for stores like Target. Aside from the toilet issue, they changed their groceries a couple of years ago. They got rid of the name brand food and made their own brand. It is crap. You can’t find what you want there, so people stopped going. They used to be full of shoppers on Saturdays. Now, they are almost empty. Why would you shop at their Super Stores if you have to make multiple stops at other stores? They used to be so good.
They think their customers will show up no matter what they do. They don’t even carry the basics of food items any more.
Buy clothes from Woolpower, outdoors clothes from wool made in Sweden – with the name of the seamstress on the label.
BUT, the biz channel MSMs just LOVE Target? I look at their products as one level above KaM-ApaRT. I see this as a law–a law of diminishing return. Yes, costs are rising for both, e-retailers and B&M; but customer-relations-management schemes are like buttcracks, everybody’s got one. Waiting for the commercial property bubble to implode? There will be empty malls in every state when the sheeple realize they are being herded into the slaughter pen, AGAIN. Why anybody would hold a credit card with a 21.99% interest rate is stupefying?
And, a border tax?? REALLY??? THAT must be the DUMBEST Congressional idea of all time. Idiots…
That pretty well sums it up!
Much of the shelf space at our Costco is dedicated to groceries, including lots of produce from local growers, and much of it in the grower’s crates, so you can see which grower (and which type of peach, of which there are many), and including a lot of organic produce, plus drinks, including many types of craft beer from local breweries, and including the house brand craft brew, by a local craft brewer that has a contract with Costco (name is on the case). They have large selection of local wines…
The coffee I buy there is from a local coffee roaster. I have a friend who is a self-published author. He sells his books at his three nearby Costco stores… he met their buyer at a book fair … they like to have local authors. He does book-signings at their store.
They have lots of fresh meat and fish – including the type of fish you cannot find at a regular grocery store. They have local cheeses from small cheese makers we have visited…
So it’s not that simple….
I’m a big fan of Costco.
Kirkland Signature brand (in-house) makes some high quality products at great prices.
For anyone who is a fan of golfing, they make a 4 piece golf ball– roughly equivalent to a Titleist ProV, but at a fraction of the cost. It is without a doubt the best quality to value ratio out there.
And, at least as important, they’re the only big box retailer (that I’m aware of) that pays an almost living wage and treats its employees humanely.
I forgot to tell you: I do totally agree with you on traffic. Saturday traffic in San Francisco, when I go to Costco, is just a nightmare.
The 5.5% increase in member count is impressive at first blush. However, that number may have been helped along by the switch from American Express to visa.
Actually, American Express is generally the highest cost credit card for merchants. AMEX negotiates different deals with different vendors, so this is not an absolute statement.
It is getting more difficult to use AMEX at smaller European vendors (hotels, airlines – OK; the chocolate shop – not so much).
Everything that Steve from Virginia just said is correct. We find better food at Aldi’s and even Walmart. Believe it when I was in Walmart I picked up FRESH , not frozen, salmon. It was cooked to perfection by my wife and the price was $5.00 less than the Costco price we had seen the day before for the same weight.
Traffic- don’t get me started. The quality of clothes was zilch. Flimsy material, cheaply made from shirts to pants. Have you tried to buy a quality T- shirt anywhere? Crap is $8.00.
Then try to check out. Long lines and too few registers open.
This is what shopping in America has come to.
I use Sams Club, although I would try Costco if one were closer to where I live. I like Sams Club. I shop there for some things and local stores for other things.
Yes, Amazon is eating everyone’s lunch but eBay is taking the dessert. For example, I just snagged a used HP 2170P laptop. It’s travel sized, 3rd generation i5 processor, real gigabit port (rare today), 8GB, 180GB SSD that tested as like new, and A stock condition for $149. I upgraded the wifi card to AC using a spare board and put free Win 10 pro on it (still legally free from MS if you know how). New laptops look a little sleeker, but the equivalent specs would be about $800 new. The risk is you need to know how to read specs for used laptops and like to go on the hunt.
Consume only Alaska wild-caught salmon. Anything else is a bio-hazard.
All farmed shrimp and fish is a bio hazard. Why pay the premium for the Tilapia or shrimp when when you can just get your own chickens and eat their poop for free?
You might want to rethink anything from the Pacific Ocean, wild or otherwise, less you glow in the dark tomorrow.
Exactly correct Meme
My Costco usually has three or four different kinds of fresh salmon, including wild (sometime king, but more often coho).
I wouldn’t feed Walmart beef to the immigrants that work my ranch.
Completely agree. Wal-Mart, especially, hires just before Christmas and fires everybody that may get to collect unemployment if they could just hang on another month. I deplore standing in line waiting to buy products that I typically regret buying. The best thing about Wal-Mart–there is no (increasing) membership fee…that’s about as euphemistic as I can get.
Our local Wal-Mart just recently has assigned a person to pull you out of line and get you to go use self check out. Our Home Depot has forced it (except on the larger bldg materials side) for over two years.
I declined at Wal-Mart, and at Home Depot I get very stupid, so they spend more time than if they had done it the old fashioned way.
I probably am costing myself and others a bit more by this stubborn behavior……..Sorry.
If I have to downsize my life more to continue this, I will.
Needless to say I never buy from Amazon, but do on-line purchases at smaller electronic outfits, and the like.
There are about 12 things I consistently use from Costco. They charge me a membership fee but give rebates and what pays off big time is when they discount those 12 things at least twice per year.
When they discount, I buy, when they don’t I don’t.
What are those 12 items?
Doesn’t matter. I congratulate law on most likely being, like myself, a “bad” consumer.
I wonder at what cost point does a yearly administration fee cancel any savings from just buying at other stores. Maybe once membership starts falling.. There was a time when long Walmart lines would keep me away, now I do almost all cloths cheap shopping there (although lucky to have a job I can wear wrangler shirts and Levi jeans everyday).
Costco meats are superior in quality to anything I can buy at the local Safeway or Lucky. I also purchase all my gasoline there as it is always much less than other local options.
You need to experiment to find the optimal day and time to go there to reduce the crowd factor.
One very annoying factor is that Costco management tend to move items every week. I suspect this is a vein attempt to get the consumer to look down every aisle and buy extra goods.
I only buy things I can find readily. If I have to search for it I do not buy it. My goal is to get in and get out.
Prices at Costco, for the most part, can be bettered by shopping ‘the sales’, and loss leaders at other retailers. People are under the impression that because selection is limited, and the quantities are large, they are ‘getting a deal’. This is not always the case.
However, we often buy at Costco and here are a few reasons.
* The Executive Membership is largely paid back through the % remittance. I think last year I paid about $10 to renew.
* Dairy is 2/3 the cost (in Canada), and their cheese selection is excellent.
* LED bulbs, work gloves (for me), batteries, shop supplies are a fraction of the cost at other stores.
* Their fruit (melons in particular) are of very good quality and are usually much bigger than other suppliers.
* Pharmacy costs are lower. Glasses, too. I can buy 4 pairs of 1.25 readers for the price of one at any other store.
* Coffee is much much cheaper.
* Some other products are also cheaper. (Crackers, etc)
* Propane, gasoline, etc are far better priced than other retailers.
* Electronics are of very good quality, they have knowledgeable tech/sales people who are NOT paid by commision, and their return policy is absolutely the best. We just bought a new tv from Costco, online (after consulting with the tech guy) and it was delivered by Canada Post thus saving me 220 km of driving. Awesome for this snowy winter.
* The Executive membership allows free delivery if I buy anything online. (I live rural).
Their employees are unionized and well paid and their helping attitude and good nature is readily apparent. I love dealing with workers/employees who I know are well paid and glad to help me. If you shop at WalMart you are part of the exploitation of people and society.
We do not buy meat at Costco, except bacon. It is expensive, and they do not offer sales or loss leaders. Once in awhile we buy marinated stuff for particular planned menus.
Costco operates with a philosophy beyond just making money for shareholders. My sister-in-law works for Sobeys after her Vancouver Island based store was bought out. The employees are now exploited and abused, with new-hires part time and treated like crap. Prices didn’t drop, though.
Grocery retail is a very very tough business for the employees. The margins are beyond tight.
The analyst’s focus on the membership fee increase is that Costco’s profits is ENTIRELY dependent on it.
The entire business model is such that Costco makes only incremental or NO PROFIT on selling any goods or services. Gross profit on all goods/services at Costco must be <=15% as opposed to other retailers where gross can be as high as 50%-80% depending on the item and probably averages in the 25-35% range. (For comparison, Walmart's gross margin is 26% while Costco's is between 13.0-13.5%). However, Costco still ends up with a proft based on the membership fees. (I suggest you track annual membership fees to net income…and see the results track extremely closely.) The founder (Jim Senagal – spelling?)) set this up years ago and it has been one of the keys to Costco's success. Every approx. 5-6 years…Costco raises its membership fee which provides for a nice boost in its earnings. (I think it staggers the increases in fees between business and regular/premium membership so as to decrease the lumpiness of the jumps over time.) By not being greedy and religiously attacking costs…they can bring the benefits of low pricing (for bulk) to consumers.
Costco…unlike many retailers…still has opportunities for growth since they still have parts of the country where they can expand into (they are pretty saturated in the Pacific Northwest compared to the rest of the country)…even if it does mean they have to compete in more entrenched Sam's Club markets. My metro area (population ~ 1.5M) has ONE Costco…..yet could probably support about 4 easily based on demographics and socio-economic profile even though we have about 3 Sam's Clubs spread in the area.
However…as Wolfe is pointing out…(real) inflation is ticking up faster than it has in the past… Costco's front-line employee benefits are (or were when I studied them) the envy of the retail industry (i.e. better than Starbucks) and the cost of these benefits are causing Costco's costs to rise even faster than the industry in general.
The membership fee increase was already partially baked into the estimates of some of the smarter analysts (there is a Fortune reference from Apr 2016 that analysts expected a raise in 2017) since the last one was in Nov 2011. This is why the reaction to the news was pretty…meh.
As far as other pressures on Costco….the poor (or at least uncertain) economic conditions at the bottom have finally started to effect the core Costco consumer….the upper middle class….whose jobs are going away due to slow attrition/automation (just like the lower part of the spectrum).
Agree with Wolf about Costco food. My wife buys fresh food from Costco – excellent quality at good prices.
Agree with other comments, especially electronics. 8 years ago, I took a giant Samsung flat panel TV home – the price was excellent. The weight was so much that I would have never risked buying the device on-line.
But many smaller devices are close-out products of an older vintage. I buy all of my Dell computers on-lie and reconditioned with factory warranty.
We have been Costco members for an eternity – never regretted paying the membership fee.
Having just returned from Miami…Steve from Virginia is so correct. However, even small towns where traffic is not so bad, people are NOT spending.
The ground is littered with reasons why money is not flowing, and that includes NOT flowing on Amazon and Ebay which are spamming me like I am the last customer standing. Insurance, utilities, food, rents, phone, cable, school……..the pickpocket list is endless.
But now, we have a new disturbance, a political one. Always in the past a political disturbance has upset the economy and peoples confidence in spending money. This, perhaps more than any other, is the ‘unknown killer’ factor in the mix. The daily bombardment of attacks against the new administration will come home to roost on the GDP…it ALWAYS has. So if corporate profits are down, perhaps the corporations need to examine their expensive politics as well as ordinary expenses.
Me, the list of companies I will not financially support grows daily. Doing without becomes easier and easier everyday, so you could say I am putting my money where their mouth is not.
I too am fascinated by the new retail philosophy. Pissing off half of your potential customers is a great way to shrink your business. Must be a new MBA theory they teach at colleges.
Since you wrote your last article on retail malls, earlier this week, two more chains are closing down in my area. BCBG, a womens clothing retailer, is in bankruptcy and hhgregg, an appliance store, is closing the local store due to low sales.
With the Dow up 1000 points in the same time period, it is apparent somebody is lying.
No one is lying. Apparently Mom and Pop are jumping in with both feet according to the latest ETF inflow data. The demise of the middle class has been greatly exaggerated again as usual.
America is already GREAT. Muppets Abound!!!!
Saw that article. And all the examples of Vanguard (and the like) investment increases. Are we looking at the last chance for those who can’t play PE games to own a piece of the very action that actually makes America tick?
Wolf’s PE stories often scare the hell out of me.
Ex- (From memory) Of the top ten FOOD producers worldwide by SALES, only 3 are public…..#’s 3,5 and 7, as I recall. (Per Yahoo finance, maybe 1-2 years ago.)
I’ve read a few days ago that HHGregg is apparently preparing to file for bankruptcy this month. Store closings will cut the number of stores down to 132. Once the filing comes, I’ll put it on my list.
BCBG was super HOT years ago. Not sure what happened to them… Do you know? Just regular retail fiasco? Or did they make some big missteps?
BCBG: Another case of too big too fast with too much debt. They have had problems with their debt as far back as 2009. Max Azria lost control of his company in 2013 to his debt master Guggenheim Partners.
So another retailer that got bought out by a PE firm during the LBO boom and loaded up with debt? I should check them out. Starting to sound interesting.
BCBG Max Azria group also owns the Herve Leger label. Herve invented the bandage style dress….those dresses are still selling at a 2 to 5K a pop at fine stores and boutiques worldwide. Plus they have fragrances. Max bought Herve’s label for a song when he got into too much debt. Guess Max didn’t learn anything from that debt saga.
Lots of licensing and spin offs will be sold out of this bankruptcy deal.
One of their missteps is that they cater size wise, to a younger more fit customer, but their price points were in the older fatter demographic. The $200+ range is not a good price point for female millennials, who rarely dress up for anything.
BCBG, Abercrombie, Michael Kors, all the must haves for the Millennials when the Boomers were still footing the bill for their kids. The retail sector figured that party would last forever and kept expanding….even after the crash.
Now that the Millennials are grown up and have to pay for it themselves these stores are unsustainable.
There is going to be an retail implosion this year due to unworkable debt and I expect grocery stores to follow suit.
Good for the millennials! RE: Dressing “up”.
However, grocery stores is getting kinda scary.
I’d suggest that what this means is that the Dow isn’t a good measure of how the average US Citizen is doing – it’s measuring how much gambling is going on at the NY Stock exchange.
Wolf’s already reported on companies with rising stock prices and falling earnings. Whatever link there used to be between stock price and a company’s health (or the average person’s financial status) disappeared some time ago.
Thanks for pointing me at this. Article coming. All kinds of retail mayhem happened Thursday and Friday.
Having lived on east coast,Hawaii then illinois, now california i find it the same all over at costco rack of lamb while from australia averages $9.99 a pound most all other stores shoprite, albertson , woodmens, jewels are $14.99.Rib eye steaks same thing costco $9.99, sale’s at any other store $4.49 to $5.77 i do not see any difference in quality.Dunkin donuts coffee can’t beat there big bag price anywhere.As other’s have said buy extra of things you can on sale. Other then that the whole deal today suck’s life in general is nuts.There is no such thing as a good bakery or restaurant east coast food is still the best.Talk about driving california traffic makes new york look like a rural area.
What’s the difference between CPI and PCE? Which is more reliable?
Buying at Costco never made sense to me unless you regularly eat bulk quantities of certain foods. No thanks, don’t have the room to store palettes of juice or crates of Ramen. The tires and a few boutique items are ok. My guess is that Amazon is nibbling away at their market.
Costco is a store for those on severe budgets, where saving 5% on noodles keeps you in the black.
You can simulate Costco by watching for sales or surfing the web. Almost always left the store disappointed
Let me put it this way: I think PCE has a more distant relationship to realty than CPI.
Costco usually sells gift cards for The Honey Baked Ham chain around Christmas and Easter.
79.99 for a $100.00 dollar gift card. When combined with a Honey baked ham coupon
it turns out to be a pretty good deal.
Can’t remember wages risen faster than inflation ever.
First comes inflation then claim for higher wages
“Limited, steady inflation is the best thing since sliced bread, so to speak, for over-indebted companies, governments, and for debt-slave consumers – if wages rise faster than inflation.” And when has that ever happened since the Great Plague of 1666?
I don’t live in the US but last summer we were visiting and a friend having a bbq served us a tray of Tony Roma’s Ribs from Costco that was awesomely delicious and unbelievable cheap.
Btw – this morning – analysts from JPM, Cowen, RBC, Credit Suisse, UBS, and Oppenheimer all commented (in one form or another) that COST is a buy on weakness here.
For the past 8 years the White House bragged about almost zero inflation and then BAM! it suddenly hits as if it hasn’t been there all along
Oh, you mean the Ministry of Truth. lol
You want to see real inflation? Go build or remodel a house. The inflation numbers are so misleading they will make a communist smile.
How about the inflation of buying lumber at homedepot only to realize once you get it home it’s 3/4″ narrower than its supposed to be.
When the cleanest shirt in the dirty laundry basket has a problem (i.e. big box retailers), how long can the FED mask the problem? The other day the Atlanta FED reduced its GDP for Q1 to 1.8%. Since consumers are approximately 2/3 of GDP, gas prices have increasing, where does that leave median household at the end of the quarter and at the same time the banks are tightening credit.
I smell recession or worst if the trends continue.
Costco is way better than Walmart, return policy-I returned shaving gear after less than year of use, easy refund.
Good fast deli, less food choices makes traffic move fast. Great gas deals,
I give my entire food stamp to Costco
One of my Canadian music pals (blame him for introducing me to several groups which probably sound as cacophony to more sophisticated ears than mine) sent me a very interesting piece of news about the ongoing retail fiasco.
HMV Canada has been officially in receivership since 1/27. All its 102 stores will close by 4/30, the office staff has already been largely laid off and the company still owes 56 million loonies to suppliers.
HMV Canada has been caught between rapidly raising costs (chiefly rents) and dwindling sales and got slaughtered.
But here’s the bizarro news.
Sunrise Records, another Canadian company, has announced its intention to take over 70 former HMV locations after successfully negotiating contracts with owners. So far so good.
If you’ve never heard of Sunrise Records that’s because it’s not exactly a giant retailer: it presently operates nine record stores in Ontario. And that’s it.
Even if they have a highly successful business model, going from 9 to 79 stores in a few months is bound to be tough, especially given Sunrise Records sells exactly the same products as HMV. All physical media sales are down in double digit year on year except vinyls which apparently have a following among hipsters feeling they are not hipster enough but the whole Canadian vinyl market is worth a tad more than two million loonies a year, and that includes LP’s sold by online retailers. It may be a growing market but it’s a niche market which is unlikely to pay a lot of prime mall space.
While we wish Sunrise Records the best in their future endeavors we cannot but scartch our heads thinking about the yield-starved investors who are putting up the money for this.
Vinyl records are being sold in hipster stores such as Urban Outfitters and also in bookstores like Barnes & Nobles. Millennials are obsessed with technology even old technology. I had to teach my millennial how to use a record player.
HMV was in the music business maybe in the ninetees, but not so for some time. I struggled to find anything music related in the stores: it is all games and whatever else.
A Costco card is not a bad thing to have along when shopping for a new car. The discount varies but can be substantial. I’ve used it twice.
When they first came out pushing the Executive Membership I did some calculations and declined when I saw that the rebate we would get was equal to the extra cost over our old Gold Star membership so, no advantage. For a bigger spender than I it would be ok.
Overall, shopping at Costco over the years has been a good thing; I sure hope they survive current brick and mortar retail problems intact.
Every economic downturn squeezes out the weakest leaving the strongest to prosper as competition decreases. This is just a natural business cycle. People have to eat and wear clothes so there will always be someone selling those–and they will be making a profit because after competition has decreased the survivors can afford to raise prices.
You look at the average earning of all Americans, it hasn’t changed much during each downturns, so what happened?
The weak gets washed ashore, forgotten, their earnings gets redistributed to the winners and the strong, risen and repeat for each cycle.
That’s US of A for you there.