The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Friday, July 22, 2005

Whose Zooming Who?

Just who exactly is waging class warfare on whom?

David Sirota pointed out this NYT piece on CostCo which is pretty essential reading for progressives and everyone concerned with the future of the economy, the corporation, and large scale retailers. Sadly, TIAA CREF is facing a movement to divest from so-called socially irresponsible corporations such as Wal-Mart and the list includes CostCo. The only charge that could be leveled against CostCo, given the article excerpted below is that it threatens the downtowns of small towns and small retailers. But if you trade off how the average small retailer treats workers with the treatment given CostCo workers the claim is somewhat problematic.

My own view is that CREF is in the business of making money for investors (and future retirees such as myself) and should leave the social investing to others. It already offers a social investment fund option for those who want it. And CREF's divestment is unlikely to have much affect on the retailers given the liquidity of the stock market. A missing buyer of WalMart stock is unlikely to have much impact even if it is CREF. And besides, if we paid more attention to corporate governance in this country CREF could have more of an impact as a shareholder that standing outside of the stock market.

The Times article (How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart - New York Times) is telling though for the concerns expressed by equity analysts and others on Wall Street for the way the CostCo owner is running his company. Their concern? He cares too much for workers and is too generous. Well there's a novel complaint in America today.

Here are some choice quotes:

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."

Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street's assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street's profit demands.

Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."

He also dismisses calls to increase Costco's product markups. Mr. Sinegal, who has been in the retailing business for more than a half-century, said that heeding Wall Street's advice to raise some prices would bring Costco's downfall.

"When I started, Sears, Roebuck was the Costco of the country, but they allowed someone else to come in under them," he said. "We don't want to be one of the casualties. We don't want to turn around and say, 'We got so fancy we've raised our prices,' and all of a sudden a new competitor comes in and beats our prices."

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.

But Mr. Sinegal warned that if Costco increased markups to 16 or 18 percent, the company might slip down a dangerous slope and lose discipline in minimizing costs and prices.

Mr. Sinegal, whose father was a coal miner and steelworker, gave a simple explanation. "On Wall Street, they're in the business of making money between now and next Thursday," he said. "I don't say that with any bitterness, but we can't take that view. We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now."

If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal's philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco's stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart's has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19. Mr. Dreher said Costco's share price was so high because so many people love the company. "It's a cult stock," he said.

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."


Mr. Sinegal says he pays attention to analysts' advice because it enforces a healthy discipline, but he has largely shunned Wall Street pressure to be less generous to his workers.

"When Jim talks to us about setting wages and benefits, he doesn't want us to be better than everyone else, he wants us to be demonstrably better," said John Matthews, Costco's senior vice president for human resources.

With his ferocious attention to detail and price, Mr. Sinegal has made Costco the nation's leading warehouse retailer, with about half of the market, compared with 40 percent for the No. 2, Sam's Club. But Sam's is not a typical runner-up: it is part of the Wal-Mart empire, which, with $288 billion in sales last year, dwarfs Costco.

But it is the customer, more than the competition, that keeps Mr. Sinegal's attention. "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?' We understand that our members don't come and shop with us because of the fancy window displays or the Santa Claus or the piano player. They come and shop with us because we offer great values."

Costco was founded with a single store in Seattle in 1983; it now has 457 stores, mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, Britain, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Wal-Mart, by contrast, had 642 Sam's Clubs in the United States and abroad as of Jan. 31.Costco's profit rose 22 percent last year, to $882 million, on sales of $47.1 billion. In the United States, its stores average $121 million in sales annually, far more than the $70 million for Sam's Clubs. And the average household income of Costco customers is $74,000 - with 31 percent earning over $100,000.

One reason the company has risen to the top and stayed there is that Mr. Sinegal relentlessly refines his model of the warehouse store - the bare-bones, cement-floor retailing space where shoppers pay a membership fee to choose from a limited number of products in large quantities at deep discounts. Costco has 44.6 million members, with households paying $45 a year and small businesses paying $100.

A typical Costco store stocks 4,000 types of items, including perhaps just four toothpaste brands, while a Wal-Mart typically stocks more than 100,000 types of items and may carry 60 sizes and brands of toothpastes. Narrowing the number of options increases the sales volume of each, allowing Costco to squeeze deeper and deeper bulk discounts from suppliers.

"He's a zealot on low prices," Ms. Kozloff said. "He's very reticent about finagling with his model."

Despite Costco's impressive record, Mr. Sinegal's salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies.

"I've been very well rewarded," said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. "I just think that if you're going to try to run an organization that's very cost-conscious, then you can't have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong."

There is little love lost between Wal-Mart and Costco. Wal-Mart, for example, boasts that its Sam's Club division has the lowest prices of any retailer. Mr. Sinegal emphatically dismissed that assertion with a one-word barnyard epithet. Sam's might make the case that its ketchup is cheaper than Costco's, he said, "but you can't compare Hunt's ketchup with Heinz ketchup."

Still, Costco is feeling the heat from Sam's Club. When Sam's began to pare prices aggressively several years ago, Costco had to shave its prices - and its already thin profit margins - ever further.

"Sam's Club has dramatically improved its operation and improved the quality of their merchandise," said Mr. Dreher, the Deutsche Bank analyst. "Using their buying power together with Wal-Mart's, it forces Costco to be very sharp on their prices."

Mr. Sinegal's elbows can be sharp as well. As most suppliers well know, his gruff charm is not what lets him sell goods at rock-bottom prices - it's his fearsome toughness, which he rarely shows in public. He often warns suppliers not to offer other retailers lower prices than Costco gets.

When a frozen-food supplier mistakenly sent Costco an invoice meant for Wal-Mart, he discovered that Wal-Mart was getting a better price. "We have not brought that supplier back," Mr. Sinegal said.

....

Mr. Sinegal, who is 69 but looks a decade younger, also delights in not tilting Costco too far into cheap merchandise, even at his warehouse stores. He loves the idea of the "treasure hunt" - occasional, temporary specials on exotic cheeses, Coach bags, plasma screen televisions, Waterford crystal, French wine and $5,000 necklaces - scattered among staples like toilet paper by the case and institutional-size jars of mayonnaise.

The treasure hunts, Mr. Sinegal says, create a sense of excitement and customer loyalty.

This knack for seeing things in a new way also explains Costco's approach to retaining employees as well as shoppers. Besides paying considerably more than competitors, for example, 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. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco's 113,000 employees. "They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country," said Rome Aloise, the union's chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store's workers be full time.

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."


If you don't see the class warfare in that you are not looking hard enough. The Wall Street analysts quoted above say nothing about the excessive compensation of CEOs when plenty of data and research shows that it is not correlated with stock performance and runs much above what would be needed to compensate the CEO for his or her marginal contribution to the company. But then CEOs are from the same class as the stock analysts who also bring home wages far and above their marginal product. "So it's okay to overpay folks like us, just don't pay the dirty proletariat who drive pick-ups and live in trailer homes."

There used to be a time when economists felt that it made good economic sense to pay salaries above workers' so called reservation wages. Sadly, in America today the motto has become 'squeeze all the blood from that turnip that you can.' It's a poor long range strategy and bad social policy as well -- to say nothing of economic policy. An extra dollar in compensation for a worker has much more economic benefit than an extra dollar in earnings for the company and dividends/ stock appreciation for capitalists. To say nothing as well about the reluctance of companies to distribute earnings back to the shareholder. Research by Eugene Fama highlights that there is little economic justification for this practice -- in fact, the earnings retained by companies typically do not yield adequate returns to justify keeping them from shareholders.

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