Archive for Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Costco digs into casket market

Funeral supply director says wholesale giant may create need to raise prices

August 18, 2004

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— Whether you're in the market for a good night's sleep or the eternal kind, one store at least has you covered.

Costco Wholesale Corp., better known for bulk chicken and cases of soda, started test marketing caskets alongside mattresses Monday at a North Side Chicago store. They're also being sold at a suburban Oak Brook, Ill., store.

"This is certainly something that can be an easy value," said Gina Bianche, a buyer in Costco's corporate office in Issaquah, Wash. "I don't want to say cheap value, but it just needs to be done."

Each of the six models from the Universal Casket Co., in colors including lilac and Neapolitan blue, is priced at $799.99, made of 18-gauge steel, considered medium weight for caskets, and can be delivered within 48 hours.

Caskets already can be purchased directly from manufacturers, in funeral supply stores and over the Internet, but big general merchandise stores had stayed away from selling caskets until now, said David Walkinshaw, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Assn.

At a Costco on Chicago's North Side, shoppers checking out the new casket kiosk Monday seemed to like the idea that the same store where they buy so many things for this life was branching into the afterlife.

"A casket at Costco, yeah, I think it's pretty bizarre," said Inga Barth, 53. She wondered about buying a casket with only a kiosk and small samples of the caskets' material to look over, though, saying, "When you go casket shopping, you want to see the whole thing."

That didn't trouble John Neuhaus.

"I want the adjustable bed and mattress for my neck," he joked, pointing to one of the features highlighted at the kiosk. After all, he said, "It says eternal rest."

Kyle Green reads information about the six models of caskets made
by Universal Casket Co. He was shopping Monday at Costco Wholesale
in Chicago. The warehouse retailer, which offers everything from
cabinets to chicken to computers, started test marketing caskets at
two stores in the Chicago area.

Kyle Green reads information about the six models of caskets made by Universal Casket Co. He was shopping Monday at Costco Wholesale in Chicago. The warehouse retailer, which offers everything from cabinets to chicken to computers, started test marketing caskets at two stores in the Chicago area.

Others liked the idea of being able to shop for the casket long before a loved one's death. Too often, that is a time when the survivors are distressed, under time constraints and may feel they are at the mercy of funeral homes.

"I remember my mom was supposed to get a plain pine box for my dad and she walked out with mahogany," Gretchen Henninger said.

Those involved in arranging funerals were not as enthusiastic about discount retailers moving in on their business, especially one with 42 million cardholders and 324 locations in 36 states.

"If you take the casket out of the equation and the casket is purchased in a retail environment, then that portion of the funeral director's profit center will disappear and the funeral director must respond to that," said George Lemke, executive director of the Casket and Funeral Supply Assn.

Asked if that meant raising prices, he replied: "That's entirely possible."

Costco is prepared for that, said Fred Elsner, general manager of the North Side store. When casket buyers dial the phone number on the brochure, "We will put them in touch with funeral homes that are part of the program," he said.

The brochure says buyers can cut their overall funeral costs by more than 30 percent that way. But Lemke said the funeral home working with Costco might not be the one the family planned to deal with.

While caskets can costs several thousand dollars, some funeral homes do sell them for even less than Costco is charging, he said.

Walkinshaw, who also works as a funeral director in the Boston area, said he had caskets ranging from $350 to about $8,000. He also thinks Costco won't cut into the business of funeral homes.

"Other people have tried and found out the public is real comfortable buying caskets from funeral directors," he said. "It's kind of one-stop shopping."

Bonnie Busch, vice president in Costco's Midwest division, hopes shoppers will make one more stop. "I hope they don't have any deaths in the family, but if they do I hope we can help people out," she said.

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