Costco’s Dilemma: Is Treating Employees Well Unacceptable for a Publicly-Traded Corporation?

By Ann Zimmerman 
First published by the Wall St. Journal, March 26, 2004

Editor’s note: This article illustrates the challenges that face any corporate executives who attempt to resist market pressures to cut employee pay and, indirectly, why “corporate responsibility” initiatives have severely limited potential. Please see our article “Inherent Rules of Corporate Behavior” if you’d like to explore this topic further. 

When it comes to workers, companies can be accused of not paying enough — or paying too much.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s parsimonious approach to employee compensation has made the world’s largest retailer a frequent target of labor unions and even Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who has accused the Bentonville, Ark., chain of failing to offer its employees affordable health-care coverage.

In contrast, rival Costco Wholesale Corp. often is held up as a retailer that does it right, paying well and offering generous benefits.

But Costco’s kind-hearted philosophy toward its 100,000 cashiers, shelf-stockers and other workers is drawing criticism from Wall Street. Some analysts and investors contend that the Issaquah, Wash., warehouse-club operator actually is too good to employees, with Costco shareholders suffering as a result.

“From the perspective of investors, Costco’s benefits are overly generous,” says Bill Dreher, retailing analyst with Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. “Public companies need to care for shareholders first. Costco runs its business like it is a private company.”

Costco appears to pay a penalty for its largesse to workers. The company’s shares trade at about 20 times projected per-share earnings for 2004, compared with about 24 for Wal-Mart. Mr. Dreher says the unusually high wages and benefits contribute to investor concerns that profit margins at Costco aren’t as high as they should be.

Costco, which opened its first store in 1983 and now has 432 locations, disputes the contention that it takes care of workers at the expense of investors. “The last thing I want people to believe is that I don’t care about the shareholder,” says Jim Sinegal, Costco’s president and chief executive since 1993, who owns about 3.2 million Costco shares valued at $118 million. “But I happen to believe that in order to reward the shareholder in the long term, you have to please your customers and workers.”

Costco vs. Wal-Mart 
Comparing some workplace statistics, as reported by the companies.

Employees covered by company health insurance 
Costco  82%
Wal-Mart 48%

Insurance-enrollment waiting periods (for part-time workers)
Costco 6 months
Wal-Mart  2 years

Portion of health-care premium paid by company 
Costco 92%
Wal-Mart 66%

Annual worker turnover rate 
Costco 24%
Wal-Mart 50%

Worker pay, benefits and job quality have been hot topics in the retail industry. While employees in many fields are worried about generally stagnant job growth and spiraling health-care costs, already-meager retail wages also are threatened by retail-pricing pressure, partly fueled by Wal-Mart’s growing dominance in toys, electronics, groceries and other categories. Grocery workers in California recently waged a brutal four-month strike to protest health-care cuts that large supermarket chains were imposing to stay competitive with Wal-Mart.

Hourly retail pay grew only 1% in the 12 months ended last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with a 1.7% gain for private-sector jobs overall.

Wal-Mart last year added 99,000 jobs in the U.S., making it the country’s biggest job creator, and nearly all those positions pay by the hour. And since Costco and Wal-Mart’s larger Sam’s Club warehouse chain increasingly are competing head-to-head on everything from turkeys to tires, the companies have to pay close attention to each other.

Editor’s note: Numerous studies show nearly the same number of jobs are eliminated as are created by Wal-Mart. To call the company a “job creator” requires counting only one side of the ledger.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams says the company’s “entire package of wages, benefits and career opportunities is at least as good as that offered by Costco,” including bonuses, company-paid life insurance and a discounted Wal-Mart stock-purchase program. Sam’s Club has a “cost advantage” over Costco, she adds, because it can “leverage efficiencies” from Wal-Mart in areas such as merchandise sourcing and logistics, keeping basic membership fees a third cheaper than Costco’s.

Costco has won a reputation for having the best benefits in retail, a sector where labor costs account for about 80% of a typical company’s total expenses. [Editor’s note: we’re unsure of the source for this claim, but we question its accuracy] Costco pays starting employees at least $10 an hour, and with regular raises a full-time hourly worker can make $40,000 annually within 3½ years. Cashiers are paid $10.50 to $17.50 an hour.

Wal-Mart doesn’t disclose its wage rates, since they vary by location. According to a recent study funded by Wal-Mart, cashiers at its Supercenters in Las Vegas were paid $7.65 to $11.45 an hour. Supercenters are Wal-Mart’s discount grocery and general-merchandise stores.

Costco also pays 92% of its employees’ health-insurance premiums, much higher than the 80% average at large U.S. companies. Wal-Mart pays two-thirds of health-benefit costs for its workers. Costco’s health plan offers a broader range of care than Wal-Mart’s does, and part-time Costco workers qualify for coverage in six months, compared with two years for Wal-Mart part-timers.

“From day one, we’ve run the company with the philosophy that if we pay better than average, provide a salary people can live on, have a positive environment and good benefits, we’ll be able to hire better people, they’ll stay longer and be more efficient,” says Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer.

Costco has several advantages over Wal-Mart that help it extend such unusually generous pay and benefits. Costco has a more-upscale reputation than Sam’s Club, helping it attract shoppers with higher incomes. The average Costco store rings up $115 million in annual sales, almost double the Sam’s Club average. And Costco, which charges $45 to $100 for yearly memberships, doesn’t spend any money on advertising.

Costco says its higher pay boosts loyalty: Its employee turnover rate is 24% a year. Wal-Mart’s overall employee turnover rate is 50%, about in line with the retail-industry average. Wal-Mart doesn’t break out turnover rates at Sam’s Club. High turnover creates added expense for retailers because new workers have to be trained and are not as efficient.

Some critics still aren’t convinced that lower turnover is worth what it costs Costco in higher wages and benefits. “Their benefits are amazing, but shareholders get frustrated from a stock perspective,” says Emme Kozloff, a retail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein LLC.

Surging health-care costs have forced Costco to make more aggressive moves to control expenses. Moreover, Costco last year raised employees’ contribution to about 8% of their health-care costs, up from 4.5%. It was the company’s first rise in employee health premiums in eight years. Mr. Sinegal, the Costco CEO, said the company held off from boosting premiums for as long it could, and didn’t give in until after it had lowered its earnings forecast twice last year.

Costco also is looking to employees for ideas that could improve efficiency. One suggestion that Costco implemented at stores was to install pneumatic tubes at check-out areas to speed the movement of cash to a store’s back office.

Mr. Galanti says company officials want to boost Costco’s pretax income closer to 4% of sales, compared with 3% now and 5% at Wal-Mart, without cutting pay. In its fiscal second quarter ended Feb. 15, Costco’s net income rose 25% to $226.8 million, or 48 cents a share. Revenue rose 14% to $11.55 billion.

Some longtime Costco fans say the company should stick to its generous wages and benefits. “Happy employees make for happy customers, which in the long run is ultimately reflected in the share price,” says John Bowen, an investment manager in Coronado, Calif., who has held Costco shares for eight years.

© 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

The New York Times also published an informative report on this topic.