In their November 2008 issue, Fast Company magazine featured an interview with Jim Sinegal, CEO and cofounder of Costco. While most retailers are whining about the economy, in August Costco had an increase in same-store sales of 9%. The reason for this is very simple; there are no secret programs, or special incentives to buy there…just good old-fashioned business sense. Here are the key points in Jim’s interview that we can all learn from.
- Don’t gouge your customers. The interviewer pointed out that some suppliers still balk at Jim’s policy of not marking products up more than 15%. So much for supply and demand marketing.
- Treat your customers well. Jim: “Customers shop with us for value. They don’t shop with us for cheap prices on cheap merchandise. They expect us to deliver value on quality….The final analysis is, the customers vote at the checkout.” This is something for all of us to remember.
- Treat your employees well. Wall Street complains that Costco treats its customers and employees better than they do their shareholders. They pay their workers an average of $17 per hour, and 90% of health insurance costs, for both full-time and part-time employees. Yet, revenues have grown 70% in the last five years, and their stock has doubled.
- Know your competition. Jim: “Hardly a week goes by that I’m not in a Sam’s.” Do we study our own competition that closely?
- Try new things. Sales on Costco’s e-commerce site are expected to hit $1.6 billion this year, a 33% increase over 2007. Coffins are one of their big e-commerce sellers. Who would have thought?
- Do not be afraid to fail. Jim: “You don’t have enough space in your magazine to talk about all the things that we’ve tried that didn’t work out.” How bold are we about trying new things?
- Manage by walking around. Jim: “You know, there certainly are days when I’ll visit 12 (stores). I will be traveling to our warehouses every single week between now and Christmas…I try to approach the visits from the standpoint of the customer. Does the building have the right goods out? Is it well stocked and clean and safe? Nothing is a bigger turnoff than poor housekeeping.” Spending quality time with our customers and employees is going to be one of the keys to surviving this recession.
- Be innovative. Jim: “We just reconfigured our cashews. They were in a round canister, and we put them in a square canister. It sounds crazy, but we saved something like 560 truckloads a year of that one product.” In today’s chaotic world, innovation is not optional.
- Keep overhead low. Jim answers his own phone and sends his own faxes. I read somewhere else, a while back, that Jim uses the same desk, in the same small office where he started 25 years ago. Many of us can take a lesson from that.
Obviously, Costco is a reflection of its CEO and the values he brings to his business. But then, aren’t all our businesses a reflection of the values of the owner?
Something to think about.