Analysis of Costco’s Business Strategy and Its Key Limitations

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About this sample


Words: 2571 |

Pages: 6|

13 min read

Published: Mar 18, 2021

Words: 2571|Pages: 6|13 min read

Published: Mar 18, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Introduction and Historical Background
  2. Business Strategy
  3. Key Limitations
  4. Recommendations for Costco
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Introduction and Historical Background

The aim of this essay is to analyze the business strategy of Costco as well as its key limitations, and provide useful recommendations to navigate these limitations and capitalize on potential opportunities.

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Costco Wholesale stands as a formidable multi-billion-dollar wholesale retail giant, with its footprint spanning hundreds of membership warehouse clubs in eight countries around the globe. The remarkable success of Costco can be traced back to the collaborative efforts and visionary ideals of its co-founders, Jim Sinegal and Jeff Brotman, alongside the invaluable mentorship of Sol Price. Sol Price, the founder of FedMart, a chain of discount department stores, pioneered Price Club, the world's inaugural membership warehouse club, in San Diego, California, in 1976. Within Price Club, Jim Sinegal assumed the role of Executive Vice President responsible for Merchandising, Distribution, and Marketing, significantly contributing to the refinement of merchandise and marketing strategies. Subsequently, Sinegal embarked on his journey, leaving Price Club to co-establish Costco Wholesale in Seattle, Washington, in 1983, in partnership with Jeff Brotman. While Sol Price initially experienced a sense of hurt regarding Sinegal's departure to initiate Costco, he eventually regarded Sinegal and Costco as an "extended family," united in their relentless rivalry with the competitor, Sam's Club. In 1993, a pivotal merger took place between Price Club and Costco, culminating in the formation of the world's most prosperous warehouse club. Price himself acknowledged the merger's significance, stating, "We were good at innovating, but when it came to expanding and controlling, we weren't so good. Now, Jim has done a pretty damned remarkable job. He puts a great emphasis on quality and has moved into the food business and other new lines. We were very good at creating, but Jim was very good at developing."

The symbiotic mentor-protégé relationship between Sinegal and Price established a seamless merger in terms of corporate culture, shared vision, mission, and values. In a joint statement released by Price and Costco at the time of the merger, the companies affirmed, "No two merchandising companies could be more alike in terms of their merchandising philosophies, corporate cultures, determination to offer high-quality products at great value to the consumers, and commitment to their employees."

The concept underlying Price Club was a hybrid business model that combined aspects of both retail and wholesale, catering to small businesses seeking convenient and cost-effective products in quantities less than a full truckload. Initially, membership to Price Club was restricted to select groups, including businesses and individuals affiliated with specific organizations (such as government, hospitals, or banks). This exclusivity engendered commitment and a sense of exclusivity among customers. By prescreening members, Price Club effectively profiled its customer base without the need for extensive market research. Furthermore, Price Club exclusively accepted cash or checks as payment methods to mitigate financial risks. Through rigorous membership application screening, which included personal information such as Social Security Numbers, the store minimized the risk of bounced checks, curbing customer theft and pilferage.

Costco delivers value to its members through the provision of products at significantly lower prices compared to typical retail offerings. Jim Sinegal elucidated the essence of this low-cost, low-price model, stating, "Costco is able to offer lower prices and better values by eliminating virtually all the frills and costs historically associated with conventional wholesalers and retailers, including salespeople, fancy buildings, delivery, billing, and accounts receivable. We run a tight operation with extremely low overhead, which enables us to pass on dramatic savings to our members."

Costco perceives its products, workforce, and ethical code as the cornerstones that distinguish the company from competitors. Costco's mission statement succinctly encapsulates its mission: "to continually provide our members with quality goods and services at the lowest possible prices." The products offered by Costco, catering to both business and household consumers, are characterized by high quality and broad appeal, attracting a high-end demographic. The Kirkland Signature brand rivals name-brand products in terms of both quality and substantial cost savings. Costco boasts an extensive array of products and services for its members, encompassing a diverse spectrum, including freshly baked goods, frozen and fresh foods, alcoholic beverages, books, jewelry, electronics, household and office supplies, insurance services (life and auto), vehicle sales, tire services, mortgages, vacation packages, clothing, bottled water delivery, business phone services, pharmacy, vision care, photo printing, fuel stations, caskets, and more.

Furthermore, Costco's commitment to a diverse and inclusive work environment is manifest in its employment practices. The company places significant emphasis on its employees, often referred to as its "most important asset." Notably, Costco stands out by paying substantially higher wages compared to its competitors, coupled with offering a comprehensive employee benefits package. The company also underscores the importance of promoting from within its ranks, with over 90% of its global managers (comprising 70% of U.S. warehouse managers) and executives having commenced their careers in hourly positions, such as cart pushers or inventory stock workers. As Russ Miller, Senior Vice President of Western Canada Operations, asserts, "Our founders always said if you hire the right people, pay them good wages, involve them in the business, then good things will happen." In the United States, Costco employees average nearly nine years of tenure, with over 60% of employees having served for more than five years and more than a third surpassing a decade with the company. On a global scale, Costco boasts over 13,000 employees with over 25 years of service.

Costco underscores the indispensable role of its members in its very existence, as articulated in the Costco Code of Ethics, which states, "Our members are our reason for being - the key to our success. If we don't keep our members happy, little else that we do will make a difference." Andrée Brien, Senior Vice President and Senior General Merchandise Manager, regards the Costco Code of Ethics, established by the company's founders, as "the foundation of the company and the cornerstone of its success." This dedication to customer satisfaction is palpable, with a striking 90% membership renewal rate among Costco's 93 million members, underscoring the enduring loyalty the company enjoys.

Business Strategy

Costco's business strategy is built upon two fundamental pillars: the requirement for a paid membership card for entry and the absence of traditional advertising. This strategy necessitates a multifaceted approach to attract and retain customers, as the company strives to encourage customers to return to its stores, visit frequently, and spend more time within its premises.

To entice customers to return and increase their spending on products, Costco relies on a combination of compelling factors, including:

  1. Best Quality: Costco is committed to selling only the highest quality products. It ranks among the world's largest sellers of fine wines, and its Kirkland Signature private label products, encompassing categories from clothing to food items, rival renowned brand names in terms of quality while offering substantial cost savings. This focus on quality provides customers with a compelling reason to return.
  2. Low Prices: Costco's unwavering commitment is to provide the lowest prices consistently on all the products and services it offers. The company achieves this by selling products in bulk, effectively reducing the cost per unit compared to traditional retailers. Additionally, Costco maintains a lower gross profit margin, which is instrumental in delivering competitive prices. The company reinvests its membership fees into products to further lower prices, creating an incentive for members to return.
  3. Guarantee Policy: Every product sold by Costco comes with a guarantee, instilling confidence in customers. The presence of a return policy assures customers of the product's quality.
  4. Return & Refund Policy: Costco's flexible return and refund policy contribute to customers' peace of mind. The ability to return goods until they expire adds to the perceived value and trust between customers and Costco.
  5. Free Samples: The provision of free samples within stores is an effective tactic to engage customers and encourage return visits. Customers enjoy the opportunity to taste new products, adding an element of excitement to their shopping experience.
  6. Recouping Membership Fees: Members are aware that shopping at Costco can lead to savings that surpass their annual membership fees. This motivates members to return and shop, effectively earning back their membership costs through savings.

In addition to convincing customers to return to Costco, increasing the frequency of visits per month is of paramount importance. Data reveals a direct correlation between customer visit frequency and their annual spending. Furthermore, higher spending by customers enhances their likelihood of renewing their Costco memberships. Costco employs several strategies to achieve this goal, including:

  1. Low-Price Gasoline: Many Costco warehouses feature adjacent gas stations that consistently offer the lowest fuel prices in the area. This strategy not only attracts customers for gas purchases but also drives foot traffic into the stores, leading to additional impulse purchases.
  2. Loss Leaders: Costco employs loss leader items like its famous $4.99 rotisserie chicken and $1.50 hot dog and drink combo. These items are intentionally priced to attract customers, serving as a loss leader to drive more visits. Notably, the placement of the rotisserie chicken at the back of the store encourages customers to traverse the entire store, increasing opportunities for impulse purchases.
  3. Coupons: The issuance of monthly coupon booklets to members, offering discounts on various products, motivates customers to visit and shop within the stipulated time frame, thus boosting visit frequency.
  4. Treasure Hunt: Costco continually introduces new products and product rotations throughout the year, creating a sense of urgency among customers. The ever-changing product offerings prompt more frequent visits as customers fear missing out on unique items.
  5. Costco Anywhere Visa Card: Costco, in collaboration with Citibank, provides members with a no-fee credit card, the Costco Anywhere Visa card. This card offers cashback rewards for purchases made at Costco, especially for fuel, dining, and travel expenses. This incentive encourages members to use the card for their everyday expenses, increasing their interaction with the company and boosting visits.

Costco further emphasizes the value proposition of spending more in its stores by demonstrating how it translates into savings for customers. This is achieved through:

  1. Executive Memberships: Costco offers Executive memberships, priced higher than regular memberships but featuring added benefits such as a 2% annual purchase rebate. This motivates higher spending by members while also encouraging them to explore other Costco products and services, such as travel offers and insurance.
  2. Large Sizes: Products are sold in bulk, reducing the cost per unit. Customers often end up spending more on larger quantities while still perceiving the value of lower unit costs.
  3. The company's website,, offers a diverse range of products, some exclusively available online. These online purchases qualify for any applicable Costco purchase rebate programs, motivating customers to prioritize Costco for their online shopping needs.

Key Limitations

While Costco enjoys numerous advantages, it also faces specific challenges and limitations, some of which may evolve into significant issues in the future. These potential limitations encompass aspects such as membership dependence, evolving consumer preferences, the bulk buying model, and the omnichannel retail landscape.

  1. Membership Dependence: Costco's business model is highly reliant on membership fees and the continuous engagement of its members. While this strategy has proven successful as long as members remain loyal and continue purchasing in bulk, it is susceptible to potential shifts in customer preferences. There is a risk that customers could migrate their memberships to competitors like Sam's Club or opt for other retail options if the range of products or services offered by Costco changes significantly.
  2. Evolving Consumer Preferences: Consumer preferences are subject to change, and Costco's success depends on its ability to maintain high inventory turnover, which necessitates the rapid sale of products. Should customer preferences shift away from certain products or categories, Costco could face challenges in managing large quantities of unsold merchandise.
  3. Bulk Buying Constraints: While buying in bulk is a cornerstone of Costco's business model, it may pose logistical challenges for certain customers, especially those residing in urban areas with limited parking or families facing difficulties transporting bulk goods. In such cases, customers may opt for alternative retailers or online platforms offering delivery services.
  4. Omnichannel Retail Trends: The prevailing trend in retail is the adoption of omnichannel strategies, catering to customers who use various connected devices for online shopping, product research, and price comparison. Costco's traditional warehouse-centric approach may not align seamlessly with the omnichannel expectations of modern consumers. While the company has taken steps to enhance its online presence, its ability to adapt to evolving omnichannel expectations remains a potential challenge.
  5. Competition: Costco faces intense competition not only from other warehouse clubs like Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club but also from a wide range of retailers, including traditional supermarkets, e-commerce giants like Amazon, and specialty stores. Maintaining a competitive edge amidst this diverse array of competitors is an ongoing challenge.

Recommendations for Costco

To navigate these potential limitations and capitalize on opportunities, Costco should consider several strategic actions:

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  1. Digital Transformation: Costco should continue investing in its e-commerce capabilities and online presence. To cater to changing consumer preferences, the company should enhance its digital shopping experience, offering features such as online ordering with in-store pickup, expanding its product selection, and improving website functionality. This approach will allow Costco to remain competitive in the evolving omnichannel retail landscape.
  2. Social Media Engagement: Embracing social media platforms, especially Facebook and YouTube, can help Costco connect with younger generations and strengthen its online presence. By sharing engaging content, such as product demonstrations and member testimonials, Costco can foster a sense of community among its members and attract new, tech-savvy customers.
  3. Adapt to Changing Consumer Preferences: Costco should continuously monitor shifts in consumer preferences and adapt its product offerings accordingly. By staying attuned to emerging trends and adjusting its inventory, the company can mitigate the risk of holding unsold merchandise and remain relevant to evolving customer demands.
  4. Innovative Membership Benefits: Costco could explore innovative membership benefits to further incentivize loyalty and higher spending. This might include exclusive online content or digital perks for members, enhancing the overall membership value proposition.
  5. Enhanced Marketing: While Costco has traditionally avoided conventional advertising, it could benefit from targeted marketing campaigns that highlight its unique value proposition, quality products, and the benefits of membership. This would serve to attract new customers and reinforce the loyalty of existing members.


In conclusion, while Costco has thrived on its commitment to quality, value, and customer satisfaction, it faces challenges and opportunities in an ever-evolving retail landscape. By embracing digital transformation, adapting to changing consumer preferences, and enhancing its engagement with both existing and potential members, Costco can continue to build on its legacy of success in the retail industry.


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  2. Boyle, Matthew. “Costco Is Playing a Dangerous Game With the Web.”, Bloomberg, 24 Aug. 2017,
  3. Costco Financial Statements 2005-2019 | COST. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. González, Ángel. “Costco Philosophical about Keeping Chicken Prices Low.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 29 May 2015,
  5. Meyersohn, Nathaniel. “How Costco Thrives in the Amazon Era.” CNN, Cable News Network, 14 Sept. 2018,
  6. Morris, Tim. Understanding Costco. Coriolis Research Ltd., 2004, Understanding Costco, Accessed April 17, 2019.
  7. Nassauer, Sarah. “Costco, With an Eye on Amazon, Expands Home Delivery Service.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 6 Oct. 2017,
  8. 'The Costco Story.' Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd., 2019, Accessed April 15, 2019.
  9. Tuttle, Brad. “Why Costco May Never Raise Prices on $4.99 Chickens, $1.50 Hot Dogs.” Money, Meredith Corporation, 29 May 2015,
  10. Soper, Spencer. “Costco Emerges as Consumer Favorite While Amazon Love Wanes.”, Bloomberg, 26 Feb. 2019,
  11. VanAmburg, David. “Costco Tops Amazon as the New King of Internet Retail.” ACSI MATTERS, American Customer Satisfaction Index, 26 Feb. 2019,
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Analysis Of Costco’s Business Strategy And Its Key Limitations. (2023, September 08). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from
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