Costco May Face Increasing Competition, Decreasing Memberships

Article published in The Motley Fool, Sept. 6, 2016:

How Risky is Costco Wholesale Corporation?

Warehouse clubs exist because in exchange for a membership fee they offer low prices, albeit sometimes in inconvenient quantities.

Costco has thrived by serving an audience of members looking for deals. The retailer courts bargain-hunters by cleverly curating its selection of merchandise. The chain always has certain staples such as milk, coffee, and healthcare supplies, while shifting up the rest of its mix.

That makes its stores a bit of a scavenger hunt. You might enter knowing you need K-cups, cereal, or washing machine detergent pods, only to happen upon a great deal for a snowboard. Not every item is actually a deal, but generally the prices are good, and the merchandise mix, heavy use of sampling, and low-cost snack options keep people coming back.

For 10 years that basic formula has produced a near-steady rise in the company’s stock price. Until recently there was no reason to believe that might change anytime soon, but there are signs that after an impressive run, Costco stock does face risks from digital competitors, specifically and Wal-Mart which generally have the warehouse club beaten when it comes to price selection. As these rivals improve delivery — something both have invested heavily in — Costco may have something to fear.

What should Costco worry about?

Costco offers two things to its customers — good prices and a shopping experience. Amazon and Wal-Mart, to a lesser extent, already have the warehouse club beaten when it comes to price plus convenience. In most cases, the online sites offer comparable if not better pricing on most items Costco sells without requiring the bulk purchases the warehouse chain forces for many items…

Amazon and Wal-Mart have offered those advantages for years, but they haven’t been able to match the immediacy of shopping in a store. That gave Costco (and physical Wal-Marts) a reason for being that digital players could not match.

In recent years, however, Amazon has bridged that gap, with Wal-Mart working hard and spending big to catch up. The online leader now offers Sunday delivery, same-day delivery in some markets, and even nearly immediate service in limited areas. Amazon has also made two-day delivery a standard, with incredible reliability to the point that if a consumer doesn’t need something immediately, why not order it from the online giant and not have to leave the house?

Going forward, Amazon — and eventually Wal-Mart — could have drone deliveries, trucks with 3-D printers roaming the country, and advanced predictive software that brings items from warehouse to customer even faster. When that happens, Costco, which has mostly ignored its digital operations to keep the focus on its stores, has something to worry about.

Should Costco shareholders worry?

For the Costco customer who visits the store because it’s entertaining, faster online shipping and better prices or selection at or shouldn’t matter. The shopper perusing the warehouse club based on getting a good deal, however, may eventually be swayed to drop his or her membership.

For now, Costco has an immediacy advantage over its rivals. Going forward that may not be the case, as Amazon and Wal-Mart’s digital arm — which now includes — both shorten the delivery window. That represents a risk for all retailers, but Costco could ultimately feel a pinch it has so far avoided.

As Amazon ups the delivery bar and Wal-Mart scurries along behind it, Costco members may decide that visiting a store — especially one that charges an annual fee for the privilege — isn’t worth it. When that happens, and the day isn’t that far off, Costco memberships, sales, and ultimately share price may suffer.

Ballot Fight Brewing Over Costco

Dennis Cuff of the Contra Costa Times/Bay Area Newspapers outlined the latest developments in the Citizens for Planned Growth’s efforts to place an initiative restricting big box retailers from being included in the Johnson Drive Economic Development Zone.CCT Cuff 3.28.16

Planned Growth Initiative on Johnson Drive Introduced

An initiative to let the people of Pleasanton vote on whether a big box store should be included in the Johnson Drive Economic Development Zone has been submitted to the city of Pleasanton. Sponsoring group Citizens for Planned Growth (CFPG) will be gathering signatures to place it on the ballot for the General Election to be held November 8.

If approved, the initiative would dictate the following changes to the Pleasanton General Plan:

 A new Program 15.6 shall be added to Policy 15 of Section 2.0 (Land Use Element) of the Pleasanton General Plan 2005-2025 to read as follows:

Program 15.6:

(a) Encourage small scale retail, highway and service commercial, business and professional offices in the Johnson Drive EDZ; and

(b) Limit retail uses including club retail to less than 50,000 square feet in the Johnson Drive EDZ.

In citing the need for this new proposal, the initiative outlines these arguments:

“The area identified for the Johnson Drive EDZ is currently designated as ‘Business Park’ and ‘General and Limited Industrial’ in the City of Pleasanton’s 2005 General Plan which allows for high-quality, campus-like development, including administrative, professional office, research and limited industrial uses.

“The City’s Johnson Drive EDZ, however, will amend the City’s General Plan to allow several new uses, including a large ‘club retail’ store within the Johnson Drive EDZ.

“In comparison with the current Business Park and General and Limited Industrial uses, some of the new uses allowed by the Johnson Drive EDZ will generate significantly greater traffic and air quality impacts.

“The significant and unavoidable traffic impacts and related air quality impacts associated with some land uses proposed for the Johnson Drive EDZ will significantly reduce the suitability of the area for uses such as administrative, professional office, research, and general and limited industry.”

Once submitted, the initiative goes to the Pleasanton City Attorney, who will prepare an Official Ballot Title and Summary no later than March 24. Following that, the Notice of Intention and Official Ballot Title and Summary will be posted or published, and the organizers can begin circulating the document for signature collection.

4,017 signatures are required to place it on the ballot. Collectors will have the signature sheets available at public places where Pleasanton citizens gather throughout the city from now until the deadline.

“We are concerned that the Commission and council have not listened to the people, and we want everyone to have a say in what happens in their community,” said Bill Wheeler, a member of CFPG. “This initiative will simply give Pleasanton citizens the right to vote on a zoning decision that affects a large percentage of the population.”

See the official Ballot Title and Description of the initiative here.

Alternatives to Costco in Johnson Drive Development Zone

According to the Draft EIR submitted by the Planning Commission, alternatives have been considered in deciding upon what should be done with Johnson Drive. However, they have already seemingly rejected some scenarios that could prove more beneficial in terms of traffic and pollution.

Below is a chart showing the 5 alternatives they considered. They have already zeroed in on 2 and 2a as the ones they are advancing, since they include Costco. And they have already rejected Scenario 3, which could be the most beneficial in terms of job growth and lessen the impacts of traffic and pollution.

Summary of Economic Impacts of Various Scenarios Initially Proposed In the Johnson Drive Economic Development Zone EIR (Draft)


alternatives table 2000

Alternate Scenario 3: Headquarters Office, Hotel and New Retail (No Costco)

  • higher annual net fiscal balance than Costco + existing
  • $260,000 more in annual net property tax for Pleasanton, 110% more jobs, $1.4 million more in impact fees
  • already rejected by Planning Commission, according to the DEIR

According to the EIR: The Headquarters Office, Hotel and New Retail alternative would meet most or all of the objectives of the EDZ: it would result in the adoption of a consistent framework for the City’s review and approval of new uses in the area, and the headquarters office use would promote the development of locally and regionally accessible uses. This alternative could also generate a potentially substantial amount of revenue for the City, through the development of a diverse mix of uses,  although this alternative prioritizes the development of a large amount of office space within the EDZ area, and would generate lower annual revenues for the City than other alternatives.

Alternate Proposed: Reduced Retail

According to the EIR: The Reduced Retail alternative would include some of the same uses as the proposed EDZ, including general retail and a hotel use, but would not include club retail uses. Under this alternative, the EDZ would be adopted, and Parcels 6, 9, and 10 would be developed in an initial phase that would take place within the same buildout period for these parcels as described for the proposed EDZ. Under this alternative, existing uses on other parcels within the EDZ area would continue to operate.

Under the Reduced Retail alternative, the area of the proposed EDZ would be developed with approximately 259,500 square feet of new building area, including:

  • 171,500 square feet of general retail uses; and
  • 88,000 square feet of hotel uses.

Under this alternative, it is assumed that development of the hotel uses would take place first and development of general retail uses would take place over a longer timeframe.

The Reduced Retail alternative would meet most of the objectives of the EDZ: it would result in the adoption of a consistent framework for the City’s review and approval of new uses in the EDZ area, and would promote the development of locally and regionally accessible uses. This alternative, however, may not promote long-term economic growth, because it would not be likely to facilitate development of a mix or total volume of uses within the area of the proposed EDZ that would generate substantial new revenues for the City, especially in comparison to other alternatives and the proposed EDZ**.

The Reduced Retail alternative would be feasible, and would avoid a significant air quality impact of the proposed EDZ: under this alternative, annual operational air emissions of PM10 would be less than 15 tons per year and therefore would be less than significant. Annual operational air emissions of NOx for this alternative would also be less than those generated under the proposed EDZ, although emissions would not be less than the BAAQMD significance threshold of less than 10 tons per year.

This alternative would also generate fewer total traffic trips than the proposed EDZ, which could result in fewer or lower impacts to LOS at adjacent intersections***; however, the volume of traffic trips to the EDZ area that would be generated by this alternative would further degrade operations of freeway ramps at merge/diverge areas that are already operating at unacceptable levels, and this alternative would likely result in impacts related to spillback. Because the Reduced Retail alternative would avoid a significant impact of the proposed EDZ, this alternative was carried forward for analysis.

(** cannot find Fiscal Impact Analysis for this alternative in the EIR)

(*** cannot find Traffic Analysis for this alternative in the EIR)


Say No to More Traffic and Big Box Stores

Please JOIN with your neighbors, residents and merchants in SIGNING the PETITION demanding that the City Council say NO to rezoning the 40 acres along Johnson and Stoneridge Drives in to more high traffic generating commercial retail and big box stores like Walmart or Costco.

See the petition here.

Harms of Big-Box Retail

reprinted from
Costco site 300Big-box retailing refers to the massive “big-footprint,” “category-killer,” stores such Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, and Cabela’s that have reshaped America’s economic and physical landscape the past few decades. For the definitive analysis of the many ways in which big-box stores have harmed our cities, our environment and our entrepreneurial culture, read Stacy Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle: The True Costs of Mega-Retailers and the  Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.

What characterizes “big-box” retail?

Sprawl experts cite a number of features that typify big-box stores. They:

  • Occupy more than 50,000 square feet of space (sometimes as much as 250,000).
  • Require large sales volumes, so they often use predatory marketing strategies to take sales away from existing retailers.
  • Rely on shoppers who arrive at the store by car, so they need large-capacity roads.
  • Include acres of parking and occupy a large footprint.
  • Create site development that neglects any community or pedestrian amenities.
  • Seek to dominate markets and provide no unique culture, products, or identity.

Big-box stores are icons of sprawl. Since they large footprints, they rarely choose urban infill locations and opt instead to locate in suburbs and exurbs, furthering the movement of economic activity away from the urban cores. With their massive parking lots and big-road access systems, they are often inaccessible or poorly accessible by public transportation.

Harm #1: Big-box stores undermine small businesses and entrepreneurialism

The business models of big-box chains are to dominate market share, growing mostly at the expense of existing competitors, many of them locally owned independent businesses. With their massive advertising budgets, ability to squeeze suppliers on wholesale prices, and use of devices such as “loss leaders” and end-cap specials (those catchy deals at the ends of aisles), the chains have the ability to undercut smaller retailers.

In towns and cities across America, big-box retailers have been the death knell for local businesses.

Harm #2: Big-box stores undermine retail wages

Retailing is notorious for its low wages, part-time hours, and lack of health insurance and pension benefits. The only exception are those grocery chains that are unionized, but big-box behemoth Walmart, by entering the grocery business with its Supercenters and aggressively fighting union organizing efforts, is now the top seller of food and a major source of downward pressure on grocery wages.

The same pattern is true even in retail segments where there are no unions. As studies by the Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Civic Economics have found, national retail (including restaurant) chains in general pay lower wages and benefits than do locally owned businesses. By that measure and others, it has found that the chains generate fewer ripple effects in local economies: they procure less, bank less, contribute less, and participate less.

Harm #3: Loss of open spaces and natural resources

When big-box retail stores locate in farmland, wetlands, or green space, they eliminate natural resources and open space. According to the American Farmland Trust, the United States loses 3,000 acres of productive farmland to sprawl every day. This is the equivalent of all the acreage of Delaware every year.

Harm #4: Loss of uniqueness of place

As big-box retailers spread across the country and wipe out local businesses in their wake, America becomes more homogeneous and the unique character of individual communities is lost. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the entire state of Vermont as one of eleven Most Endangered Historic Places because Wal-Mart had announced plans to open seven new 150,000+ square foot stores there, threatening the state’s revered architecture and small-town culture, as well as its entrepreneurial health and environmental standards.

Harm #5: Losses caused by main street and mall abandonment

Dead malls (a.k.a. “greyfields”) and abandoned big-box stores (or “ghostboxes”) litter America’s landscape. Our nation is awash in excess retail space. The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that we have 38 square feet of store space for every man, woman and child, many times the rates of other industrialized nations.

In almost every region, the plague of over-built retail is evident. The director of the National Trust’s Main Street Center once testified that cities with too much retail space suffer all kinds of hidden costs. When just one Main Street store, with two floors of 2,000 square feet, goes from being occupied and busy to being vacant, the total cost to the local economy is almost $250,000 a year, she reported. That includes losses in property taxes, wages, bank deposits and loans, rent, sales and profits.

Since vacant or underutilized properties usually get reassessed and pay much lower property taxes, dead malls mean big tax revenue drops. For example, Northridge Mall in Brown Deer, Wisconsin went from an assessed value of $107 million in 1990 to a greyfield sale value of $3.5 million in 2001. That lead to a staggering drop in property taxes. Check out for links and news.

Harm #6: Hidden costs in the form of public assistance to low-wage workers

When Wal-Mart and other poverty-wage retailers fail to provide their workers with a decent wage and full-time hours, many employees and their families qualify for safety-net help such as Medicaid, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Earned Income Tax Credits, Section 8 housing assistance, low income energy assistance, and free or discounted school lunches. These programs cost taxpayers money.

Indeed, a 2004 report by Congressional staffers tallied all of these hidden costs; they estimated that each Wal-Mart store with 200 employees costs federal taxpayers $420,750 a year in safety-net costs. Multiply that by more than 4,000 stores Wal-Mart already has in the U.S.—and by many more it seeks to open every year and you get a hefty taxpayer tab.

To date, about half the states have disclosed the names of employers who hire the greatest number of workers that depend on taxpayer-funded healthcare programs. Good Jobs First has been keeping track of these disclosures as they materialize. Click here to see if your state is among those disclosing which companies have the most employees dependent upon taxpayer-backed healthcare.

Harm #7: Bricks and mortar economic development subsidiesFinally, despite the fact that big-box stores pay poorly, fail to provide most employees with full-time hours, and often cannibalize existing retail employers, they attract massive subsidies in the name of “economic development.” Good Jobs First’s 2004 report Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth found that Wal-Mart has received more than $1 billion in subsidies from local and state governments. That research, since updated at, now finds subsidies totaling more than $1.2 billion. In essence, taxpayers across the country are paying Wal-Mart to build new stores.

Big-box usually flunks the definition of “economic development”—and therefore should not get subsidies—because it packs such a lousy bang for the buck compared to almost any other economic activity. To measure the ripple effects of a new business, you look “upstream” to see how many supplier jobs the region would gain, and then you look “downstream” to see how many jobs would be created by the buying power of the people who work at the business. The upstream of a big-box store creates very few jobs for the local economy (i.e., Made in China), and the downstream ripple effects are terrible because retail jobs are overwhelmingly part-time and poverty-wage, with no health care.

That means most retail workers have very small disposable incomes: after paying for bare necessities, they have little left with which to stimulate the local economy. Building new retail space just moves sales and lousy jobs around. It doesn’t grow the economy.

We believe that there is only one justifiable time to subsidize retail: to help revitalize a truly depressed neighborhood that lacks basic retail needs such as food, prescriptions and clothing. In all other situations, subsidizing retail is a waste of money that could be better deployed creating better jobs and stronger ripple effects.

Impacts on traffic on Johnson Drive will be “significant and unavoidable”

The City of Pleasanton Planning Commission staff has created a draft Environmental Impact Report regarding the proposed rezoning and development of the Johnson Drive Economic Development Zone (JDEDZ) project. If you like reading huge, technical reports, you can see the entire document here.

Basically in the report summary, the staff says:

“The analysis in this SEIR indicates that development facilitated by the EDZ would generate air emissions that would result in a net increase of criteria pollutants which would conflict with implementation of the applicable air quality plan, and increased traffic which would affect levels of service for freeway ramps at merge/diverge areas within I-680. These impacts would be significant and unavoidable, even after incorporation of mitigation measures. As a result, issues related to air quality and transportation and traffic impacts are potential areas of controversy.”

In assessing the daily impacts to traffic on Johnson Drive, the staff reports:

“Excluding vehicle trip generation from existing uses within the EDZ area, full buildout would generate an estimated 12,160 weekday daily trips (without including pass-by and diverted trips), including 293 morning peak hour, and 743 evening peak hour trips. Saturday trip generation for full buildout is estimated to be 15,630 daily trips (without including pass-by and diverted trips), including 1,310 peak hour trips.”

Their mitigation plan is shown in the graphic above.

However, as astronomical as these increases seem, they may be much less than what actually will happen. In a study conducted in Oklahoma and Texas about traffic generation estimates of traffic around superstore developments, the researchers found that:

“Supercenters of 200,000 square feet or more generate an average of 42 percent more traffic than the rate listed in the Institute of Transportation Engineers Trip Generation manual. Traffic engineers, developers, and city officials use the figures in this manual to estimate the traffic impact of development projects. This study, which relies on traffic counts conducted at five supercenters in Oklahoma and Texas, indicates that the manual significantly underestimates the traffic generated by large supercenters…and that traffic analyses based on it are unreliable indicators of the actual traffic impact of a supercenter development.”

You can read the entire article here.

Another major area of concern is the intersection of Johnson Drive and Owens Drive, which would be a major egress to the proposed development area for those wishing to avoid the traffic on Stoneridge Drive. With the recent addition of a Chick-fil-a at that intersection, where In and Out Burger is already a major draw, driving in that area already is a major headache. The increased trips generated by those wanting to reach Costco could cause backups reaching all the way out to Hopyard Drive and I580.

The mitigation proposed by the Pleasanton Planning team?

Mitigation Measure 4.D-1b: Johnson Drive at Owens Drive (North) Intersection: Install a traffic signal at the Johnson Drive at Owens Drive (North) intersection.