It seems legitimate to me that Costco, operating at an incredibly low 0.2% retail margin, seeks maximum turns and sales volume for its entire inventory. As a big box, non specialty retailer chasing lowest possible SGA expense in a declining sales environment, Costco leans on merchandising advantages like brand names and informational signage as strategy elements to turbo power sales volume. So, if Costco wine buyers are indeed following a new company policy (which has been denied by the company yet confirmed by multiple sellers) by eliminating all wines with +$15 price points and sub 90 point Parker/Spectator/Enthusiast ratings from consideration, can you blame them?
Costco’s third quarter fiscal ’09 operating results came in at $0.48 a share, down 28% from last year’s third quarter of $0.67. During the recent earnings call, Costco CFO Richard A. Galanti responded to a question fired his way about sales, margin performance, and targets of cost reduction by a follower at Morgan Stanley:
We are pushing for total profitability. We are not trying to break even. We’d very much like to make over 1% on the operation net of membership fees. That’s not in the cards right now….They aren’t sizable [cost reductions] …I’ve always said there’s no silver bullets and we run a pretty good shop….What we’ve found is notwithstanding that there’s no silver bullets, [if] it got a little tougher, we are finding little bits and pieces of money — not a lot but are there any big buckets? No. But we’ll see where we go from here.
Costco is battling thin margins and problems rooted in their unique retail model and an emergent conservative US consumer landscape. The company needs to satisfy shareholders and while they sell more wine than any other retailer in America, they are not a wine retailer. These warehouses do not hand sell goods and have to rely on merchandising techniques that sells wine to consumers that are not in the warehouse primarily to buy wine. They need to tweak every inch of their wine program to drive the highest possible sales volume. Point ratings at point of purchase is logical, and exclusively inventorying wine at the right price points and rating levels also makes sense for them. Costco should not care less about the subtle injustices in relying on points for exacting communications about a wine’s component flavors or aromas. It might disadvantage certain producers and sellers, but that’s the breaks in this world of consumer advocacy and open capitalism.
Commentary and reports at Wine Curmudgeon, Steve Heimoff, and The Wine Skewer surrounding the Costco policy rumor flare up have defended, but more often maligned the point system (and its followers) for recklessly allowing violations in tasting approach, motivation, recognition of subjectivity in quality assessment, allowances for narrow differences between 88 to 90 point wines, exclusively focusing on three major review media, buyer (in)competence, etc.
I can understand raising these themes again in relation to the alleged Costco new wine policy since it does put distribution through this large retailer more fully (almost, you still have to earn the points) in the hands of the media. Still, restaurants and specialty wine shops exist to showcase wines and hand sell as required. Wine consumers and enthusiasts with more than a casual interest will seek tasting experiences, expert recommendations, and other paths to information to inform their buying. So long as the sea of less committed but interested wine drinkers are willing to rely exclusively on scores for quick low cost purchases, then retailers like Costco will serve their point of purchase information requirements by leveraging readily available and accepted point score reviews.
And I don’t blame them.
There is nothing reckless about well sourced quick headline information to consumers looking for bite size info when a close, known, or trusted expert recommendation is not available. Let’s face it, the three review media used by Costco are usually close enough for the $10-a-bottle consumer’s taste and curiousity.
Now, just stop selling current releases with signage referencing previous vintage’s scores!!! It is a responsibility that Costco ought to honor and uphold, yet violates all too often. How about a warning sign that says “past performance is not an indicator of future performance”? The practice is a deceptive disservice to the consumer and the significant act of recklessness in deploying point scores at point of purchase.