Big box Costco’s in the coffin and urn business

The Althea Casket, available at Costco for $2,599.99. Photo from

Gilroy
– Costco, one of the nation’s leading big box stores, has added
a new line of products to its long list of discount offerings –
caskets and urns.
Gilroy – Costco, one of the nation’s leading big box stores, has added a new line of products to its long list of discount offerings – caskets and urns.

For the moment, customers in California and most other parts of the country will not find caskets stacked to the ceiling next to flat-screen televisions and refrigerators. Instead, they have to visit the store’s Web site to browse the 11 caskets and four urns offered by the company.

The lowest-priced caskets, the Mother Casket and In God’s Care Casket, cost $924.99; the Argo Cherry Casket is the most expensive at $2,699.99.

The Web site provides a picture and specifications for each model, noting whether it is made of wood or steel and the type of interior cloth. The urns range in price from about $65 to $90.

Universal Casket Company, which manufactures the products on display at www.Costco.com, mails the order directly to the funeral home in three business days.

All prices include shipping and handling.

“Well, they got everything else…” said Dustin Davis, a Morgan Hill shopper who was amused but less than surprised to learn Costco is now in the casket business.

“I don’t object,” said Otis Johnson, a shopper from Watsonville. “But I do think it’s odd.”

For Costco, however, the casket business makes perfect sense.

“We got into the market because we know this was an area where we could save our members a lot of money, typically 50 percent or more,” said Ginnie Roeglin, Costco’s senior vice-president of e-commerce.

About a year go, the big-box retailer started selling caskets on a test basis in stores in the Chicago and Detroit market.

They added them to their online offerings about 6 months ago for 25 other states and the District of Columbia.

Roeglin would not disclose sales data but said several hundred units of each model have sold online.

In the Chicago and Detroit markets, Costco sells caskets in its warehouses using an information kiosk with miniature replicas of the caskets, as opposed to displaying life-size models.

“That might be a little upsetting to some,” Roeglin said.

For the moment, the company has no plans to introduce a casket kiosk in Gilroy or elsewhere outside its Midwest locations.

Local funeral home directors said they haven’t seen many Costco caskets come through doors.

“I’m not sure (why),” said Lance Gittin, a funeral director at Johnson’s Funeral Services in Morgan Hill. “I’m just thinking people don’t go to Costco for caskets.”

He said the company’s other businesses, Mission Funeral Home and Willow Glen Funeral Chapel in San Jose, also have not had experience with the big-box store’s offerings.

Steve Habing, with Habing Family Funeral Services in Gilroy, speculated that shipping and timing issues may account for the apparent lack of business. He also said that Habing, for instance, offers prices that “match or beat” those of Costco.

A cloth-covered casket made of plywood and particle board, for instance, costs $775 – more than $100 less than Costco’s must affordable version.

For the moment, the strongest competition comes from other discount stores dealing strictly in caskets.

“People think that either at Costco or the casket outlets they’re going to get a better deal,” said John Ander, a funeral director at Habings. “But we actually could have saved them money. If they want to look after we talk to them that’s fine. I just feel bad when we could have saved them a couple hundred dollars.”

Ron Hast, publisher of national trade journal Mortuary Magazine, said Costco offers quality caskets that are generally cheaper than types offered at funeral homes, but said buyers should beware of hidden costs.

“The problem is that most people don’t understand that when they bring a casket from a third-party seller, the funeral home will charge a la carte,” he said. “And that may be significantly more than a package the home would offer that includes a casket.”

Like many other funeral homes, Habings offers package deals for funerary services, ranging from a simple grave-site service for $3,125 to a two-day service with visitation for $4,050.

Neither package includes the cost of the casket, which can cost as much $10,795.

“We run a package for the funeral home assuming you purchase the casket through us,” Ander said.

“Theoretically, we go off our general price list” if a person uses a third-party casket, Ander said. He added, however, that the price increase would be less than $500.

Costco has no intention of getting into the funeral service business to help customers save on that end, she said, but plans to continue offering a cheaper alternative when it comes to loved ones’ remains.

“We certainly hope our members do not need to purchase one,” Roeglin said. “But if they do, we’d like to save them some money.”

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