Costco Wholesale Corporation and its subsidiaries (“Costco” or the “Company”) began operations in 1983 in Seattle, Washington. In October 1993, we merged with The Price Company, which had pioneered the membership warehouse concept, to form Price/Costco, Inc., a Delaware corporation. In January 1997, after the spin-off of most of our non-warehouse assets to Price Enterprises, Inc., we changed our name to Costco Companies, Inc. On August 30, 1999, we reincorporated from Delaware to Washington and changed our name to Costco Wholesale Corporation. Our common stock trades on The NASDAQ Global Select Market under the symbol “COST.”
We operate membership warehouses based on the concept that offering our members low prices on a limited selection of nationally branded and selected private-label products in a wide range of merchandise categories will produce high sales volumes and rapid inventory turnover. This rapid inventory turnover, when combined with the operating efficiencies achieved by volume purchasing, efficient distribution and reduced handling of merchandise in no-frills, self-service warehouse facilities, enables us to operate profitably at significantly lower gross margins than traditional wholesalers, mass merchandisers, supermarkets, and supercenters.
We buy the majority of our merchandise directly from manufacturers and route it to a cross-docking consolidation point (“depot”) or directly to our warehouses. Our depots receive container-based shipments from manufacturers and reallocate these goods for shipment to our individual warehouses, generally in less than twenty-four hours. This maximizes freight volume and handling efficiencies, lowering our receiving costs by eliminating many of the costs associated with multiple-step distribution channels. Such traditional steps include purchasing from distributors as opposed to manufacturers, use of central receiving, storing and distributing warehouses, and storage of merchandise in locations off the sales floor.
Because of our high sales volume and rapid inventory turnover, we generally have the opportunity to sell and be paid for inventory before we are required to pay many of our merchandise vendors, even though we take advantage of early payment discounts whenever available to us. To the extent that sales increase and inventory turnover becomes more rapid, a greater percentage of inventory is financed through payment terms provided by suppliers rather than by our working capital.
Our typical warehouse format averages approximately 143,000 square feet; newer units tend to be larger. Floor plans are designed for economy and efficiency in the use of selling space, the handling of merchandise, and the control of inventory. Because shoppers are attracted principally by the quality of merchandise and the availability of low prices, our warehouses need not have elaborate facilities. By strictly controlling the entrances and exits of our warehouses and using a membership format, we have limited inventory losses (shrinkage) to less than two-tenths of one percent of net sales in the last several fiscal years—well below those of typical discount retail operations.
We generally limit marketing and promotional activities to new warehouse openings, occasional direct mail to prospective new members and regular direct marketing programs (such as The Costco Connection, a magazine we publish for our members, coupon mailers, weekly email blasts from costco.com, and handouts) to existing members promoting selected merchandise. These practices result in lower marketing expenses as compared to typical retailers. In connection with new warehouse openings, our marketing teams personally contact businesses in the area that are potential wholesale members. These contacts are supported by direct mailings during the period immediately prior to opening. Potential Gold Star (individual) members are contacted by direct mail or by membership offerings distributed through employee associations and other entities. After a membership base is established in an area, most new memberships result from word-of-mouth advertising, follow-up messages distributed through employee groups and ongoing direct solicitations to prospective members.
Our warehouses generally operate on a seven-day, 69-hour week, open weekdays between 10:00 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., with earlier closing hours on the weekend. Gasoline operations generally have extended hours. Because the hours of operation are shorter than those of traditional retailers, discount retailers and supermarkets, and due to other efficiencies inherent in a warehouse-type operation, labor costs are lower relative to the volume of sales. Merchandise is generally stored on racks above the sales floor and displayed on pallets containing large quantities of each item, thereby reducing labor required for handling and stocking.
Our merchandising strategy is to provide our members with a broad range of high quality merchandise at prices consistently lower than they can obtain elsewhere. We seek to limit specific items in each product line to fast-selling models, sizes and colors. Therefore, we carry an average of approximately 3,800 active stock keeping units (SKUs) per warehouse in our core warehouse business, as opposed to 45,000 to 140,000 SKUs or more at discount retailers, supermarkets, and supercenters. Many consumable products are offered for sale in case, carton, or multiple-pack quantities only.
In keeping with our policy of member satisfaction, we generally accept returns of merchandise. On certain electronic items, we have a 90-day return policy in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and provide, free of charge, technical support services, as well as an extended warranty.
Costco Mexico, our 50%-owned joint venture, operated 32 warehouses, under our oversight, at August 30, 2009. The Costco Mexico warehouses are not included in the table above as Costco Mexico is accounted for using the equity method of accounting for investments.
Our electronic commerce businesses, costco.com in the U.S. and costco.ca in Canada, provide our members additional products generally not found in our warehouses, in addition to services such as digital photo processing, pharmacy, travel, and membership services.
Our warehouses accept cash, checks, certain debit cards, American Express and a private label Costco credit card. Losses associated with dishonored checks have been minimal, as members who have issued dishonored checks are identified and prevented from making payments at the point of sale until restitution is made.
We have direct buying relationships with many producers of national brand-name merchandise. We do not obtain a significant portion of merchandise from any one supplier. We have not experienced any difficulty in obtaining sufficient quantities of merchandise, and believe that if one or more of our current sources of supply became unavailable, we would be able to obtain alternative sources without substantial disruption of our business. We also purchase selected private label merchandise, as long as quality and customer demand are comparable and the value to our members is greater as compared to name brand items.
Certain financial information for our segments and geographic areas is included in Note 12 to the accompanying consolidated financial statements included in Item 8 of this Report.
We report on a 52/53-week fiscal year, consisting of thirteen four-week periods and ending on the Sunday nearest the end of August. The first three quarters consist of three periods each, and the fourth quarter consists of four periods (five weeks in the thirteenth period in a 53-week year). There is no material seasonal impact on our operations, except an increased level of net sales and earnings during the winter holiday season. References to 2009, 2008, and 2007 relate to the 52-week fiscal years ended August 30, 2009, August 31, 2008, and September 2, 2007, respectively.