Tag Archives: Costco

The Walmart Tax

I have written before about the “Walmart tax.”

Walmart generates nearly $500 billion in revenue annually; over the past five years, its yearly profits have averaged $15.5 billion dollars, and the family that owns it has a net worth of $129 billion dollars.

Despite its obvious ability to do so, the company declines to pay its employees a living wage, instead relying upon government programs–taxpayer dollars– to make up the difference between its workers’ paychecks and what they need to make ends meet. In essence, when a Walmart employee must rely on food stamps or other safety-net benefits, taxpayers are paying a portion of that employee’s wages.

Walmart (including its Sam’s Club operation) is currently the largest private employer in the country–and one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. Walmart employees receive an estimated $6.2 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Money not paid out in salary goes directly to the shareholders’ bottom line.

Not only is this greedy and despicable, it is bad business. For one thing, as awareness of this subsidy grows, the numbers of people shopping at Walmart declines. But there are other costs incurred.

One of my graduate students wrote his research paper on corporate philanthropy, and the growth of business practices that recognize a duty to stakeholders other than shareholders: employees, vendors and the general community. As he explained,

The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is an accounting framework that incorporates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental and financial. This differs from traditional reporting frameworks as it includes ecological (or environmental) and social measures that can be difficult to assign appropriate means of measurement. The TBL dimensions may also be referred to as the three P’s: people, planet and profits (Hall, 2011). The TBL further supports the integration of Corporate Responsibility into the fiber of companies as the bottom line is expanded, to include these additional levels of measurement, suggesting “purpose” shares importance with profit.

One company that has seen the benefits of good corporate responsibility through TBL is Costco, specifically the “people” component. Second to the multi-national titan Walmart, Costco is the largest American membership-only warehouse club. Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club (Greenhouse, 2005). Costco’s practices are clearly more expensive, but they have an offsetting cost-containment effect: Turnover is unusually low, at 17% overall and just 6% after one year’s employment. In contrast, turnover at Wal-Mart is 44% a year, close to the industry average (Cascio, 2006).

In the case of Costco, their corporate responsibility and voluntary decision to invest in their people have been a direct contributor to their profits. In return for its generous wages and benefits, Costco gets one of the most loyal and productive workforces in retail, and, not coincidentally, the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) figures in the industry. As a result, Costco generated $21,805 in U.S. operating profit per hourly employee, compared with $11,615 at Sam’s Club. Costco’s stable, productive workforce more than offsets its higher costs (Cascio, 2006).

It appears that “doing well by doing good” is more than a slogan.

I shop at Costco, and avoid Walmart. So do most of my friends. In virtually all cases, the choice is intentional: we want to demonstrate support for businesses that value and properly compensate their employees (and aren’t sucking at the public tit, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity).

Walmart may get my tax dollars, but I’m damned if they’ll get my discretionary dollars too.


An Interesting–and Damaging–Comparison

Walmart routinely defends its practice of paying poverty-level wages by pointing to its low prices. Sure, taxpayers end up subsidizing Walmart employees who qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, but the company’s low, low prices mean that even Walmart employees can afford those tube socks!

That assertion–that low pay is what allows Walmart to offer goods at low prices–just took a hit.

The most recent issue of Consumer Reports contains a very interesting comparison of grocery prices. Titled “Getting More from Your Store,” the article had the usual number of helpful hints; what really caught my eye, however, was the chart comparing prices for the same brand of purchases like flour, coffee, tall kitchen bags, toilet paper and similar items. The folks from Consumers compared the costs of store brands, Costco, Walmart, various regional chains and Walgreens for each item. Store brands, unsurprisingly, were cheapest overall.

Next was Costco.

Costco pays its employees roughly twice as much per hour, on average, as Walmart, and also provides health insurance. Yet Costco was cheaper than Walmart for eleven of the twelve items sampled. The totals for the “basket” of twelve items were: store brands, 49.59; Costco, 55.49, Walmart 70.52. The regional chains averaged 72.93 and Walgreens came in at a whopping 96.90.

Um…tell me again why taxpayers are subsidizing Walmart employees?

A Candid Cashier

Saturday, my husband and I made our “oh-my-god-Thanksgiving-is-Thursday-and-the-cupboard-is-bare” Costco run.

As we were checking out (with more wine than two elderly citizens ought to be purchasing), the pleasant and chatty young man putting our purchases into the basket noted some purchase (I didn’t notice which one) and said “You are obviously smart shoppers.”

I laughed and responded that at least we were smart enough to shop at Costco, rather than Walmart or Sam’s Club.

At that, the cashier looked up and said, “You can say that again! I worked at Sam’s Club for 13 years, and it was terrible. I hated it. I’m so glad to be here. You can’t imagine the difference.”

I’ve read plenty of comparisons between Costco and Walmart, and their treatment of employees, but this was qualitatively different: heartfelt testimony volunteered by someone who clearly had a basis for comparison.

Later in the day, I came across this paragraph in a story about the widening gap between rich and poor in America:

Few companies are as emblematic of the New American System as is Walmart. The company that in 2011 generated more revenues than any other, the company that is now the largest food retailer in the world is the same company that recently encouraged donations of food to its own employees. It’s also a company that, putting aside any losses generated when it replaces smaller, local stores, causes a net loss to every community it enters in the form of increased tax revenues needed to support its underpaid employees. Walnart not only counts on taxpayer dollars to subsidize its “low cost” stores, it counts on those same taxpayer dollars to drive its business. Walmart employees not only need food stamps to get by, Walmart is the largest place where those food stamps are redeemed. It’s a cycle that grinds employees (and communities) relentlessly down, while driving Walmart revenues just as consistently up.

In principle, I don’t mind having my tax dollars used for welfare. But I do object–strenuously–to the use of my tax dollars to subsidize Walmart’s (outsized) profits. If Walmart insists on screwing over thousands of people like the cashier I met yesterday, the company needs to do so on its own dime, rather than on the back of taxpayers. (But of course, that wouldn’t work. Walmart needs public assistance in order to continue paying the below-living wages that generate its generous profit margins.)

Ironically, as I’ve previously noted, Costco’s profits per square foot exceed Walmart’s by a significant percentage, even though Costco pays its employees far more, treats them better and provides health insurance.

Costco will be closed on Thanksgiving, so that its employees can spend time with their families. Walmart–of course–will be open.


Walmart’s Real Business Plan

I see that Walmart threatened to move out of Washington, D.C. if the city raised its minimum wage to 12.50.

The D.C. council raised it anyway.

Bravo to D.C. for calling Walmart’s bluff. Let’s hope the Mayor signs the measure; evidently, he’s expressed some concerns, since Walmart was proposing to create jobs and to expand into neighborhoods currently underserved by retail.

Those neighborhoods deserve to be served, and jobs are important–but are they worth $6000 of taxpayer subsidy for each person Walmart employs? Because that’s what the research shows: for every job Walmart creates, taxpayers are filling the gap between the low wages being paid and what workers need to survive. Walmart employees are overwhelmingly dependent upon the social safety net for food, housing and medical care.

Walmart has a great business plan: Those of us who pay taxes subsidize Walmart’s costs of doing business. So long as they can get away with paying below-subsistence wages, our tax dollars will continue to fatten their bottom line.

Defenders of these rapacious business practices defend Walmart by pointing to the low prices of their merchandise. Low prices benefit consumers, particularly poorer consumers. But keeping prices low does not require paying poverty wages.

Look at Costco.

 The big box store most famous for its stockpiles of toilet paper and $1.50 hot dogs also has a reputation for paying its workers a higher wage than most of its competitors. The average Costco worker made about $45,000 per year, Fortune reports. By comparison, Walmart-owned Sam’s Club, a Costco competitor, pays its workers $17,486 per year, according to salary information site Glassdoor.com….Costco’s insistence on treating its workers well hasn’t come at the expense of the company’s bottom line. The retailer’s profit jumped 19 percent to $459 million last quarter, while Walmart’s sales suffered during the same period.

So that claim about helping low-income shoppers by offering bargain prices doesn’t fly–Costco manages to keep prices low (and profits high) without screwing over its employees. Or  picking the pocket of the taxpayers.

Washington, D.C. should take a leaf from my mother’s book. When I was a little girl and threatened to run away from home, she’d offer to make me sandwiches for the trip.

Job Creators or a Tale of Two Big Boxes

There are job creators, and then there are job creators.

Debates about economic policies tend to center on concerns about job creation. Corporate CEOs often argue that raising tax rates or the minimum wage will suppress hiring. (I’ve often wondered why we can’t just offer a tax credit for each job created, rather than keeping rates low and hoping that will translate into additional employment. But I digress.)

The question that is too seldom addressed is: what kind of jobs do we want to incentivize? Because all jobs are not equal–not from the standpoint of the employee, and not from the standpoint of the taxpayer.

A recent study released by Congressional Democrats underlines the issue. According to that study, Walmart’s wages and benefits are so low that many of its employees are forced to turn to the government for aid, costing taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store. As Mother Jones reports,

Walmart’s history of suppressing local wages and busting fledgling union efforts is common knowledge. But the Democrats’ new report used data from Wisconsin’s Medicaid program to quantify Walmart’s cost to taxpayers. The report cites a confluence of trends that have forced more workers to rely on safety-net programs: the depressed bargaining power of labor in a still struggling economy; a 97 year low in union enrollment; and the fact that the middle-wage jobs lost during the recession have been replaced by low-wage jobs. The problem of minimum-wage work isn’t confined to Walmart. But as the country’s largest low-wage employer, with about 1.4 million employees in the US—roughly 10 percent of the American retail workforce—Walmart’s policies are a driving force in keeping wages low.

Businesses do not have to be conducted this way. Good jobs that don’t require public support are not inconsistent with  healthy profits. A recent Business Week article reports on the very different business approach taken by Walmart competitor Costco.

Despite the sagging economy and challenges to the industry, Costco pays its hourly workers an average of $20.89 an hour, not including overtime (vs. the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour). By comparison, Walmart said its average wage for full-time employees in the U.S. is $12.67 an hour, according to a letter it sent in April to activist Ralph Nader. Eighty-eight percent of Costco employees have company-sponsored health insurance; Walmart says that “more than half” of its do. Costco workers with coverage pay premiums that amount to less than 10 percent of the overall cost of their plans. It treats its employees well in the belief that a happier work environment will result in a more profitable company. “I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits,” says Jelinek. “It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.”

Despite its higher wages and more generous benefits, Costco nets more per square foot than Walmart.

I have increasing numbers of students who believe that all business enterprises are at worst evil and at best unconcerned with anything but the bottom line. They look at Walmart and the many businesses that emulate its rapacious approach; more recently they point to the employers who are cutting workers hours in order to avoid having to provide health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, and they note the huge disparities between the salaries of CEOs and their employees, and they see those behaviors as an inevitable result of market capitalism. It isn’t.

Costco and many, many other enterprises demonstrate that concern for workers’ welfare is entirely consistent with a healthy bottom line. The problem is not with our markets, it is with our culture, and with public policies that enable and reward despicable behaviors.