A Morgan Stanley survey shows a significant overlap in membership between both retailers and concludes they can coexist.
Amazon.com and Costco Wholesale have many things in common. They’re both retail giants headquartered in the Seattle area, with annual revenues that last year were in the same league, each topping $100 billion.
More important, they both fight for the hearts and minds of a similar set of well-heeled customers willing to pay an annual fee for, in Costco’s case, access to cavernous warehouses brimming with good deals. In Amazon’s case, it’s Amazon Prime, which brings shipping perks and digital bling, such as streaming movies and music.
Many investors have wondered if this competition is a zero-sum game, where one customer gained by Prime might be a customer lost to Costco as it wouldn’t make sense to pay for more than one retailer membership.
But analysts have concluded that Amazon’s rapid growth isn’t necessarily threatening Costco’s brick-and-mortar empire.
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Based on a survey of some 2,700 people, investment bank Morgan Stanley said in a report Wednesday that “Costco and Amazon can coexist.” In fact, 45 percent of Costco members had a Prime membership, showing a high degree of overlap.
“Members of both Costco and Prime have not and generally do not intend to spend more with one retailer/e-tailer at the expense of the other,” the report says.
Morgan Stanley’s analysis weighs into what’s become a major focus on Wall Street: How vulnerable is Costco to the predations of its crosstown rival?
To a certain extent the investment bank’s conclusion underscores the resilience of the warehouse-club model at a time when Amazon is bulldozing over many other traditional retailers.
That resilience comes in part from the club’s lead in groceries, a field that Amazon and other e-commerce retailers have found hard to crack.
In “The Everything Store,” a landmark book about the history of Amazon, author Brad Stone wrote that in the early days of the tech giant, founder Jeff Bezos met with Costco CEO Jim Sinegal at a Barnes & Noble in Bellevue. There, the retail veteran explained to Bezos the value of Costco’s membership fee in reinforcing customer loyalty. Stone wrote that Bezos took Sinegal’s lessons “and applied them with a vengeance,” focusing on low prices.
Years later Amazon launched Prime, a loyalty program that costs $99 a year. Customers are not forced to be members to buy from Amazon, but if they choose to do so, they get fast shipping wrapped into the price of the membership, plus an ever-expanding collection of perks that go from a Netflix-like video-streaming service to unlimited photo storage and a rotating selection of e-books.
In return, besides billions stemming from the fee, Amazon gets loyal and generous shoppers: Analysts estimate that Prime members spend twice as much as nonmembers on Amazon’s site.
Amazon won’t say how many Prime members it has. Analysts with Cowen & Co estimate that there are 49 million in the U.S. alone.
In a report last month, Cowen said Prime’s household penetration had more than doubled since 2013, while that of warehouse clubs had showed little or no growth.
Like Morgan Stanley, Cowen also found a significant overlap: 57 percent of Costco members were also enrolled in Prime, according to its survey. But unlike Morgan Stanley, Cowen concluded that Prime was a risk because households with multiple memberships could cancel one of them.
Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer, in a recent conference call acknowledged the increased crossover between Costco and Amazon Prime members, adding that his own family has a Prime account.
But he emphasized that while Amazon offers the convenience of items delivered to customers’ doorstep, Costco offers “quality and quantity at the lowest possible price.”
That’s “best served for us when it’s in-store, getting members to come in and buying, when they can see everything that we have,” he said. “Have we lost a sale of something to an internet provider out there, whether it’s Amazon or someone else? I’m sure we have. Have we gained more often than not? Absolutely.”
That said, Costco is not blind to the dangers of Amazon. Its online strategy has been lackluster. Galanti said that there will be changes, including more nonfood “hot items” featured on the site, and improvements in search and in decreasing the number of clicks needed to make purchases. The returns process will also be streamlined, he said.
Costco sells things on its website and has them delivered to customers, but it doesn’t intend to jump into the accelerating race for near-instant delivery that Amazon and other e-commerce players are into.
“We may be the provider to someone who wants to deliver like an Instacart or Google Express,” he said. “But we’re not going to be dropping off small items at our prices at your doorstep.”
The Morgan Stanley survey shows demographics of Costco and Amazon members are relatively similar.
Costco members are slightly wealthier — about $93,000 average annual income vs. $87,000 for Prime members.
At 49, they’re also about four years older than Amazon Prime members. Yet that gap is not significant enough to “proclaim Amazon serves a younger customer,” the report says.
Amazon and Costco can peacefully coexist, Morgan Stanley says, because they “fulfill different consumer needs.”
Costco members purchase groceries and large appliances there; Amazon has an edge in clothing, pet items and consumer electronics.
In fact, Morgan Stanley expects more overlap: 7 percent of Costco members told its surveyors that they’re “very likely” to subscribe to Prime this year, and 13 percent of Prime members said the same thing about Costco.
“Our key take-away from the survey is both Costco and Amazon have very loyal customer bases, and this loyalty should serve as protective moats around their businesses,” the Morgan Stanley analysts say.