Costco Wholesale said Wednesday its earnings for the current quarter will be lower than expected as it delays raising prices amid soaring...

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NEW YORK — Costco Wholesale said Wednesday its earnings for the current quarter will be lower than expected as it delays raising prices amid soaring energy costs that have accelerated in recent weeks.

Shares in the nation’s No. 1 warehouse-club operator — which had been one of the few bright spots in retailing — plummeted $8.57, or 11.9 percent, to $63.43 Wednesday, their biggest drop in almost five years.

The reduced profit outlook reflects a dilemma that retailers, particularly low-price operators, face as the economy struggles: whether to raise prices — which could cost them customers — or resist increases from suppliers as long as possible, a move that depresses profits as they absorb higher costs.

Issaquah-based Costco, which sells items in bulk and features gas stations at most locations, has attracted crowds as shoppers seek cheaper options. But like many retailers, it can resist for only so long.

Most ultimately are passing along the higher prices, which Costco officials said are being pushed by suppliers at a faster and higher rate in recent weeks.

That means more financial pain for shoppers.

“I think the consumer is just starting to see, not only with us, rising commodity costs and rising general-merchandise costs in a much bigger way then they’ve seen other than with gasoline itself,” said Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti during a conference call Wednesday.

Costco customers have seen the price for rotisserie chicken rise 20 percent in a matter of months and will face a 10 to 15 percent increase on holiday decorations.

Soaring fuel costs are having a wide impact on Costco’s business, including weakness in its gas operations. That’s because Costco typically gets its gas deliveries on a daily basis — compared with traditional station operators who can get better deals because they buy in advance.

Higher energy costs are also affecting the freight costs of distributing merchandise, Galanti said. As a result, Costco now expects profit for the fourth quarter ending Aug. 31 to be “well below” Wall Street estimates. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial expected Costco to earn $1 a share for the fourth quarter.

In particular, Galanti noted that in the past six to eight weeks, suppliers are pushing price increases in the 5 to 10 percent range and even greater, compared with a 2 to 4 percent range in the first three quarters of the company’s fiscal year.

“It’s times like this, painful as it may be, that holding off on [price increases] on certain key items by even a few weeks, we believes helps strengthen our business for the longer term,” he said. When Costco does pass along higher prices, it wants to be the last retailer to do so, Galanti said.

For a number of years, Costco sold rotisserie chickens — a staple for its customers — for $4.99, but cost pressures forced the price up to $5.49 about three months ago.

Starting this past Monday, customers are paying $5.99, though Costco says that for each price move it held off in passing along the higher costs several weeks after the prices had been increased.

Galanti also said the reduced outlook reflected a greater-than-expected effect from its inventory method that assumes the most recent inventory purchases or goods manufactured are sold first. When prices rise, that results in a charge that eliminates inflationary profits from net income.

Soaring gas prices have also affected profitability at Costco because gas is a low-profit area, and it accounts for a bigger part of the business, according to Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research company in Swampscott, Mass.

Costco reported a 9 percent gain in same-store sales for June, but excluding gas sales, that increase would have been 5 percent. Same-store sales, those at stores open at least a year, are a key indicator of a retailer’s health.

The company will report fourth-quarter and fiscal year results Oct. 8.