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Greenberg: Is Costco Vulnerable to Online Avalanche?

By: Herb Greenberg | 01/22/14 - 11:03 AM EST

Stocks in this article: COSTPSUNROSTTJX

SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- Retailers have been blaming everything and nothing for the recent spate of bad performance.

In the end, however, it may be rather simple: For the first holiday ever, online shopping really appears to have hit a point of critical mass.

Consider, for example, Pacific Sunwear (PSUN) CEO Gary Schoenfeld's comments in recent earnings guidance, when he said, "Business picked up in the final few days prior to Christmas and then finished the month strong as self-shoppers came back to the mall."

The key to his comment was his mention of "final few days prior to Christmas," which coincidentally ties into the amount of time the window generally closes for all but costly overnight deliveries for online shoppers.

Enter Costco (COST): As great of a retailer as Costco is (and I do mean great), it has done woefully little online. Its barebones Web site is hardly a destination, certainly not for competitive shopper. And its online sales, while an enormous $3 billion, account for only about 2.5% of revenue.

The same could be said for the likes of other off-price retailers like Ross Stores (ROST) and TJX (TJX). "In three to five years they're in trouble because the move online is a tsunami," says retailing consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen of J. Rogers Kniffen.

Kniffen believes that as good as all of these retailers are, their off-price models don't necessarily translate online unless they can offer the same products as they do in the story. And, besides, they're so far behind the curve.

Which gets us back to Costco: If customers are leaving the mall in favor of online, will they eventually choose the ease of online to the lines of Costco? As it turns out, Costco was an exception to the rule in December by beating analyst estimates for same-store sales. But the 3% gain was still below the year-ago's 9%.

Yes, I know this was a shorter selling season. And, yes, I realize that Costco still has the advantage of good pricing on super-sized quantities of food and other staples. (It's hard to beat $5 for a five-pound bag of frozen blueberries when that's the price for one pound of the house brand at my local Ralph's.)

It's everything else, which on the margin can be shopped online. "If those incremental dollars don't come to you," Kniffen says, "you get hurt."

After quarters of little interest, analysts spent quite a bit of time asking about online on the most recent earnings call. In Response to one question CFO Richard Galanti said:

Look, e-commerce is certainly an important component of what's out there and what's growing. We recognize, we're a retail competitor. It's part of the landscape. We're very much a brick-and-mortar. It's 97-plus percent of our business is in-store and not online. What we have done is we've looked at it as not trying to offer a million different items to our members. Arguably, we don't offer a million different items to them in-store. We offer less than 4,000. And we view it as an extension of that in some categories, as well as some overlap. We've been successful in bigger ticket items or hard-to-deliver -- hard-to-handle items, like furniture and televisions. But I think the example I mentioned earlier about apparel, we tried some apparel items several years ago in online and underwhelmed us and our members. We're trying some different things now and it seems to be working. But again, e-commerce is a small percent and a given department like that is a small percent. But we are getting some traction. Look, we want our members to buy everything at Costco, whether it's in-store or online, and we'll keep trying some new things.

In an interview with me Tuesday, Galanti -- who picks up his own phone and doesn't duck the questions -- said pretty much the same thing. "It's one of many things we discuss all the time," he said. "Dot-com is more prevalent than before. I'm not trying to be cute or coy about it. We're always blocking and tackling on all elements of the business. We're pleased with our results over the past year and a half. We don't believe everything will be online. It will be part of the panorama out there."

Reality: He's right about online shopping. He recalled how back in the dot-com bubble, 15 years ago, there was the chatter that bricks-and-mortar were dead. "We looked around the room and wondered whether we had our head in the sand," he recalls. They didn't, of course, and it's anybody's guess whether they do now. But given this past holiday season, the risk is there and the risk is real. Just something to keep in mind. Onward.

-- Written by Herb Greenberg in San Diego

Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security.

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