Updated from Dec. 27 with additional analyst details
For Costco's (COST) - Get Costco Wholesale Corporation Report millions upon millions of members, maintaining the privilege of shopping the warehouse retailer's no frills stores for discounted bulk food may cost a little more sometime next year.
While hesitant to come right out and say it will raise membership dues, Costco executives have given several signals this year that an increase looms large. In late September, the company raised annual membership fees by 10% in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Mexico and the U.K.
"We can't say anything or give any direction on it [U.S. and Canada fee increase] other than every five or six years, we have done something," Costco CFO Richard Galanti explained on a Sept. 29 conference call. "I think the exact fifth anniversary of the last increase would be this January, and the sixth anniversary will be the following January -- We haven't made any decisions yet, and we haven't talked about it a lot internally," Galanti added.
Galanti told analysts earlier this month the company would be "more likely to want to do" a fee increase if same-store were a "little weaker", but that no decision on a fee increase has been made.
A Costco spokesman said via email that no decision has been made on any potential membership fee increase.
Should Costco lift membership fees in the U.S. and Canada next year, and considering the recent overseas hikes, the company's bottom line could get a needed jolt as sales have slowed at the hands of greater online competition and food deflation.
Costco's fiscal first-quarter same-store sales rose a paltry 1%. It marked the worst performance since a 4% same-store sales decline reported back in the fourth fiscal quarter ended Aug. 30, 2009, according to Bloomberg data. Meanwhile, Costco's profits have been dinged by higher employee healthcare costs and a generous raise it gave store workers in March. Earnings fell 2.6% in the first quarter to $1.09 a share. For the fiscal year ended August 28, earnings dropped 7.4% to $5.33 a share.
Costco's stock has defied its mixed financial performance, rallying to the tune of 11.6% to $162.44 in the past six months, due in large part to expectations around a membership fee increase.
"With deflationary pressures expected to abate as we move through 2017, a major headwind will be removed, allowing the business to benefit from the many underlying initiatives promising to boost traffic and sales." said Jim Cramer, TheStreet's founder and manager of the Action Alerts PLUS portfolio, which owns Costco shares. "Add in the potential for a significant tax cut [by the incoming Trump administration] and a membership fee increase in the U.S. (management even indicated a higher likelihood for this given recent softer same-store sales), and we see many reasons for our cautious optimism to become less cautious," added Cramer.
Costco's last fee increase in the U.S. and Canada was 10%, which went into effect Nov. 1, 2011. At the time, Costco hadn't raised dues -- which people pay annually for the privilege of saving money via bulk purchases -- for about five years. Earlier this year, UBS analyst Michael Lasser projected Costco would increase the annual fee for its basic Gold Star Membership to $60 from $55, and raise its Executive Membership price to $120 from $110 in 2017. Others on Wall Street are also optimistic a fee increase from Costco is on the horizon.
"We stare at the potential membership fee increase (which we expect to come in March) which we believe is generally a great time to own Costco's shares, as it [historically] adds 300 to 500 basis points to earnings per share growth," says JP Morgan analyst Christopher Horvers.
If these increases come to fruition, Costco would be even more expensive to join than its closest rivals.
Walmart's (WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report Sam's Club charges $100 for its rewards-based membership, and $45 for its basic membership. Becoming a member to BJ's Wholesale rewards program costs $100, with a basic membership of $50.
At the end of the first quarter, Costco boasted about 87.3 million members.
Shares of Costco were slightly lower at $161.42 in early trading on Wednesday.