NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For over 20 years, warehouse club juggernaut Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) has quietly been dabbling in a new market: selling supplies specifically tailored to small businesses.
Now, Costco could be looking to move more aggressively with a store format in a bid to head off competition from Wal-Mart's (WMT) small-business friendly brand, Sam's Club, as well as a potentially stronger rival if a merger between Staples and Office Depot wins approval.
Costco opened its first Business Center in Hayward, Calif., way back in 1992, and over the next 10 years only opened three more of them. But since 2009, five more have opened, with another store scheduled to open this fall in Denver. The centers offer products and services for local convenience stores, restaurants, professional offices and other small businesses.
According to Costco's CFO Richard Galanti in December, the company is in a "10-year plus" test of the Business Center concept. It actually sounds more like a 20-year plus odyssey, but one that's starting to accelerate.
Costco could not be reached for comment regarding its plans for the Business Center store concept. The company only mentions the business once in its most recent annual report, specifying the exec who leads the operation -- Timothy Rose, who joined Costco in 1995.
Some of the ways the Business Centers appeal more directly to small businesses include earlier store hours, next-day delivery and copying and printing services. And for fresh food, the Business Center sells much larger portion sizes than you'd see at a regular Costco.