Save Money. Die Better.

Discussion
Oct 30, 2009
George Anderson

By
George Anderson

Wal-Mart
Stores is very rarely the first at anything. The chain has made a living
by watching what others do and adapting formats, products and services
to fit its business. Typically, it does this very well.

The
latest case in point is the announcement that the company has gone
into the business of selling funeral caskets and urns online. Back
in May 2005 when Costco began selling funeral urns (it had already
been selling caskets), 69 percent of respondents to a RetailWire poll
thought the warehouse club chain was onto something. We agreed and
wrote:

We
think it was Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent
a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

Dying is an expensive proposition. Although it does weird
us out some, we have to congratulate Costco for addressing the real need to
make burying or cremating a loved one more affordable.

We personally know of at least one woman who donated her
body to a medical school, in part because of what it would save her family
in funeral home and related expenses.

Coming
back to today and Wal-Mart, The Associated
Press
reported that the retailer has
put 15 caskets and dozens of funeral urns on its website. Prices,
as you would expect, are significantly lower than what retailers
would pay at a funeral home. Federal law requires that funeral
homes accept caskets that are ordered and Wal-Mart only accepts
returns on items that are delivered damaged.

Ravi
Jariwala, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart Stores, said the company
plans to eventually sell more than 200 products made by Star
Legacy Funeral Network, including pet urns
and memorial jewelry in addition to the items already on walmart.com.

R.
Brian Burkhardt, a funeral director who writes a blog as “Your Funeral
Guy,” told The Associated Press, “You
can get a quality casket for $1,000 rather than pay $2,000, $3,000
or $5,000 in a funeral home. That’s where it helps the consumer.”

Discussion
Questions: What will Walmart.com’s sale of caskets and urns mean for
the funeral home business? Are consumers ready in large numbers to
start buying funeral products from retailers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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20 Comments on "Save Money. Die Better."


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Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
11 years 6 months ago

Just like all products that Walmart discounts, there will be a core group of people who choose to purchase the products at a discount, and the majority will continue to use funeral homes. Think of the logistics involved in purchasing a casket from Walmart. When do you do it? Do you wait until a loved one dies, and then go online to Walmart.com to place an order for a casket, and a new crock pot? I simply don’t think that people want to purchase caskets this way.

What this might do is cause the funeral homes to lower their prices just a bit. But they are providing more than a box; they take the headache of the funeral out of the hands of the bereaved, and make a tough time a bit easier. Tracking the delivery of a casket from Walmart.com and making sure that it arrives on time while the body awaits final interment, well…that is simply a headache that I don’t think most people want.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
11 years 6 months ago

As it is a cradle-to-grave retailer, Wal-Mart is promising consumers they can now “die comfortably for less.” Will embalming be the next Bentonville bounty?

First it was the demise of Main Street and now the funeral home appears scheduled to roam off into the sunset?

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
11 years 6 months ago

Why not? It’s another commodity and no one does better selling commodities than Wal-Mart. The trick is to keep it separate from the other business entirely. Wal-Mart’s now in the business of selling consumers a better lifestyle–not an afterlife.

David Morse
Guest
David Morse
11 years 6 months ago

It’s a great Halloween story! My first reaction was it’s a big mistake, a decision made in poor taste. To announce it around Halloween seemed to be especially tactless.

As I think about it, it may not be so dumb. People in mourning have always been at the mercy of undertakers and funeral parlors, and there must be a need for a low price, convenient option.

I asked myself if I would purchase a casket for a loved one from Wal-Mart. Probably not. I’d feel guilty. But I’m sure they’ve done their research. Wal-Mart may not be so “dead wrong” after all.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 6 months ago

If the customer wants it, retailers should be selling it. I was intrigued with the Costco casket idea when I heard about it from a customer last year. My first thought was: What a great idea. Everyone needs one! Morbid but true. “Honey, I’ve got the 5 gallon jar of mayo and 250 chicken wings. What color casket do you want?”

David Livingston
Guest
11 years 6 months ago
We see these stories come out every couple of years and then fade away. If I’m a funeral director and someone wants to use a Wal-Mart casket, I’d tell them to find another funeral home. The mortuary business is a lot more competitive than people think and a lot of the margin needed to stay in business is from selling caskets. Funeral directors rely on having a good reputation. If they use a Wal-Mart casket and there is a flaw, it reflects badly on the funeral home. The last thing a funeral director wants is to have it known that the deceased is in a Wal-Mart casket. In the end, the savings really isn’t very much considering the hassle involved. I would hate to put my family through the hassle of trying to find a funeral director willing to comply and use a casket not purchased from the funeral home. I know that legally a funeral home does have to use the casket, but believe me, you will not be a welcomed customer.
David Biernbaum
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

A casket is a consumer product and should be every bit as much sold by traditional retailers such as Walmart. I like the idea very much because death has become too expensive in these United States and it’s about time that “death” becomes EDLP. Happy Halloween!

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

I admit it creeped me out when Costco started selling caskets…and just the other day, as I was exiting the store, I started reading their promo. One advertised “feature” is that it’s “unemotional.” I kid you not. What the heck does THAT mean? But I digress….

The funeral home business has consolidated just like all others, and I suppose the inflated prices charged are fair game for Walmart, Costco, and others.

I’m so far out of the target demographic or psychographic that I have no visceral sense of its appeal to anyone, but I suppose it makes sense.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
11 years 6 months ago
The LA Times article indicates Wal-Mart will deliver items within 48 hours to the local funeral home. Their web site currently has 14 models of caskets and offers brief descriptions and up to five different views of them. The site provides instructions on shipping, etc. It also notes that they can not ship to all areas of the country but lists those that it can. I am not sure that the older generation, of which I am part, will be comfortable with buying one without actually seeing it. That being said many people are more and more comfortable buying complex items online based on this approach. The question is, can Wal-Mart (and others like Costco) accomplish this? I believe the answer is yes. There has been much written about the high cost of dying and people are looking for ways to mitigate this cost. Buying a casket online is one way. While Costco may have preceded Wal-Mart in carrying some of these items, they lack the market penetration to drive a thought-process shift. Wal-Mart has… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
11 years 6 months ago

This is a tough one. After a loved one dies, the last thing that most people want is any unnecessary stress or controversy. While you should be able to save on the casket cost, is it worth it considering what you have to go through to get it? If you surprise a funeral home with your own casket at the last minute and they have their cost structure in part built around the profit in the casket, you might not be their favorite customer. On the other hand, if they know up front that you will be doing this, they can adjust their other items to make up for the loss of profit on the casket.

When we recently had to bury my mother, I was more upset with the costs of transporting the body with the airlines than anything else. The transportation costs were the most out-of-line of anything.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

The commoditization of caskets is part of a larger trend away from the funeral home model. Over the past 80 years, families moved away from wakes in the home and turned instead to funeral homes, whose services have become breathtakingly expensive. The backlash is evident everywhere–visitation in the church instead of a funeral home, online guest books, and less elaborate floral displays. Funeral home chains may want to reassess their positioning going forward.

James Tenser
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

Just store my ashes in a coffee can until they can be scattered in a garden. Plant a tree there if possible.

You can buy the coffee at Walmart for under $10, and serve it at my memorial service.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 6 months ago

With my luck, I’d be the guy at the checkout with the only casket without a UPC waiting for a price check.

Should we be surprised? Wal-Mart proved long ago that it will do just about anything to make a buck–a quality I never know whether to admire or admonish.

I just hope they hold off putting the smiley-face on any of the casket models.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

While I would never condemn any retailer for trying something new, I have my doubts about how successful this line will be. The cost of funerals is certainly exorbitant and staff in funeral homes undoubtedly try to upsell their goods and services but they do present a one-stop shop. Hard as it is, families can insist on paying no more than they can afford and not giving in to pressure. Having to go shopping somewhere else is not likely to be high on the list of things they want to do at such a time.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

“…Wal-Mart only accepts returns on items that are delivered damaged.”

BYOC…What can I say? In a curious way, this represents a return to the days when department stores sold everything–or at least it’s our perception that they did (IIRC John Wanamaker once sold airplanes); now if WM can only introduce (higher) quality merchandise, we’ll be all set.

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 6 months ago
Having family and friends in this business, my opinion certainly has some bias, so let that be my disclaimer. Funeral homes (good ones) provide a complete service. Most of them are good. Like any other business, due to consolidation you have to be good to stay in. Believe me, it’s as tough a business as any from a competitive standpoint–believe it or not. Wal-Mart, Costco, or others entering the casket business will not radically change the funeral business. That is unless they find ways to enter the business of providing the entire service. Like anything else, that also is not out of the realm of possibility either. Funeral homes provide services well beyond just the sale of a casket. If they make a bit of a profit on a casket, so be it. The other services are absolutely necessary and have to be performed by a funeral home. Consumers (and in this case we all will be) can likely pay less for a casket at WM or Costco, but they can also pay more for… Read more »
Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 6 months ago

To me, the funeral business is a service-driven business. That’s what families are most focused on. The casket is a follow-on sale, albeit one with enormous markup, but a follow-on sale nonetheless.

There may be a market for Walmart to tap into here, but my guess would be that it’s limited.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
11 years 6 months ago

I like this idea. Some funeral homes take advantage of families when they are grieving and are at a weak moment in their lives. Widows should not be encouraged to go into debt on an item that truly has no value. Put me down for a Wal-Mart urn and give the saved money to charity.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 6 months ago

When WM starts offering funeral services, floral services, graveside organization, auto processions and hearses, embalming, and cremation, they’ll become competitive. The funeral industry is extremely vertical, and WM is trying to make it horizontal. But the one-stop-shopping offered to the bereaved during times of grief (and haste) by traditional funeral homes will still win the day.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 6 months ago
Several years ago, I wrote an article on the “business of dying.” What I think is being overlooked here is that Walmart’s selling of caskets is just part of a much larger consumer trend. Specifically, consumers are taking increasing control of dying. For decades, consumers handed off their dead to funeral homes to handle–and they paid–a lot! Not anymore. The most fundamental example of this trend is how more consumers are taking care of their funeral planning ahead of time–not only to spare their left-behind loved ones the stress and expense, but also to choreograph their final send off. And a growing variety of services and products are easily available to help consumers arrange their own funerals–ranging from the practical to the weird. For example, while consumers can already buy traditional caskets from various sources, they can also take the DIY path and make their own by following blueprints in their basement shops. Some consumers are returning to a custom from days gone by, staging funerals in their own homes. Before passing away, some consumes… Read more »
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