Caskets? Aisle 7

The American consumer is in for another shock.

In a shift of marketing strategy and cultural style as big as when doctors, lawyers and drug companies began advertising to drum up business, Costco Wholesale Corp. has begun selling coffins directly to its customers.

Monday, the discount store chain, better known for bulk chicken and cases of soda, started test marketing caskets alongside mattresses at a North Side Chicago store. They're also being sold at a suburban Oak Brook store.

"This is certainly something that can be an easy value," said Gina Bianche, a buyer in Costco's corporate office in Issaquah, Wash. "I don't want to say cheap value, but it just needs to be done."

Each of the six models from the Universal Casket Co., in colors including lilac and Neapolitan blue, is priced at $799.99, made of 18-gauge steel, considered medium weight for caskets, and can be delivered within 48 hours.

Caskets could already be purchased directly from manufacturers, in funeral supply stores and over the Internet, but big general merchandise stores have stayed away from selling caskets until now, said David Walkinshaw, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.

At a Costco on Chicago's North Side, shoppers checking out the new casket kiosk Monday seemed to like the idea that the same store where they buy so many things for this life was branching into the after life.

"A casket at Costco, yeah, I think it's pretty bizarre," said Inga Barth, 53. She wondered about buying a casket with only a kiosk and small samples of the caskets' material to look over, though, saying, "When you go casket shopping, you want to see the whole thing."

That didn't trouble John Neuhaus.

"I want the adjustable bed and mattress for my neck," he joked, pointing to one of the features highlighted at the kiosk. After all, he said, "It says eternal rest."

Others liked the idea of being able to shop for the casket long before a loved one's death, a time when the survivors are distressed, under time constraints and may feel they are at the mercy of funeral homes.

"I remember my mom was supposed to get a plain pine box for my dad and she walked out with mahogany," said Gretchen Henninger.

When her mother later died and Henninger was left to deal with the funeral arrangements, "I felt I was being manipulated into feeling some emotion that would lead me to spend more money," she said. "Taking that away would be wonderful."

Those involved in arranging funerals were not as enthusiastic about discount retailers moving in on their business.

"If you take the casket out of the equation and the casket is purchased in a retail environment, then that portion of the funeral director's profit center will disappear and the funeral director must respond to that," said George Lemke, executive director of the Casket and Funeral Supply Association.

Asked if that meant raising prices, he replied: "That's entirely possible."

Costco is prepared for that, said Fred Elsner, general manager of the North Side store. When casket buyers dial the phone number on the brochure, "We will put them in touch with funeral homes that are part of the program," he said.

The brochure says buyers can cut their overall funeral costs by more than 30 percent that way. But Lemke said the funeral home working with Costco might not be the one the family planned to deal with.

"If you are talking about going to a funeral home, 30, 40, 50 miles away, they (customers) might have an entirely different attitude," he said.

While caskets can cost several thousand dollars, some funeral homes do sell them for even less than Costco is charging, he said.

Walkinshaw, who also works as a funeral director in the Boston area, said he has caskets ranging from $350 to about $8,000. He also thinks Costco won't cut into the business of funeral homes.

"Other people have tried (selling caskets) and found out the public is real comfortable buying caskets from funeral directors," he said. "It's kind of one-stop shopping."

Bonnie Busch, vice president in Costco's Midwest division, hopes shoppers will make one more stop. "I hope they don't have any deaths in the family, but if they do, I hope we can help people out," she said.