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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 23:45 GMT
Low-cost coffins hit Costco
By Janet Ball
in New York

Coffin stand inside Costco store
Fancy shopping till you drop?
Modern supermarkets like to boast that they can provide for our every need from the cradle to the grave.

At Costco, one of the largest US discount chains, they are now as good as their word.

The superstore operator has entered the funeral business, offering cut-price coffins and up to 30% off funeral services at two of its Chicago stores.

The discount steel caskets are lined with crepe fabric, come in a choice of six colours including lilac, blue and gold, and cost $799 (430) each.

Dying can be an expensive business and store manager Fred Elsner estimates that the same coffins would cost $2,000-3,000 elsewhere:

Add to that undertakers fees, flowers and a gravestone, and a standard funeral could cost you - or your family - around $6,500, according to the US National Funeral Directors Association.

Bad taste?

By the time you get to the funeral home you don't really care. You just want to get it over with
Costco shopper

Customers in the Costco store have mixed opinions about whether this was one area where they would want to pick up a bargain.

One elderly woman shakes her head in disgust as she looks at the "Universal Casket" stand.

"I think it's in the worst possible taste," she says. "You wouldn't put diamond rings in a grocery store and you don't put these in a Costco store."

Most other customers are just curious and mildly amused at the idea.

A mother with her daughter laughs and says she will buy one.

Two men discuss the coffins at length and decide it is good for "poor people", but that they would not bother looking for a bargain if they had a death in the family.

Costco store manager Fred
Manager Fred Elsner, the friendly face of shopping for a coffin
"By the time you get to the funeral home you don't really care. You just want to get it over with," they say.

Costco says one of the reasons they moving into the business of death is that they want to challenge the view that a person buys everything from a funeral home.

Despite a Federal Trade Commission ruling in 1994 that banned funeral directors from charging a fee if people bring their own coffins, the only real competition in the industry has come from specialist and online providers.

Costco say they want to show consumers that there are other options.

"We're proud of the programme because we're always on the look out for items where we can offer tremendous value - that's our philosophy," says Costco's Mr Elsner. "And that's certainly true in this case. We feel that we're offering excellent value and a tremendous service."

Family business

John Haben has been in the funeral business for more than 25 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He runs a funeral home not far from one of Costco's stores and says his customers have priorities other than cost.

Costco superstore
Will buyers prefer lower costs or the more personal touch?
"We can give them the assurance that everything can be taken care of," Mr Haben explains, adding that he thinks people will continue to turn to professionals like him, even if big stores undercut his prices.

"I think if they have a funeral director who also offers a similar product at a fair price, they're comfortable with that as well."

This view is echoed by George Clarke, the executive director of the Association of Selected Independent Funeral Homes.

"I certainly don't think Costco can provide the range of services that the independent funeral homes do," he says.

"When you look at the range of products Costco offers it's certainly extensive, and I think they see coffins as yet another item they can make a profit from."

The American consumer is one of the most demanding in the world, and it will be interesting to see whether death is the one area where some things are still more sacred than the dollar.

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