Why Walmart's Entry Won't Kill Casket Business

Despite Its Low-Cost Rep, Funeral Directors Unfazed by Retailer Selling Coffins

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Walmart put an entirely new spin on its "Save Money. Live Better" mantra by putting caskets and other funeral supplies for sale on Walmart.com last month and essentially allowing its customers to die better, or at least more affordably, too.

Star Legacy plans to eventually have 200 products available on Walmart.com, including pet urns and memorial jewelry.
Star Legacy plans to eventually have 200 products available on Walmart.com, including pet urns and memorial jewelry.
The effort, drawing upon models offered by Star Legacy Funeral Network, began quietly but got loud quickly as it was picked up heavily by blogs and news media.

Walmart executives have been discussing with ever greater frequency using Walmart.com to provide a long tail of products that don't quite fit even into a 200,000-square-foot Supercenter. But even Walmart is downplaying its potential in the funeral business.

In an e-mail, a spokesman for Walmart.com described the funeral-supplies offering as a beta effort to test consumer response, though Star Legacy CEO Rick Obadiah said in published reports that it's not really a test and got better-than-expected results the first week.

In all, Star Legacy plans to eventually have 200 products available on Walmart.com, including pet urns and memorial jewelry.

Not worried
Timing of the news was just about perfect, coming days before Halloween and amid the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association. Attendees there might not have been amused, but they also weren't visibly scared, according to Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the group.

She noted that a host of other retailers have also been selling caskets online for years, including Costco and Amazon. Buying caskets online, she noted, brings the risk of a substandard or damaged product that might not be possible to fix or replace in time for a funeral. Funeral urns are more often purchased by third parties.

Cremation, and lower-cost urns, are rapidly gaining market share, according to Robert Fells, spokesman for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

About 36% of the 2.4 million people who died in the U.S. last year were cremated, and that percentage has been rising about a percentage point annually, he said.

While some of Walmart's offerings may be a discount over those at funeral homes, Mr. Fells noted that comparisons can be difficult. What's more, most homes stopped piling their overhead and service costs into casket prices after Federal Trade Commission rules required them to quote prices to anyone who asked, and to accept third-party caskets.

Unlike books, where Walmart has gone aggressively after an Amazon profit center, it doesn't yet appear to be committed to price leadership in caskets. Its "Dad Remembered" model, at $895, is priced similarly to opening price points at Costco and Amazon. Some online vendors sell pine boxes starting at $200.

For many people who are still advocates of burial, the casket is a status symbol, Mr. Fells said. Buying at Walmart or Costco isn't likely to work for those folks, though it may, he noted, for the "people who may just be saying, 'Let's get rid of Uncle Harry as cheaply as possible.'"

Coffin clicks

Walmart's not the only mass online retailer in the casket business, nor is it even the cheapest, if you count shipping and handling. Ad Age did some comparison shopping. Here's what we found.

Retailer: Walmart.com
Name: Mom Remembered
Description: 18-gauge steel, embroidered roses and the word "Mother" on inside lid
Price: $895, plus $99 shipping

Retailer: Costco.com
Name: The Mother Casket
Description: 18-gauge steel with embroidered mother-themed head panel
Price: $924.99 (shipping and handling included)

Retailer: Amazon.com
Name: 20-gauge steel casket
Description: Name says it all, includes silver jewel-toned accessories and hardware
Price: $895 plus $124.99 shipping (those two additional gauges are heavy)
Note: Customers who bought this also bought the Skil 2346-01 3.6-volt IX02 Screwdriver. We're not sure why.

Retailer: Caskets2U.com
Name: Pewter
Description: 18-gauge steel casket with high-gloss paint
Price: $949 with free shipping
Note: Repeat customers can register their accounts. As with Amazon, you can add this item to your wish list.

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