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Opinion: Costco’s quiet; but are there signs pointing to Springfield?

Eyes & Ears

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For all you fans of Costco Wholesale Corp. (Nasdaq: COST), get this: The retailer opened a store this summer in Evansville, Indiana.

Evansville, for crying out loud. Why does a Costco store in Evansville matter?

It is the home of a university in the Missouri Valley Conference. It has a regional economic draw. It has a population of about 120,000.

Sound a lot like Springfield? And we know Springfieldians have wanted a Costco for years.

The record shows on Facebook that as far back as 2016 people have been asking the Issaquah, Washington-based company about opening one of its members-only warehouse stores in Springfield. A post on Costco’s Facebook page from a Hindsville, Arkansas, resident on March 9, 2016, has 54 comments mostly echoing the consumer demand. The original post asks, “Why is Costco NOT in Springfield, MO?” In the thread that follows, Costco representatives have interjected versions of a boilerplate response. The most recent was four weeks ago: “Jenny - Thanks for the invitation to Springfield. We field many requests for new locations and would like to thank you for your time and interest. We’ll make sure your post gets reviewed. -Amber”

So, a university town smaller than Springfield and without a metropolitan area within a two-hour drive has a Costco. The company operates six other stores in Indiana: Fort Wayne, Merrillville, Granger and three in Indianapolis. In Missouri, Costco’s stores are clustered around St. Louis, three of them, and Kansas City, five stores, counting the Kansas side.

I went to the company for comment. The media are directed to a form page to file their inquiries. I typed mine: “Rumors have circulated for years, company officials reportedly have researched site(s) in town and I’ve seen the company has opened in smaller markets than Springfield, MO (i.e. Evansville, Indiana) – so what’s the latest? I’m writing an Opinion column on the potential, the consumer demand and the realities. I’d like to interview CEO Craig Jelinek or another high ranking officer for input.”

Upon hitting the submit button, I get this immediate response: “Costco cannot comment on new locations unless they are opening soon.” OK, that’s a bust.

One of Costco’s rumored points of interest is near the new Menards store in northeast Springfield. Roughly 50 acres of land sit vacant and available at the southeast corner of Chestnut Expressway and U.S. Highway 65. . I tracked down a phone number for Gary Burks, whose Burks Development Corp. owns the acreage, and I left him a message.

Gary Follman called me back. He’s the real estate broker for the land. I asked if he’d been contacted by Costco representatives with interest.

“I’m not in a position to confirm or deny any rumors about the property at this point,” Follman responded.

Back on the Costco website, I find a link for “information on upcoming locations.” Only two are listed: East Lyme, Connecticut, and Eagan, Minnesota. Both are slated to open in November.

Want to know the population in East Lyme? Maybe 20,000. The Atlantic coastal town is uniquely situated north of the tip of Long Island, about 50 miles from the state capital, Hartford.

In a company report on recent openings, there’s also Rockford, Illinois (population roughly 150,000); Bradenton, Florida (57,000); Mooresville, North Carolina (38,000); and Oklahoma City (645,000). Costco opened 10 new stores during the last quarter.

By population numbers alone, Springfield and its 167,000 residents have a good case. But retailers have other factors, including household income, unemployment rates and workforce wages. Oh, and competition.

That brings us to Sam’s Club. The warehouse store component of Walmart Inc. (NYSE: WMT) has been speculated as the reason why Costco has avoided southwest Missouri.

Let’s look at Walmart’s home state of Arkansas. It might be true. There is not a single Costco doing business in the state. The closest are in Memphis, Tennessee, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Within Springfield city limits, there are two Sam’s Club stores, five Supercenters and six Neighborhood Markets. The legacy of Sam Walton has saturated the market. Comparing store counts across the United States and Puerto Rico, there are about 600 Sam’s Club and nearly 550 Costco stores.

There is a Sam’s Club in Evansville. Costco opened only a mile away.

Maybe it’s a sign.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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