Chris Roske, Redfin’s director of finance, recently sent me a letter explaining how Redfin should be more like Costco. I think the letter’s pretty good even though I disagree with a few points (Costco does send a ton of direct mail and I think its overhead costs for website development should actually be higher because this will deliver more customer value over time).
I asked Chris if we could publish his letter and he said yes. With his permission, we are removing one sentence about Redfin’s high-end listing business just because it has a lot of inside baseball, and another sentence about Costco’s supplier relationships that is probably sensitive to Costco.
When I asked for a picture of Chris to accompany this post, he said he doesn’t have one of just himself, without the kids. So you’ll have to take my word for it that he’s a very handsome man. Other facts to know about Chris:
- He told me when my first child was born that I should get pictures of him with Santa every year until we are 18. When my second child was born, he made a comment about the child’s name that persuaded us to change it.
- Even though Chris is our top dog in finance, he reviews phone bills, expense reports, invoices for unreasonable charges.
- Chris makes 100 suggestions per month about how Redfin could be better, and just about all of them are right on. He travels around the office with binders of materials that have every known fact about our business since inception, and shuffles through them to make his points. Often, the first premonition that I have said something wrong in a board meeting is the sound of Chris rifling through his binders. Do you know how rare it is to find someone nitty-gritty and strategic at the same time?
In short, we would be lost without Chris! I hope you enjoy hearing what he has to say about Redfin’s strategy.
From: Chris Roske
Sent: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 4:43 PM
To: Glenn Kelman
Subject: FW: Costco note
Glenn, I enjoyed your blog on Costco. I am somewhat passionate about Costco (my wife would not use the word somewhat) and feel in many ways that the more Redfin is like is Costco the greater our ultimate success will be. I think Costco goes beyond the customer experience. I think the key to their success is value and the trust that is developed by putting the customers interests first. I think Redfin shares many of these same traits and certainly is the standout leader in the Real Estate Industry and can be just as successful as Costco. I think the market value of both Redfin and Costco is based on the customers trust that has been earned and potential to earn it in the future. I apologize if this rambles but I love the fact we have a lot in common with Costco and I think we can still learn from them. I also appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and take this with a grain of salt as I have a bias (likely irrational bias) to how Costco operates. You do not have to reply.
My passion for Costco: We own some Costco stock, first buying more than 20 years ago, and are a loyal customer. Because their value proposition is so strong they have insulated their business from the competition by keeping their business simple and their focus on value for the customer, I am confident the business will continue to create great value for shareholders.
Value: The reason I do not sell Costco stock is exactly the same reason I bought it back then. It’s simple. There is simply not a more efficient way to sell goods than their model and other retailers cannot match their ability to provide superior value to their customers.
Costco’s profit is basically its membership fees, as it essentially breaks even on the sale of goods. Thus, competitors who make their profit on the sale of goods always have to charge more in aggregate. Costco also has great purchasing power in that it limits the number of goods in a store. This provides greater leverage with supplier pricing as there is competition to get products into a warehouse.
Redfin perspective: We offer great value with the team approach and agents spending time working with customers, not marketing. This is a core value proposition and it is clearly a huge differentiator. The team approach is more efficient and gives us a huge advantage in the market. Our ability to make our agents much more productive is the same advantage Costco has with its efficient warehouses. Redfin Open Book is another great opportunity to leverage our buying power with service providers to provide a benefit for our customers from both a quality and pricing perspective.
Trust: Costco strives to earn customers’ trust and all actions align with this goal. Costco does not sell anything unless it can offer a better value. It never markups any national brand more than 14% and limits the private label markup to 15%. Customers also can return anything. This provides customers with great confidence in purchasing at Costco. They may find an individual item less expensive somewhere else, but on a cart full of items, you are almost always going to be better off buying at Costco. Costco values customers’ trust so much that it is incredibly resistant to raising prices. If it raised prices just 2.5%, its profits would double and result in short-term increases in the stock price. However, if Costco had done this 20 years ago, I doubt the company would have the market value it has today.
Redfin perspective: Our 100% guarantee and no-commitment stance on working with us is similar to Costco. Our incentive pay does align the agents’ interest with the customer. However, our ability to create trust is much more difficult than Costco’s because it depends on individuals providing a service that is personal in nature. Our employee model gives us a great opportunity to be better than our competition by our ability to standardize best practices and not accept anything less to create this trust. You have recognized that this can be a huge differentiator for us and the emphasis on training will help. However , we need to commit to consistency of quality service across all markets. On the pricing aspect, no business is as disciplined as Costco and long-term Costco has certainly benefited by keeping price increases to a minimum. Costco also benefits from a pricing philosophy that is simple, consistent and transparent and it is important that Redfin remain committed to this.
Marketing: Advertising does not provide any benefit to the customer so Costco does not do it. It is a cost that needs to be passed onto the customer. Costco’s marketing is usually limited to contacting employers to encourage employees to sign up for Costco memberships.
Redfin Perspective: This is a hard one because we originally adopted this stance but competition has forced us to use marketing and it makes sense for us. The event marketing is incredibly consistent with Costco because it does provide a benefit for our customers. I understand we need to let marketing do what marketing does but it is a different philosophy than Costco’s and can even reduce the customer or potential customer’s trust if this is abused.
High-end Customer: I think it has been very key to Costco’s success that it was accepted by the high-end customer first. Costco got lucky in that they originally appealed to small business owners and once it was acceptable for them to shop for values in warehouse, it was acceptable for everybody and even became trendy.
Redfin Perspective: We have made some inroads but in my opinion, Redfin could learn from what I think has been a key part of Costco’s success. I know Redfin wants a standard level of service that is high for all customers, but let’s make it higher for higher-end buyers. A home-run customer experience gets shared and the power of our brand grows. If it can be cool amongst high-end buyers to use Redfin, we will find it easier for moderate-priced buyers to follow suit. It is much harder to go from the low-end market to the high-end. As you know, the Japanese auto companies created different brands because this is such a challenge and Windermere’s local significant market share can at least partially be attributed to the fact they started off serving expensive neighborhoods.
Expansion: Costco has always had a conservative approach to physical expansion. It typically owns rather than leases, looks at demographics and has a bias toward lower-risk infill over new markets. It also only goes into markets where the cost of building a warehouse is low enough to support its business model. It also often goes in to new markets with more than one warehouse or at least plans for more than one, to leverage its marketing efforts. Finally, when Costco goes into a market, it engages in pre-marketing with free memberships. It has also had success introducing ancillary businesses like travel, pharmacies and gas that encourage more visits and are consistent with its value proposition
Redfin Perspective: Redfin has followed Costco’s strategy of selecting markets and done a good job in going after more desirable markets first. The new strategy of ramping up our PR and Marketing campaigns as we enter new markets in order to make a bigger splash is consistent with what Costco has done. Redfin’s consistent value approach into ancillary businesses is similar to Costco’s.
Perspective on Overhead: Costco focuses on keeping costs to a minimum. It has modest headquarters, low marketing and basically tries to minimize costs that do not directly benefit the customer.
Redfin Perspective: Redfin does a good job on this because you think it is important, however it is becoming more difficult as we grow. I am conservative and am concerned as overhead costs increase more than transaction growth. I believe Costco would argue that despite its size ($89B), the business is pretty simple and does not require huge overhead to manage.
Perspective on Customers, Employees and Investors: Costco values its customers first, followed by employees. Its strives to deliver stockholders a attractive but not fantastic return. Everything flows from the customer value proposition. It takes care of its employees with higher pay and benefits, but expects more out of them than other employers. This higher pay makes it a desirable place to work. Further, there is a culture of hard work that permeates the organization and it rewards that hard work. Also, the lack of turnover is a huge competitive advantage in an industry that has high turnover. Finally, the goal for stockholders is a strong, consistent annual return which Costco achieves by growing profitability and revenue. Given the loyalty of Costco’s customers, I am confident they will continue to deliver a strong return.
Redfin Perspective: Redfin leads the industry in watching out for our customers. Our customers recognize that. I do get concerned when we spend time and resources on initiatives that don’t deliver value to our customers. As far as employees, like Costco, Redfin does a great job of providing benefits to a class of employees who normally don’t get them, of promoting from within and you clearly have the employees’ best interests at heart. The stockholder comparison is irrelevant because of our maturity, investors… but I think the fact the value of the company is based on customers trust that has been earned and potential to earn it in the future is a common trait between Costco and Redfin.