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With $895 coffins, Walmart undercuts undertakers

The traditional burial is now anything but.

In St. Petersburg, a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson hearse roars to cemeteries. Off Madeira Beach, companies scatter ashes at sea. Across Tampa Bay, undertakers stream funerals online.

Now this: Walmart sells caskets.

Begun alongside the Internet boom, and possibly aided by the economic bust, big-box stores have seized on the business of death. Costco displays coffin samples alongside miniblinds. Sam's Clubs sell floral arrangements. And, in the last few weeks, the world's largest retail company has begun to sell and ship American-made caskets, including a model for the "generously sized."

Corporate representatives say their product lines could mark a transformation in the funeral industry, much like the growth of cremation decades ago, that would present survivors with competitive pricing and greater choice. "It was such an area of abuse in funeral homes," said Costco senior vice president Joel Benoliel. "They have you as a captive when you don't have your best negotiating hat on. Survivors were being severely overcharged."

But local funeral home directors say they provide something chains can't: humanity. The people megastores call "end users" are their friends and neighbors.

"We're there to help you at the worst time of your life, at 2 o'clock in the morning on Christmas Eve," said Robin Williams, of R. Lee Williams & Son Funeral Home & Crematory in St. Petersburg. "The corporates don't have that compassion. It's about the dollar."

• • •

In late October, as part of a limited test to gauge interest, Walmart listed on its Web site more than a dozen caskets. They range from 18-gauge steel priced at $895 to the Sienna Bronze at $2,899. Rick Obadiah, the president of Illinois-based Star Legacy Funeral Network, Walmart's sole supplier, said the steel caskets are built in Tennessee. From there they are sent to warehouses and delivered via FedEx after payment of a $99 shipping fee.

Like the store's line of adult and pet urns, the coffins are sold only online. A funeral aisle would not likely net the store a high profit per square foot, Obadiah said. A Walmart spokeswoman would not say how long the company would carry the coffins.

There's reason to believe Walmart's reputation of thrift and the growth of online shopping could lead to steady profits in the consumer casket market, Obadiah said. Though Costco, which has sold coffins for five years online and at kiosks in select stores, would not release sales numbers, Benoliel said caskets have sold "quite successfully." (Costcos in Clearwater and Brandon do not sell coffins.)

The Federal Trade Commission's funeral rule demands every funeral home allow coffins purchased elsewhere, a "bring your own box" policy that helped birth third-party funeral-good manufacturers. Still, the taboo lives on.

"People saw this as very funny," Benoliel said. There was "a caricature of a Costco customer pushing a large flatbed with their bananas and toilet paper and there's a casket there, pushing it through the checkout stand."

• • •

Local funeral home directors say Walmart's new line is only the latest step in an ongoing funeral-industry evolution. Corporate takeovers of family funeral homes, shrinking ceremony costs and the continued preference toward cheap cremations have led to new methods of marketing caskets.

At Anderson-McQueen Funeral & Cremation Centers in Pinellas County, casket rooms have been replaced with "virtual selection" arrangement suites, where survivors can scroll through coffin cloth, colors and customized hardware on 50-inch flat screens, said co-owner John McQueen.

Those may help compete with third-party sellers if the coffins ever become a threat to business, he said. Only a half-dozen families a year have opted for off-site purchases, including some caskets that were shipped with dents, scratches or the wrong color.

"I don't really know what you're ordering. If the truck backs up, and they tell me this one is for you, that's what we have to go by," McQueen said. "It definitely increases the stress level."

Other's aren't so convinced Walmart's name recognition and price competition will be easy to ignore. "You don't want my opinion on that," said Curtiss Wilson of Wilson Funeral Home in Tampa, on Walmart's sale of caskets. "Of course I don't like that. We do that, too."

But the true measures of casket quality are the intangibles, she said — services lost in the shuffle of big retail but displayed at local funeral homes for families every day.

"The funeral home business is really a service, a service that they can't (give)," Wilson said. "There's far more involved than providing a casket."

Reach Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

With $895 coffins, Walmart undercuts undertakers 11/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 9, 2009 10:43pm]
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