Walmart Maybe Can’t Sell Caskets in Georgia, Maybe Other States

November 30, 2009
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image At the Atlanta Casket Store on Glenwood Road, owner Wyatt Washington surveys the shifting landscape of the funeral industry since Walmart got into the online casket and funeral urn business.

He?s dressed in a funeral director’s black-and-white pinstripe suit, sitting in the parlor of his modest store. He nods over his right shoulder at two back rooms where eight gleaming caskets sit on display for drop-in customers.

?Walmart can only sell the caskets they have online,? said Washington. ?They can?t customize them like I can. With them, it?s what you see is what you get. In this personal business where one size doesn?t fit all, that?s a big deal.?

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Or is it? Will customers forsake the high touch transaction of buying a casket or urn for a dearly departed one from a store or funeral home if they can buy the same box or vessel online for half as much, or less, from the discount giant?

And, if Walmart does indeed shake the foundations of the funeral industry with its decision to sell discount caskets and urns, that may not wind up mattering to Georgians. A state law could prevent the retailer from selling or delivering discount funeral merchandise here.

On Tuesday the Georgia Secretary of State’s office sent a letter to Walmart telling the company it is required to be registered with the state to sell funeral merchandise and as of now, it may be in violation of state law if a Georgia consumer buys a casket online from its Website.

“We’ve asked that the application to be registered with the state be received from Walmart no later than December 31st,” said Secretary of State director of media relations Matt Carrothers, who added that if the retailer can provide reason it doesn’t need to be registered, that could resolve the matter, too.

Walmart isn?t talking in detail about its venture, which it launched last month without fanfare by simply posting caskets for sale on its Website, walmart.com.

Walmart did not answer questions from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Tuesday seeking to clarify whether the company has a registered agent and is selling caskets and urns in Georgia.

At least one other online casket retailer, Costco, which has been selling caskets online and in some of its stores for five years, said it does not sell or ship caskets to Georgia because of state regulations.

?There?s a regulatory situation that makes it unattractive to us,? company counsel Leigh Fulwood said, declining to elaborate.

Georgia?s funeral industry has long fought free market sale of caskets and urns and for good reason. Casket sales drove profits for funeral homes, which typically marked them up 200 percent to 400 percent, according to the national organization Funeral Consumers Alliance.

In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission passed a law requiring funeral homes to accept caskets from third party suppliers, opening to competition the funeral home and merchandise business, worth an estimated annual $11 billion nationwide.

But in Georgia, it wasn?t until 1998, when a federal judge threw out a 1991 state law, that casket stores such as Washington?s became legal and the bereaved were no longer captives of the funeral home industry.

In the years since, few casket stores have survived across the state. Funeral homes, forced into competitive pricing, cut or matched casket prices (often making up the difference by charging more for services) and used other tactics to thwart competition, said Washington, who opened his store eleven years ago.

?The first thing they did was scare people,? said Washington. ?You heard a lot of stories that if you bought a casket from a store, the bottom was going to fall out or the handles fall off. In all my years in the business, I’ve never heard of a case of that actually happening.”

Washington said when the judge’s ruling opened up the market, it lured in many operators who didn’t know the business.

“They figured they?d jump in quick and get rich” Washington said. “It didn?t work out that way.?

In the last 11 years, about 15 casket stores have come and gone in the state, he estimates. Atlanta has at least one other, Best Buy Casket Company, on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A company official declined to be interviewed for this story.

Washington said he will meet or better Walmart?s prices — they range from $999 to $3,199 — in addition to providing personal service. He also has the ability to deliver a casket in a matter of hours, not days.

Walmart is calling the venture a ?limited beta test to understand consumer response,? said company spokesperson Amy Lester.

Funeral home owner and director Ralph Buckner Jr. doesn?t underestimate the clout of the big box retailer if it sets its mind to selling caskets on the same grand scale it sells everything else.

Buckner owns 31 funeral homes in the South, including two in Gainesville, Ga., and he?s been watching the test closely. He said he has yet to lose a customer to Walmart, though it is early.

?They?re smart,? Buckner said. ?They?re seeing if they can shake things up without having to put any money into it or using the valuable floor space in their stores or taking a real risk.?

He said if the consumer response is what Walmart hopes, ?I don?t doubt they?ll start selling them in stores.?

Either way, says casket store owner Washington, it will be good for his business.

?Right now I spend 75 percent of my time, my advertising, explaining to people they don?t have to buy a casket from a funeral home,? he said. ?With Walmart getting in, everybody knows that now.?

Source: AJC.com

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