the Course

From small town retail store to global wholesaler

Costco Japan now has 25 locations across the country.

I’m a Regina, Saskatchewan, native and grew up in a farming community, so I suppose you could say that’s where my love for quality food originates. My mother and father had a general store and gas station when I was young, and I had my first taste of the retail industry when I was about eight years old.

Today, I am still enjoying it.

In my high school years in Saskatoon, my dream was to become a lawyer. But when I started working part time at a supermarket and was promoted to merchandising manager, then store manager, I realized it didn’t make sense for me to go to university for four years, when I was making more money than I would be when coming out of university with student loans to repay.

My retail career truly began in 1975 at a chain in Canada called Dominion stores. After some time advising and directing retail companies, in 1995 I began my journey with Price Club — also known as the pioneer of the warehouse store — where I became a general manager. That was when Costco and Price Club merged to become Costco Wholesale.

In time, I was given a great opportunity and asked if I could open Costco operations in Japan. There was no doubt in my mind and it’s been a great experience. I have been in love with the country since arriving in November 1998.

In 1999, Costco Japan opened its first location in Hisayama, Fukuoka Prefecture. Initially, many thought we would be one of the many foreign companies that wouldn’t last. And there is no denying it was difficult, but it was a great challenge!

We have to continuously adapt to Japanese tastes

In the early days, we did look for partners. We met with some of the large general merchandising stores in Japan, but they wanted us to change the way we did our business — thinking our way wouldn’t work — so we decided to go out on our own. Japan was the first country, other than the United States, in which we opened without a business partner.

Many of the staff who first joined us are still with us. So it’s no surprise that our job turnover is lower than that of any other retailer in Japan.

When we first opened, it was challenging. But we don’t typically go into a country and study it hard for 5–10 years. Instead, we open and figure it out as we go.

Hiring, and creating brand awareness — which we do mostly through word of mouth — were two particularly challenging aspects. Now our membership is huge and we have the highest number of members in the world next to South Korea. But initially, we faced testing times while educating the public on our offerings.

Getting suppliers to sell to us directly — not something they are used to in Japan — was also a challenge. However, the majority of suppliers eventually did so. The industry began to understand as other retailers also started to look for suppliers that would sell directly to them.

And then there’s the Japanese market. We have to continuously adapt to Japanese tastes, not just in terms of the country as a whole, but regionally, too.

We have also seen shopping patterns change here. Many thought that bulk sales in Japan would not work but, after a while, people realized that they only had to shop once a week. Eventually, people began to understand our system: quality and affordable prices combined with bulk quantities.

In 2009, I was appointed country manager of Costco Wholesale Japan.

My ultimate aim? I have to catch up with Canada! They will have more than 100 locations for 36 million people, while here in Japan we now have 127 million people and 25 locations. Even with a declining population, we have lots of room to grow.

I’m enriched in Japan, and it’s home — second to Canada, of course. It’s incredible that Canada is celebrating 150 years. We’re such a young country, and so underrated and undervalued.

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