When Costco president W. Craig Jelinek once complained to Costco co-founder and former CEO Jim Sinegal that their monolithic warehouse business was losing money on their famously cheap $1.50 hot dog and soda package, Sinegal listened, nodded, and then did his best to make his take on the situation perfectly clear.
“If you raise [the price of] the effing hot dog, I will kill you,” Sinegal said. “Figure it out.”
Taking his words to heart, Jelinek—who became Sinegal’s successor in 2012—has never raised the price on Costco’s hot dog. Incredibly, it has sold for the same $1.50 since the retail club first introduced the dogs to customers in 1984. The quarter-pound, all-beef tube and 20-ounce soda combo appears to be inflation-proof and immune to the whims of food distributors. How does Costco do it?
Simple. When it comes to hot dogs, Costco doesn’t price according to what the market will bear. They price according to their own cost and according to the value the hot dogs can afford them.
According to Jelinek, people would pay $1.75, and maybe more, for the deal. But is that extra 25 cents going to be more valuable than the goodwill and foot traffic generated by a combo that’s stuck to its price point for nearly 35 years? Probably not. Customers coming in to shop at Costco are amused, satisfied, and fueled by the hot dog meal. If they get it just before leaving the store, they’re left with a lasting impression of being treated well. That’s worth more than keeping up with inflation.
That means Costco needs to maintain the food court staple with an eye on a steady price. When supply costs threatened to increase in 2009, the company made a major decision: They stopped using Hebrew National, makers of the all-kosher dog that they had used since 1984, and decided to move hot dog production in-house. A Kirkland’s Signature hot dog plant was constructed in Los Angeles. When they needed to ramp up production, they built a second plant in Chicago.
They’ve also had to keep costs on the soft drink side in line. When their deal with Coca-Cola was set to increase the price, Costco opted to sign with Pepsi in 2013, ensuring that their trademark $1.50 price sticker would be kept intact.
Today, Costco sells over 100 million hot dogs annually, which is more than every MLB stadium combined. And they continue to prove surprisingly adept at anything that could add even a single cent to the deal. When California recently enacted a soft drink tax that would have raised the consumer’s cost, Costco locations in the state switched the combo to include Diet Pepsi. (Diet drinks are exempt from the law.) The company’s “effing hot dog” will continue to remain a steal for the foreseeable future.