Earlier this week, Walmart (WMT) took its first steps into the funeral business. On its website, the retailer now offers 15 caskets and over 130 urns and cremains containers. Priced between $895 and $2,899, the caskets are distributed through the Star Legacy Funeral Network, can be delivered within 48 hours, and are designed to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. For example, the pinstriped "Executive Privilege" model is perfect for buttoned-down businessmen, while the metallic lavender "Lovely in All Ways" vessel offers a more feminine style.
For the traditional funeral industry, this could be a devastating development. Although they have long been the main retailers of burial vessels, funeral homes are legally required to accept caskets from third parties. With Walmart selling caskets and urns at bargain prices, bereaved families may be tempted to trim funeral costs by ordering from the retailer.
Although Walmart is in a class by itself, it isn't the first discount retailer to try its hand at selling caskets. Costco entered the market in 2004 and currently offers seven caskets and several urns on its website. Meanwhile, numerous lesser-known retailers sell burial vessels on the internet.
Some funeral professionals have questioned the move. Dick Coffin, co-author of Ahead of Your Time: A Complete Guide to End-of-Life Planning, pointed out that funerals are highly personal. "You don't do that with Walmart," he said. "People aren't going to get the personalization that they get with a funeral home director."
Walmart's decision to carry funeral vessels also doesn't account for the fact that few people plan ahead for their funerals. Coffin also questions whether the retailer will make a profit with its new line. "The percentage of people who prepare for death is tiny," he said. "If it's one-third of 1 percent, I'd be surprised." This lack of preparation means that the target market for Walmart's caskets would largely consist of bereaved survivors, who may be too upset to bargain shop.
Another issue lies in the composition of Walmart's burial vessels: While some of their urns are made of organic materials, their caskets are all made of either 18-gauge steel or bronze. While sturdy and impressive, metal burial vessels tend to be much more expensive than wooden ones. Also, they don't easily decompose, which means that they are unacceptable for Jewish families or other people who want more natural options. Said Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company: "Just like organic produce, natural burial isn't a specialty industry. Walmart is missing the boat. Adding steel coffins when they are going down in popularity shows that some marketers didn't do their homework."
These critiques aside, it seems like Walmart's strategy is bearing fruit, at least in the short term. Of the company's fifteen casket models, all but four are currently sold out online. While some of this is likely due to the fact that Halloween was this weekend, it is also possible that the easy availability of lower-priced caskets is inspiring some families to save a little money on their final goodbyes. After the buzz dies down, however, it will be interesting to see if Walmart's bold new strategy is a feather in its cap ... or a nail in its coffin.
Take the first steps to building your portfolio.View Course »