Membership monopoly

Williston lacks wholesale club, Costco remains area’s lone option

Nov. 23, 2011

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Costco Wholesale Corp.’s Colchester location (above) is the only wholesale membership club in the greater Burlington area, despite the fact that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — which has a store in Williston — is the parent company of Sam’s Club. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

In the past three decades, Williston has grown from a rural blip on the state map to a leading retail center, and a hub for Vermont businesses and national chain stores alike.

With a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, three supermarkets and scores of other box stores within the town limits, the holiday shopper has plenty of gift options.

Yet there’s a conspicuous absence among Williston’s plethora of shopping venues: a wholesale membership club, such as Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s Wholesale Club.

“We have not heard of any of the so-called wholesale clubs looking at Williston as a venue,” said Ken Horseman, an economic development specialist with the Vermont Department of Economic Development. “And it would be of interest because Costco – and I’m a Costco member myself personally – is doing very well up there (in Colchester).”

The Colchester location of Costco Wholesale Corp., situated on Lower Mountain View Drive, just off exit 16 of Interstate 89, is the lone wholesale club in the region. As the only game in that or any other town, it forces many residents from other areas of Chittenden County to drive long distances to do their bulk shopping — thus diluting their savings through fuel costs.

Peter Meadow, a Williston resident and a Costco member, said he would join a Williston wholesale club should one open in town.

“Yeah, I would (join a wholesale club in Williston),” Meadow said. “It would be a lot easier. It’s kind of inconvenient to drive all the way up to Colchester.”

The fact that Williston doesn’t have a Sam’s Club is not unusual in itself, but the presence of Wal-Mart — which owns Sam’s Club as a national subsidiary brand and typically builds one adjacent to the other — makes its absence noteworthy.

Sam’s Club spokeswoman Christi Davis Gallagher said there are many factors her company considers when selecting a new location, but declined to comment on what factors have prevented Sam’s from coming to the area.

“We are always looking for new opportunities to serve our Members, but we haven’t made any announcements about a new Sam’s Club in your area,” she wrote in a brief e-mail to the Observer.

By contrast, the Wal-Mart across Lake Champlain, in Plattsburgh, N.Y., has a Sam’s Club immediately adjacent to it.

Jeannie Van Nostrand, a Saranac, N.Y. resident who works in Plattsburgh, said that she shops more often at Wal-Mart but that she visits Sam’s Club “maybe once a month” for bulk discounts on paper products and laundry detergent.

“Sam’s Club has better prices on bulk items, which I do buy,” said Van Nostrand. “The other thing that Sam’s does for businesses in town … they have a thing (Click ‘n’ Pull) where businesses can order ahead and they’ll have a cart waiting for them.”

Rob Leuchs, a resident of Burlington’s Old North End, said his wife stopped shopping at the Costco in Colchester because of crowds and traffic congestion.

“A year or so ago my wife had a Costco membership, but she’d only go at 10:00 in the morning because the place was packed,” Leuchs said.

Horseman commented that the state would likely support an additional wholesale club in the region to provide competition for Costco.

“I would love to see another wholesale club that provides some good competition for Costco, and I think that it would provide some options for people,” Horseman said. “Colchester is probably quite a drive for some folks — particularly from the south — so having another option would be terrific as far as we’re concerned.”

He added: “Competition is a good thing, and I think that the local merchants benefit. They benefit from the increased traffic and they benefit when they’re able to differentiate themselves and carve out their own unique niche. It’s a win-win.”