Thinking Outside the Box

Casket retailers take a new approach to the tradition-bound business of death

The Brentwood casket store is one of at least seven franchises started by Paul and Debra Nelson of Liberty, Mo., who started their business about three years ago. It's not the typical Jiffy Lube franchise, but the idea is the same: A fee secures the use of the company's established name, allows the franchisee to tap in to its supplier system and benefit from concerted marketing. Other Direct Casket Outlets in the franchise include two in Kansas City, three in Detroit and, with the imminent opening of a South County location, two in St. Louis. The franchise holder of the St. Louis stores is David Newcomer IV, 57, a fourth-generation funeral director whose family had, until last year, owned 16 funeral homes and nine cemeteries in the Kansas City area. In a move that has become an industry cliché, the 106-year-old D.W. Newcomer's Sons was bought by funeral giant Stewart Enterprises Inc. of New Orleans. Two brothers, Chip and Pete Newcomer, still run the funeral homes as Stewart executives. Their cousin David, however, branched out into retail caskets.

One helpful thing Direct Casket does is compile and keep current a general price list (GPL) of goods and services for all funeral homes in the area, an effort made possible by the FTC ruling that funeral homes must disclose their prices for every separate item. "For years, people have gone to the funeral homes and just complained about it," says Newcomer, reached by phone in the Kansas City area. "Now we're trying to get the word out: There are alternatives available. And since we don't offer services, we are a neutral party, and we have compiled the GPL of all these funeral homes, some 17 categories, put them on a spreadsheet so you can drop by and actually price-shop the services in the area in a very short time. In effect, it gives the consumer the upper hand, and of course funeral homes don't like that."

The reaction on the part of the funeral industry to what they call "third-party casket sales" has been predictably cool. Direct Casket and another retail outlet, Consumer Casket USA in Creve Coeur, are relatively new enterprises and must be seen as upstarts in a trade that is not known for embracing innovative practices. Moreover, the casket store -- which also sells urns, headstones, wreaths, prayer cards and sundry other funeral stuff -- is in direct competition with the funeral homes for the sale of goods.

Abbey Direct Casket Outlet's Brentwood showroom. According to Lisa Carlson, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, "The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."
Jennifer Silverberg
Abbey Direct Casket Outlet's Brentwood showroom. According to Lisa Carlson, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, "The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."

For the time being, however, the funeral homes remain firmly in control of the market. One study shows the number of families who buy caskets separate from other funeral services is less than 2 percent, and that figure is probably lower in St. Louis. Says Mary Vollmer with Schnur Funeral Home on Lafayette Avenue at Compton Avenue, a family-owned business since 1912: "This is a very conservative business, and most of our client base is with families who've been using our services for years, and none of them would even consider a direct casket."

But that loyalty is gradually ebbing, says Lisa Carlson, director of the Vermont-based Funeral Consumers Alliance and a noted funeral-industry critic. "We are beginning to see, for the very first time, not only competition from casket stores but affordable discount-funeral operations opening up. And that's absolutely new. The boomer generation is an information generation, and, unlike their parents, they are shopping around."

Carlson contends the funeral homes' own practices were their undoing: "Years ago, the way funerals were priced was to put the price on the casket, and that was the price of the funeral. And so, indeed, caskets were marked up 500, 600, 700 percent, because that covered the embalming, the limo and everything else. Then the FTC ruled that all goods and services must be itemized so you could pick and choose what you wanted. And though the industry was forced to itemize, they never dropped their casket prices. They simply started adding service prices, and so when the word began to leak out how much caskets were marked up, that was what created the market for the retail casket stores."

That doesn't stop the funeral directors from carping. Criticisms leveled at third-party casket sellers include charges that the caskets are of inferior quality, that the savings are merely nominal and that the sales staff is unfamiliar with the rules and regulations of the funeral industry.

Sills has heard all this. He says he was asked by a sales rep for a local radio station whether it were "true that your caskets are made in Mexico?" -- as if that were some sort of egregious insult and Mexicans were incapable of producing a decent casket. No, replied Sills, they're made in the good old U.S. of A. Sills says that when he asked the sales rep where he'd heard that rumor, the man admitted that his source was a local funeral director.

On the other hand, Sills and Ryan Wespiser, manager of the soon-to-open South County store, won't say exactly where their line originates or who the manufacturer is. "That's confidential," says Wespiser, 35. "We don't want to make waves here. I will say that they're pretty much the same as caskets you'd see in other places."

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