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Costco's Heather Shavey to be honored at Women in Produce reception

by Tim Linden | April 21, 2009
Like many in the retail business, Heather Shavey's career at Costco grew from loyalty and opportunity rather than a predetermined plan.

Born in Portland, OR, she spent part of her youth in different climates as job opportunities moved the family from the Northwest to California to Minnesota to Florida. But by high school, her family had resettled in the Seattle area, and Ms. Shavey was ensconced in high school life when she applied for a job at a local Costco in 1984, only one year after the clubstore chain was founded. "I worked in the seventh Costco that was opened," she said. "I was looking for gas money and money to buy clothes."

It was a good-paying job -- better than others in the area -- as the young high school student was paid double minimum wage -- enough to keep her interested in retailing as she moved through high school and into college.

"I put myself through college, and I did it by working at Costco," she said. At the University of Washington, which is located in Seattle, Ms. Shavey majored in political science and studied communications as she considered going to law school. But she was also working full time and moving up the Costco ladder.

"I started bagging groceries and working as a cashier, and by the time I was graduating from college, I was working in the marketing department," Ms. Shavey said. "At the time, I noticed that a number of people started in the warehouse [retail outlet] and moved into the buying office. I saw that as a possibility."

It was 1990, and Ms. Shavey had a lot on her plate. That summer, she graduated from the university, married her fiance, Greg, and moved into the buying office at Costco.

She started as an inventory-control specialist in the media department, which included books, movies and other entertainment products. She moved up the ranks and eventually became a buyer in that department, investing 10 years in the media world of Costco.

"It was a very glamorous job," she said. "I went down to Hollywood quite a bit, interacting with people in the music and movie business. I got to see movies before they were released."

But she said that the entertainment department was relatively small within Costco, and it did not appear as if her immediate supervisors were going to be going anywhere soon. Ms. Shavey revealed that as a young company, Costco still has all of the same top executives in place that started the company just 26 years ago.

"I was in the position of needing someone to die or retire before I could advance," she said. "A senior executive told me that's not a good position to be in ... and before I knew it, he had transferred me to another department." Ms. Shavey moved into the electronics department as a buyer before transferring to fresh produce, where she has been for the last half-dozen years. She came into the produce department as assistant general merchandise manager for fresh foods and produce, which is the position she currently holds.

Speaking of the honor being bestowed on her during the United Fresh Produce Association convention, Ms. Shavey said, "I'm honored to have been chosen. I am grateful and look forward to representing the women in the produce industry - those pioneers that came before me, the women in the industry now and those that have yet to come."

Ms. Shavey said that the produce industry has been a good place to work, and although it is male-oriented, she has been treated fairly in most situations. "Occasionally you run across an old-style person who tends to talk to the men in the room even though I am their boss, but that doesn't happen too often."

She said that the electronics business was very old-school and totally dominated by men with no women in senior positions, which was the polar opposite of the entertainment business, which had a number of women as senior-level executives, including running several studios. The produce industry falls somewhere in between, but closer to electronics.

"There are many women [in produce], but not too many that own companies. I was noticing the top 25 firms that recently came out, and only three of them are run by women. But that's better than one or two," she quipped.

She said that Costco has been a great place to work and has treated her fairly as a woman. "For the longest time, we only had one woman at that senior- executive level; now we have two. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had, but I do think it is more difficult for a woman to come up through the ranks."

As far as the retail operation is concerned, she said that Costco is faring well during this economic downturn. Of course the company survives and thrives on its value propositions, which is what consumers are looking for these days. She characterized the produce offerings as "large quantities, limited selection," adding, "We give our customers top-quality products, and we do the best we can to give them an exceptional value."

Typically that means buying 10 pounds of potatoes or five pounds of packaged salad. Ms. Shavey said that Costco does look for unique items, but its core business is offering great value in the basic products. With the economy being the way it is and a back-to-basics movement well documented, she said, that is a very good space to occupy currently. In fact, it is a space being invaded by many retail competitors that did not typically offer that type of product.

"I do think imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Ms. Shavey said. "But at the same time, I do shop at the produce departments of my competitors, and when they start to offer what we are offering on a regular basis, I tell my buyers to look for something unique that we can carry."

But unique still means large sizes and good value. "That's good for us and good for the produce industry. When you are selling larger sizes, you are selling more produce and less packaging," she said.

With stores typically eclipsing 100,000 square feet, Costco would seemingly offer increased space for fresh produce. But Ms. Shavey said that it is "always a constant battle for space at retail." She does get expected space at the busiest time of year, but she has to fight for it like every other department. Costco is well known for its food samplings, and Ms. Shavey revealed that each department must pay for those demo spots or have a supplier pick up the cost. "Sometimes we will pay for a demo to highlight a product or sometimes we have a supplier that wants to showcase a new product. "

She said that it is a great way to introduce a product to the Costco customer. Ms. Shavey still calls the Seattle area home, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters: Gabrielle, 14, and Giselle, 12.