Sol Price dies at 93; warehouse club pioneer


Sol Price, who changed the retail industry by founding the landmark warehouse chain Price Club, has died. He was 93.

Price died of natural causes Monday at his home in La Jolla, according to a statement released by his family.

“He was an innovator, he was generous, he was philanthropic,” his son Robert said in an interview. “He was a really remarkable man, but he was just ‘Dad’ in our family.”

Price pioneered the discount membership warehouse club concept in 1976 when he and Robert opened the first Price Club in San Diego. His idea was to offer a relatively small selection of goods but to sell in bulk at a discount. To do that, overhead was cut to the bone and merchandise was sold at no-frills warehouses without any paid advertising.

“I don’t want to sound dumb, but my idea was simple,” Price once said. “All I wanted to do was sell for the lowest price possible.”

Price Club soon became a retail phenomenon; by 1992 there were 94 of the warehouse clubs operating in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, generating $7.5 billion in annual revenue. The hugely successful chain led Price to become one of the wealthiest men in California.

But the company later was criticized for not expanding rapidly enough into other states, leaving the field open to a host of competitors including Costco Wholesale Corp. and Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club.

In 1993, Price agreed to merge Price Co. with Costco, forming a $14-billion-a-year company that would become a leader in the cutthroat warehouse retailing market.

Before Price Club, Price founded the FedMart chain of discount food and general merchandise stores in San Diego. He was ousted from FedMart in 1975 after a dispute with the company’s new German owner.

“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever known,” said Costco Chief Executive Jim Sinegal, who first met Price more than four decades ago when Sinegal was 18 and working at a FedMart in San Diego.

“He was probably the most creative guy in retail in the 20th century.”

Born Jan. 23, 1916, in New York City, Price graduated from San Diego High School in 1931 at 15. After earning an undergraduate degree, he received a law degree from USC.

In 1987, Price made headlines when his son Larry sued him for $100 million for “emotional distress.” The lawsuit, which was eventually thrown out, alleged that Price interfered with the raising of Larry’s sons and seized his lucrative tire installation business, connected with the Price Club, when he disobeyed.

Price, with his late wife, Helen, donated to several causes and founded a number of charities.

Starting in 1994, he invested millions to reduce urban blight and crime in City Heights, an inner city San Diego neighborhood.

He also donated $2 million to the construction of UC San Diego’s student center and $1 million to the San Diego Hospice to establish a trust fund for families with terminally ill children.

In addition to his sons, Price is survived by five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2008.

Funeral services will be private.