13 November 2009

Target vs. Walmart

My spousal unit found this conversation, ostensibly held between two women at a bus stop, on a message board to which he belongs. Whether it's apocryphal or not, it says some interesting things about the way our society perceives things, doesn't it?

Woman 1: Yeah, I like Walmart because I don't have to get all dressed up to go there.
Woman 2: Right, it's not like going to Target or something.


This raises a lot of questions. I'm going to gloss over the "why is getting dressed up to go shopping such an unpleasant concept/who really feels the need to get dressed up to shop at a discount retailer anyway?" dichotomy, hold any and all speculation about what getting dressed up might entail for these women (all thoughts of People of Walmart held firmly in abeyance), and get right into what I feel is the meat of it: the perceived difference between Target and Walmart.

As a disclaimer, I should say that I've never shopped at Walmart: there isn't one located conveniently near my home, and I have some ethical issues with the company's business practices. I'll try to set those aside, though, in interest of as fair and valid exploration of the subject as I can muster.

Viewed objectively, the two stores are pretty similar: they're large (both in size and distribution) discount retailers, not really department stores in the original sense of the word, but offering a vast breadth of products, from housewares to clothing to pharmacies and even, in some cases, groceries. Walmart has a bit of a nastier reputation in terms of how it treats employees, suppliers, and communities, but neither one is above reproach on that front.

In terms of fashion, Target has launched successful and well-publicized collaborations with designers both well-established and fledgling, including boldface names like Alexander McQueen and Anna Sui. It's even managed to get shoppers to forget that they're buying clothes manufactured to Target's fast-fashion standards and pay near-stratospheric prices for the store (McQueen's line topped out at $129 - which sounds cheap for a designer item, but is steep for anything at Target). Walmart, on the other hand, has teamed up with designers like Max Azria and Norma Kamali, keeping the price points in line with its other clothing offerings. The items are there, they haven't flopped like previous Walmart ventures into designer-driven fashion, but neither are they as well-publicized as Target's. It doesn't even really feel like Walmart's heart is in promoting its own merchandise in this arena: A search for "Target designer collaboration" turns up hits from Target's site first thing, while similar ones for "Walmart designer collaboration" or "Walmart designer collection" don't even turn up clothing-related links to walmart.com on the first page.

I'm still trying to quantify the huge difference between the two stores - why it's acceptable to go to one store in your jammies and the other requires 'dressing up.' Could that advertising and promotion disparity really be the heart of it?

I'm not going to go delving into the intricacies of marketing theory and design, but I will go this far: just as our clothes are the primary message we present to the world around us, ads and marketing are a retailer's. Just as you don't need to interact with a person to interpret the messages sent by their clothes, you don't need to shop at a retailer to interpret the messages in their ads.

I'm also not going to sit here for hours watching ads for both stores for you, Fabulous Readers, not even in the name of research. I don't own a TV for a reason. I will, however, make some generalized conclusions based on the ads I have seen.

Target emphasizes style first; affordability comes in a close second, but second nonetheless. Their ads have a striking modern sensibility, and they seem to focus on fresh, urban looks. Trendy clothes and home merchandise are prominently featured on its Web site: popular fashion options are easily accessible from the home page, and take up almost as much screen real estate as other shopping categories.

Walmart, on the other hand, sells itself on its low price points, and, as we have seen above, places very little emphasis on the stylishness of its products. Its current slogan is "Save money. Live better." My financial advisor agrees with this advice, but I think he's talking more about mutual funds than cut-price electronics - which, from its home page, appears to be Walmart's primary offering. If you want fashion, have fun finding it - all 'apparel' options are squished into a tiny corner of the page.

So, lacking other evidence, I'm going to guess that's it: the attitude toward the two stores evinced by those two loath-to-get-dressed ladies at the bus stop may, in fact, stem from the attitude of the stores themselves. Where can we get if we extrapolate from that?

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