CHICAGO - Wal-Mart Stores, which has
gained a reputation for leaving opponents limping into bankruptcy
court, is taking on Target Corp in a fight that it just might lose.
the No. 1 retailer, is widening its array of stylish-but-cheap goods in
hopes of winning over middle-income customers, putting it head-to-head
with a rival that has proved it can compete and thrive against a
company six times its size.
"Can Wal-Mart make merchandise
improvements that will drive incremental sales? Absolutely," said
Darrell Rigby, head of the global retail practice at consultants Bain
& Co. "Can Wal-Mart beat Target at Target's game? I doubt it."
secret is to match Wal-Mart's prices on commodity items such as food
and cleaning supplies, and then use sales of trendy-but-affordable
designer merchandise to boost profits.
The strategy seems to be
working. For the first quarter ended on April 30, Target turned in a
strong 6.2 percent sales gain at stores open at least a year. That was
more than double the same-store sales increase for Wal-Mart in the
Wall Street has noticed the discrepancy, rewarding
Target's shares with a higher valuation than Wal-Mart's. Target trades
at nearly 21 times earnings forecasts for the next fiscal year,
compared with a multiple of about 18 for Wal-Mart, according to Reuters
The sales gap isn't lost on Wal-Mart executives. Mike
Duke, head of the company's U.S. discount stores, said visits to Target
stores are the No. 3 use of his time, behind meeting with Wal-Mart
employees and customers.
"I'll be straight up -- they are a great competitor," Duke said in a presentation to analysts this month.
WAL-MART CHEAP CHIC?
Wal-Mart wants to bring in its own "cheap chic" goods, using the
British design team behind its George apparel line to come up with more
A Target spokeswoman said the retailer is confident of its strategy and declined to comment on Wal-Mart's plans.
Some analysts worry that Wal-Mart will stray too far from its low-price roots and alienate its core low-income shoppers.
Kozloff, retail analyst with Sanford Bernstein, said fashion is fickle,
and Wal-Mart could be stuck slashing prices if its "contemporary"
clothing fails to win new customers.
"It's a hit-and-miss
business, with no company ever able to always get it right," she said,
noting Wal-Mart's scant fashion experience.
The retailer has been
relying on staples like groceries to drive sales as rising energy
prices cut into discretionary spending, particularly among low-income
But food is a notoriously low-margin business, and
Wal-Mart's profits have suffered. First-quarter earnings missed the
company's -- and Wall Street's -- expectations.
Wal-Mart was unusually frank in taking the blame for its disappointing results.
of pointing a finger at high energy prices or bad weather, the company
said it put too much emphasis on its lowest-priced items, which it
calls "opening price points," and lost some customers who were willing
to pay more for style.
"When it comes to buying domestics or
apparel, that customer isn't shopping with us," Chief Executive Lee
Scott said. "They are going somewhere else where they believe the
offering is more suited to their taste."
said Wal-Mart prominently displayed impulse items priced at less than
$1 in hopes that cash-strapped customers might be tempted to pick up
one or two. The idea was that with more than 100 million shoppers
visiting stores each week, sales would grow one dollar at a time.
what happened is that the further we went that way, the less relevant
we got to be to the customer who was not really being impacted by these
negative economic issues," Scott said, adding that stores began to look
"junky" because of all the displays of low-priced goods.
isn't the first time Wal-Mart has taken on a strong rival. Two years
ago, its Sam's Club warehouse division was losing ground to Costco
Wholesale Corp., and executives set out an aggressive plan to undercut
the competitor's prices and go after coveted small-business customers.
Costco eventually recovered and remained the No. 1 player in the U.S.
warehouse club sector, Sam's Club sales grew too, suggesting that when
the two giants wrestled, consumers welcomed the lower prices and both
sides gained ground.
Wal-Mart is hoping that will happen again.
says consumers fall into three categories -- loyal Wal-Mart customers,
those who shop there for food but not general merchandise, and those
who don't shop there at all.
"Quite honestly, I believe that Wal-Mart has the opportunity to have all three of those customers," he said.
over fashion-conscious shoppers will be hard. Target has a 10-year head
start and has built strong relationships with well-known designers,
including Michael Graves and Isaac Mizrahi.
Still, Bain's Rigby said Target knows better than to bet against Wal-Mart.
"I'm sure everyone at Target is taking this new threat very seriously," he said.