Target, Shopko, K-Mart, Wal-Mart: Who Wins the Discount Store Battle?

I confess – I’m something of a discount store junkie. I love being able to spend an hour putzing around in one store and being able to pick up toothpaste, a new shirt and a video game for my son’s birthday all in one stop. But not all discount stores are created equal.

K-Mart is probably the granddaddy of discount stores; but, sadly, K-Mart has had a really difficult time keeping up with the times. When they first opened, they were definitely seen as the poor cousin of department stores. But they did offer something that no one else offered at the time – an ability to pick up a package of underwear at the same time as you got a new hammer. No food, no brand names, but still it K-Mart gave lower income families an alternative they needed. Management at K-Mart seemed content with that image until the bottom began to fall out. Even then, they seemed unable to get the right mix of marketing, store display, customer service and exclusive products. Without Martha Stewart, they probably would not have survived. Every time I walk into their local store, I’m immediately hit by a desire to get out as quickly as possible. The aisles are crowded, the store layout is poor (even though they’ve tried several things recently to make it better), and it seems like the employees would rather be any where else. Even if it were the closest discount store to my house, I doubt I would go there on a regular basis. But Martha’s stuff draws me in periodically as does their line of Joe Boxer.

Shop-ko, which started on almost equal footing as K-Mart, seems to have gotten a better grasp on how to keep up with changing consumer demands. My local store has remodeled several times in recent years trying to find the best layout to appeal to customers. Right now they have something of a quick-mart of groceries right up front so I still don’t think they’ve got it right. I might pick up a few grocery items while I’m in the store, but that’s unlikely to be the primary reason for me to shop there. They have done a better job recently of making their stores attractive and have brought in some brands that will draw consumers in, such as Squeeze jeans for juniors and replacing their shoe department with Pay-Less shoes.

Wal-Mart, which first knocked out every main street in small-town America, is now becoming a staple in cities as well. Every Wal-Mart now being built is a super store. They have a full grocery store, pharmacy and vision center. They also lease space out to hair salons, fast-food chains, embroidery services and even stuffed animal shops. At Wal-Mart, you will find an enormous garden center in the spring and summer and a full automotive department. For the young girls, the Mary Kate and Ashley line is exclusive to Wal-Mart. If your shopping list is even more diverse than toothpaste and a pair of jeans, Wal-Mart is the place for you. On a recent trip, I was able to pick up a garage sale sign, frozen pizza, and a DVD. Wal-Mart is definitely the cheapest of the discount stores but the aisles are crowded, the store is crowded, checking out is a nightmare and if you can find a parking space within 50 yards of the door, it’s a miracle. The employees seem to suffer from the same disease as the K-Mart employees. And I really have a problem with Wal-Mart’s tactics when dealing with suppliers.

My personal favorite is Target. The stores are bright, there’s plenty of room to maneuver a cart, and the layout in the stores just seems to make more sense than in the other stores. And Target does a great job of marketing; in fact, they do such a great job that they have almost managed to convince consumers that Mossimo is something more than their own brand. The clothes are more likely to be stylish than in the other stores as are their decorative home accessories. The quality of their meat and fresh produce is on a par with the best grocery (far better than Wal-Mart’s), although prices are a little high. My husband swears that if I got a job at Target, come paycheck time, I’d owe them money.

So class, to conclude: K-Mart bad, Wal-Mart only slightly better, Shopko somewhere just above that and Target clearly the winner. Unless you’re needing a garage sale sign…or Martha Stewart towels…or a annuals for your spring garden…or inexpensive, stylish shoes.

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