New look, same old prices

I have seen the future and it is Wal-Mart. I wrote that sentence while living in the U.S., just before Wal-Mart arrived in Canada in 1994. There’s no question that Wal-Mart has altered the face of Canadian retailing. Within two years, Wal-Mart became the biggest retailer in Canada with about one-quarter of the department store market share.

I spent hours watching the inner workings of Wal-Mart at the time, attending internal meetings and interviewing senior people. Wal-Mart succeeded mostly because employees on the floor run the supply chain with handheld devices that can call up inventory levels and have the power to replenish.

My reporting on the arrival of Target isn’t as in depth; all I’ve done is visit the new Target at Cloverdale Mall. That’s all I needed to do. The interior layout is way better than Wal-Mart. Target is well-lit, airy, enjoys wide aisles – and most importantly – has clean white floor tiles and white showcases. By comparison, Wal-Mart outlets – with the exception of the one at Sherway Gardens – don’t always look clean. And you sometimes have to corral a shopping cart in the parking lot on the way in because there’s often none inside.

Target has plenty of carts that are clean, colourful plastic, far better than the wire wrecks at Wal-Mart. And the Target carts are huge, about the size of my first car. Both stores run pretty much even in helpful staff who are readily available for directions when you need them. Checkout was speedy at both places.

What about prices? I bought a variety of items in stationery, household cleaners, bottled water and storage bags. On six of the eight items I bought, the unit price difference between stores was three cents or less. My basket at Target cost $38.62. The same list at Wal-Mart ran $37.95, about 2 percent less, plus I got twenty freezer bags for the price of fifteen at Target.

I liked the Target experience better than Wal-Mart. To be sure, everything is brand-new. But if Canadians thought they were going to see lower prices on everyday items because of the newly arrived competition, it sure didn’t show up in my shopping trip.

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