Once the undisputed discount king, Wal-Mart faces challenges from Target, the Internet and savvier consumers.
Wal-Mart rules on price while Target focuses primarily on style, right? Not quite.
For years, the nation's two top discounters have enjoyed and indeed reinforced popular perceptions of their businesses.
With its imposing Supercenters and "Everyday Low Pricing" mantra, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has long argued it saves consumers the most money through efficiency and its influence with suppliers.
Target Corp., backed by its "Expect More, Pay Less" promise, is the retailer of choice for higher-income shoppers who flock to its stores for exclusive "cheap chic" collections by designers like Missoni and Jason Wu.
But recent data suggest we may need to rethink those assumptions, especially around price and assortment.
London-based Kantar Retail, with a U.S. office in Cambridge, Mass., has been tracking prices on selected national brands in Wal-Mart and Target stores in Massachusetts since 2009. In February, the consulting firm's pricing study showed that Wal-Mart's overall prices were just 2.2 percent cheaper than Target's. A year ago, Target offered prices 2.8 percent less expensive than at Wal-Mart.
"Wal-Mart has done a good job at presenting itself" as the price leader, said Leon Nicholas, Kantar's director of retail insights. "In reality, Target matches quite well. Target just doesn't get as much credit."
Wal-Mart and Target spokespeople both declined to comment. In the past, Target officials have said the retailer does not focus exclusively on price but also value and store experience. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said it would be difficult for the company to comment on such broad topics as pricing and consumer perceptions.
Target generates its sales growth not through fashion and accessories but rather groceries and household goods, products a consumer would normally associate with Wal-Mart. The Minneapolis-based retailer's aggressive push into food and beauty, combined with savvy price strategies and its 5 percent Redcard loyalty program, has helped shrink the price gap with Wal-Mart.
Of course, retailers adjust prices to match local demand, so it may be hard to draw sweeping conclusions from Kantar's limited study. But several studies have shown Wal-Mart's reputation as a price leader has started to erode.
Last year, WSL Strategic Retail released a report that said 86 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers no longer believe the retailer had the lowest prices. A Morgan Stanley survey was only slightly more generous to Wal-Mart: 60 percent of consumers think Wal-Mart no longer beats its competitors.
"Our report suggests that Wal-Mart needs to better address the demands of its shopper today in order to gain relevance," said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail. "The world's largest retailer is certainly not going to disappear; however, it will no longer dominate the U.S. retail landscape as it once did."
Several factors have chipped away at Wal-Mart's pricing prowess. Wal-Mart used to dominate through sheer size and scale. But over the past few years, the industry has grown more fragmented, with several new formats peeling away business from the giant.
For example, dollar chains like Family Dollar and Dollar Tree are thriving, often at the expense of Wal-Mart. The WSL Strategic retail report says that 59 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers also frequented a dollar store in the past three months. Even more worrisome to Wal-Mart, 37 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers say they spend more at a dollar store than a few years ago.
Internet giants like Amazon.com have also challenged Wal-Mart as consumers shift more of their dollars online. Last holiday shopping season, Target.com and Toysrus.com regularly beat Wal-Mart in toys, a key holiday category, according to Bloomberg data.
The proliferation of Internet-powered mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have also empowered consumers, allowing them to instantly compare prices and search for the best deals. Wal-Mart may argue it has the best prices but consumers today can quickly verify that claim.
"Shoppers are too smart," said Carol Spieckerman, president of Newmarketbuilders.com, a retail management strategy firm.
Given the popularity of mobile devices and the proliferation of online deals/coupons, Wal-Mart will need to figure out how far it's willing to guarantee prices, she said.
Some of Wal-Mart's wounds have been self-inflicted. Analysts say Wal-Mart had been too focused on profit margins at the expense of what it does best: driving sales and capturing market share through low pricing. Wal-Mart had also limited its product assortments, a stark contrast to its reputation for selling anything under the sun.
"They thought they were invincible," Nicholas of Kantar Retail said. "They took their eye off the ball."
But Wal-Mart has moved aggressively of late to reclaim its Everyday Low Prices title. The retailer enjoyed a strong holiday shopping season, thanks to its refocus on prices and its layaway program. Wal-Mart also returned to its practice of stocking shelves with the fullest variety of products.
"Our assortment's back," Charles Holley, Wal-Mart executive vice president and chief financial officer, told an investment conference earlier this month. "Our price leadership's back. We're operating more efficiently. Our sales comps are positive, and we feel like we're winning our customer traffic."
The retailer also pledged a "$2 billion price investment" over the next two years, a promise to cut $2 billion in costs and pass the savings onto the consumer with consistently low prices.
"I don't know any other retailer who has done that," Spieckerman said. "I think Wal-Mart is still better positioned to maintain its price leadership. The company still enjoys a positive value proposition" among consumers.
But other experts doubt Wal-Mart can fully turn back the clock to its heyday.
"Wal-Mart is trying to get back to where they came from," Nicholas said. "The question becomes: Is it enough?"
Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113