Is there anyone in Minnesota without strong opinions about Target? In 2009 I received more e-mails about Target's policies than any other topic. That's mostly my own doing, because I wrote several times about Target's new policies on returns and competitors' price matches.
But I received so many complaints -- from "Quit asking if I need help finding something" to "Why can't I find gloves in February?" -- that I began to feel sorry for the big-box retailer. Minnesotans seem to have such high expectations that disappointment seems inevitable. Shoppers, at least in Minnesota, take Target's slogan "Expect more" very seriously, said David Brennan of the Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas. The company has positioned itself as "upscale" in discount merchandising, ethical behavior and community orientation, he said.
Maybe that explains the nearly one dozen readers who complained about price disparities among Target stores in the metro. Michael Hunegs of Golden Valley thinks he might be paying 10 percent more for non-sale items at Target in St. Louis Park than in Plymouth. Michele Debrey of Edina found that Taster's Choice Decaf was $6.42 at Target in Bloomington and $7.42 in St. Louis Park. It's made worse by the fact that Target will match certain competitors' prices but will not match its own. In other words, Target will not reduce the price of Taster's Choice in St. Louis Park to $6.42 if asked.
I told Debrey and Hunegs that I think their belief that prices should be uniform at all Twin Cities' Targets is out of line. Why aren't they going to Super America with a Twin CitiesGasPrices.com printout and asking SA to match the lowest price? Do they think prices at Wal-Mart are consistent across the board? (They're not, and Wal-Mart won't do price adjustments from its own stores or website, either.)
Maybe it's because I'm not a native Minnesotan who participated in the birth of Target from the Dayton's womb, but I don't expect Target to be exempt from the simple laws of retail competition. If a Wal-Mart opens near a Target, you can bet that prices will be more competitive at both stores than in locations without a nearby competitor. "To be price-competitive with Wal-Mart, Target will adjust prices," said spokeswoman Sonja Pothen. Retailers are always competitive within their own trade areas. The closest Wal-Mart for St. Louis Park shoppers is nearly 8 miles away in Bloomington, which explains why some of Target's prices in St. Louis Park are higher.
When I checked out Save-a-lot in Litchfield, Minn., several locals said that Wal-Mart's prices in Litchfield weren't nearly as competitive as they are in the Twin Cities. As Wal-Mart adjusts prices, so goes Target. It is not an island or a non-profit.
All of this kvetching made me wonder if business reporters in Arkansas, Wal-Mart's home base, also get deluged with complaints. Steve Painter, retail reporter at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in Little Rock, said he gets a few comments a year from disgruntled Wal-Mart customers. Lana F. Flowers, retail reporter at Northwest Arkansas regional and online newspapers, said she gets about two inquiries a month about Wal-Mart, mostly from Wal-Mart employees lamenting a change in benefits or suppliers concerned about a brand change. Neither received complaints about variable prices at competing Wal-Marts.
I'd suggest that the reason people complain so much about Target is because they care. And maybe the lack of complaints about Wal-Mart in its own back yard is because the bar is set a lot lower down there.