Walmart last week reported a strong second quarter of growth. But it sure looked unimpressive next to Target’s booming performance, with record sales growth and record earnings-per-share.

Yet it’s not obvious Target is doing a lot better than Walmart. It might just be that Target’s customer is doing a lot better than Walmart’s customer.

And in a pandemic year, it’s worth taking a close look at why that is happening.

Even as people were still staying home in March and April, talk flipped to what kind of economic recovery there would be, with hopes for a quick bounce back that would form a big “V” on a chart. And that sounded great, nearly everybody hopefully soon doing better.

That didn’t happen, and lately there’s a new letter being talked about, the “K-shaped” economic recovery,

So imagine a K on a chart, with one line representing a big chunk of the country still sliding down. That’s the industries that hire a lot of lower-wage workers.

Meanwhile, upper-income people have largely kept their jobs while their assets have either recovered in value or have even appreciated. And Target simply has more of these people as customers.

It has long been understood that these two companies have a different core customer, even with a big overlap in merchandise at similar prices. It’s maybe best explained by their very different histories.

While both got their starts in the early 1960s, Minneapolis-based Target was a successful in-house innovation of a fashionable department store company. Customers should expect to find more than cheap goods at a discount store.

Walmart had grown out of founder Sam Walton’s small-town “five and dime” store in Arkansas. His original mission is still prominent on Walmart’s website: to help people save money so they could live better.

A lot of years have gone by, yet today big differences remain.

The Walmart customer is more likely to be male, white and older than Target’s typical customer, according to a Business Insider analysis this year of five big retailers’ customers, using 2019 data from the firm Kantar Retail. In fact, more than 40% of Target’s customers are from the millennial generation.

At Walmart, the typical customer had household income of about $76,000, which is actually more than the median household in Minnesota. Yet that’s still the lowest customer income of the five major retailers in this study.

Close to 40% of Target’s households have income of at least $100,000, more than even Amazon.com. At Walmart, about 30% have that level of income. And as you would expect, Walmart had a bigger share of its customers at the bottom end of the income ladder.

That matters this year because recessions are typically much harder on lower-income workers, and this year’s deep recession already looks to be even worse. Industries like food service, hospitality, and retail employ a lot of lower-wage workers, and they have all been crushed as the COVID-19 disease spread.

How much recovery there has been since the worst days of April, when much of the country stayed home to slow down the virus, really depends on what kind of work people did, according to researchers with Opportunity Insights, a project of economists at Harvard University and Brown University. This is one of the places that has provided support for this notion of a K-shaped recovery.

To them the pandemic downturn looks all but over for workers who make more than $60,000 a year, as employment rates have almost completely recovered for them since April.

For those earning less than $27,000, employment rates are still down double digits. As of the end of June, about half of those jobs still have not come back from the bottom in April.

There’s reason to be at least a little skeptical that upper-income households have recovered quite as much, as the share of people with college degrees in the workforce in the latest data was still down significantly from February.

Yet considering all that, a different kind of story seems to emerge from what the big retailers just said about their businesses.

But it’s not just luck or position in the marketplace that’s behind Target’s recent performance. Target has made savvy investments that let customers easily buy and receive their stuff in ways that few could have conceived back when Sam Walton was around.

It’s common now for customers to order from Target.com and then wait just a few minutes in the parking lot while a cart of goods gets wheeled out and then loaded into the back of the car.

Target is also a one-stop shop for all sorts of things just when consumers would want to make far fewer trips into stores, and remains a go-to place for essentials, too.

But Walmart is also a one-stop retailer that sells essentials, including through its own slick e-commerce site. And while Walmart’s online business about doubled in the last quarter, Target’s nearly tripled. Walmart managed a more than 9% gain in comparable sales at its U.S. stores, yet Target’s comparable sales gains were closer to 11%.

Both companies have a traditional retailer’s fiscal year, meaning that July was the last month of their second quarters. That’s when their stories seemed to diverge.

Sales growth was slowing to a more normal rate at the end of the quarter, Walmart executives said last week, because by then their customers had largely spent the bonus money they received from the federal government via the CARES Act.

Target’s sales were still booming in July and CEO Brian Cornell went on TV to explain that its shoppers were spending money with it that they would have usually been spent on outings that have been disrupted by the pandemic — taking trips, going to movies or dining out at restaurants.

Executives at both companies were asked by their investors whether the federal government should provide more help. They responded that more should be done for small businesses in particular.

But for Cornell there were no worries, aside from the obvious unknowns about how the year progresses or even how the next few weeks go.

“We continue to see strength across our portfolio,” he said. “We continue to see strength in our stores and our digital channels. We continue to grow market share and see momentum within our business.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302