Target Corp. execs sure talked about the environment a lot on last week’s quarterly earnings call.
They explained that Target has been operating in a “promotional” environment, an “increasingly competitive” environment and a “challenging” environment. So it’s no wonder the company reported a decline in comparable-store sales as customer traffic slid 2.2 percent.
There’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that it’s not a great time to be a retailer, as the Commerce Department said July sales for general merchandise retailers, department stores and electronics chains all declined.
On the other hand, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives talked about the “environment” just once when discussing their latest U.S. results, only talking then about making the shopping environment better when customers visit a store. And in sharp contrast with Target, Wal-Mart’s customer traffic and same-store sales for the most recent quarter increased.
As for Target’s other bitter rival, Amazon.com, its executives didn’t talk much with investors about the environment, either. It’s also worth noting that in the segment that competes most directly with Target, sales of electronics and other general merchandise in North America, Amazon’s sales growth has still been accelerating.
Citing the environment after disappointing investors sounds like classic corporate excuse-making, yet Target’s executives used similar language when discussing quarterly results in May, when sales results were better. And last week CEO Brian Cornell assured an analyst that Target wasn’t making any excuses.
Maybe all we have here is a reminder that Target is in a brutal multi-front war every day with competitors just as big and capable as Target is, a list of competitors that includes a suddenly resurgent Wal-Mart.
The heady days of rapid growth for Wal-Mart are in the distant past, yet any company that big has to be feared. We in Minnesota think of Target as a very big company, but it is still dwarfed by Wal-Mart, which just reported quarterly revenue of nearly $121 billion.
Wal-Mart got that big with a relentless focus on becoming more efficient, both in its own facilities and as well as the operations of its suppliers. As it grew, it widened its lead in efficiency, making it easier to offer consumers the cheapest prices.
Other retailing companies, and this is no exaggeration, once tried to negotiate clauses in their store leases that enabled them to quickly shut down and leave town if a Wal-Mart store ever opened nearby. As Wal-Mart came out of the last recession, however, analysts were writing about severe structural problems that wouldn’t be easy to solve.
Wal-Mart was big and efficient, but it didn’t really know how to create any sort of personalized shopping experience. As consumers increasingly wanted fresh and local products in grocery, Wal-Mart wasn’t very good at providing that, either. It also needed to get better at selling things over the internet to blunt the competitive threat from a surging Amazon.com.
And what really raised questions about the future of Wal-Mart was that shopping there wasn’t consistently cheaper for the consumer anymore.
Wal-Mart hired a new boss just before Cornell took over at Target two years ago, and he’s been working hard to improve the fortunes of his company, too.
He made the decision to raise Wal-Mart’s infamously low wages for store workers, in part to reduce turnover and to motivate employees to take better care of the Wal-Mart customer. Wal-Mart took other steps to improve the experience of shopping in its stores, like faster checkouts. And more recently, Wal-Mart has decided to embark on what it calls a “multiyear strategy of incremental price investment.”
That’s retailer speak for cutting prices. Wal-Mart wants to give its customers the cheapest prices again.
In a series of research notes over the last few months, the analyst Scott Mushkin of Wolfe Research estimated that if Wal-Mart were serious about recreating the same price advantage over its rivals that it had in the past, it would cost $5 billion in annual operating income. It’s not clear Wal-Mart has any such ambition, but the impact of lower prices on some products has already shown up in the market.
Earlier this summer, in a research note he published under the headline “The Empire Strikes Back,” Mushkin explained what he found when he put together a basket of 15 of the same popular electronics products from the four major league retailers, including Target and Best Buy. Wal-Mart turned out to have the cheapest basket. While he hesitated to put too much stock in a single survey, he wrote, “this was a noteworthy reversal of what we have been seeing over the last few years.”
Target has never tried to beat Wal-Mart across the board on price, and its strategy is still a version of winning customers on style and unique items while being low-priced enough. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that one of the categories highlighted for disappointing sales in the most recent quarter for Target was electronics, with a double-digit rate of decline in comparable-store sales.
We are now two years into the tenure of Target’s Cornell, who has been working to make the company more efficient as well as focus it on the merchandise categories that best set Target apart from competitors. One of his messages to investors last week was that while that strategy seems to be working, his team now has to make sure it is also giving the customer what’s promised by the other side of its brand statement, the part where the customer can expect to pay less.
Maybe the only thing to conclude after a disappointing quarter is that after two years on the job, there’s no reason to think the road ahead for Cornell has gotten any easier.