Can Target Surpass Walmart in Market Share?
TARGET STORES, the crown jewel of the Target Corporation, would appear to have everything: zippy ads, fast-growing sales and exclusive merchandise that people rave about. But inside the headquarters tower here, where Target’s decisions are made, no one is about to relax.
With Kmart hobbled by bankruptcy, it is Target that now gets the attention of Wal-Mart Stores, the biggest retailer in the land and the biggest company, too. Every successful step that Target takes — signing designers to make baby bottles and little black dresses, moving deeper into the grocery business, persuading more and more upper-middle-class shoppers to become upper-middle-class bargain hunters — brings it into closer confrontation with the $218 billion behemoth that is Wal-Mart.
At stake are the wallets of the growing number of consumers who shop discount stores by choice.
In most respects, the Target Corporation — which also owns the Marshall Field’s and Mervyn’s department stores — is performing spectacularly well. It reported sales of $39.9 billion for the most recent fiscal year, mostly from its 1,100 Target stores, pushing it ahead of the beleaguered Kmart to make Target the nation’s second-biggest discounter. Analysts are impressed with its earnings, which soared 36 percent, to $345 million, in the most recent quarter as revenue increased 15 percent, to $9.59 billion. Their enthusiasm is reflected in Target’s share price, which rose 27 percent last year, although it is off around 6 percent this year.
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By comparison, Wal-Mart’s sales in the first quarter rose 14.4 percent, to $55 billion. Its net income in that period jumped 19.7 percent, to $1.7 billion.
Shoppers go to Target for a selection that includes detergent and batteries, in the tradition of all discount stores, but also for designs from Philippe Starck, Stephen Sprouse, Sonia Kashuk and Todd Oldham that can be found only at Target. (Executives say good design should be democratized.) ”I like the idea of having good design at affordable prices,” said Sarah Ettenberg, a decorative-arts expert in Manhattan who shops for Michael Graves and Philippe Starck housewares but also pairs Target blouses with more expensive slacks she buys elsewhere.
WITH an image perpetuated with distinctive, arty ads — and lots of them — the Target chain is by far the best-performing unit of the parent corporation. In the first quarter, Target stores provided 89 percent of the company’s pretax profit, up from 82 percent last year. In 2001, 92 percent of the corporation’s capital spending, or $2.9 billion, went to the Target chain.
Target’s senior executives say they are just starting. ”We feel we can double our current size and triple our volume over the next seven to eight years,” said Robert J. Ulrich, the chairman and chief executive, whose lean and rangy look, complete with black cowboy boots, suggests the Marlboro Man more than a mass merchandiser.
But that will mean even more scrutiny from Wal-Mart, which once preoccupied itself with Kmart, not that anyone at Wal-Mart will say that in so many words.
”We don’t normally comment on other retail companies,” a spokesman said last week. ”But that being said, we do respect Target and view them as a good competitor.” Tom Coughlin, the president of the Wal-Mart Stores division, said: customers who live paycheck to paycheck ”will always be important to us, but we’ve realized the shifts that have gone on in retailing, particularly this year. Customers at all income levels are interested in value.” Target executives like to point out that the chain promotes contemporary fashion while it keeps prices low, while Wal-Mart is known for low prices, and low prices only. But the two chains have much in common. Both are building grocery stores by the dozen — Wal-Mart calls them SuperCenters and Target calls them SuperTargets — to attract new customers. That means they will be competing more intensely in a category in which margins are already razor-thin.
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By expanding into the grocery business, Wal-Mart wants to increase the volume of shoppers coming into its stores. But it also wants to increase the average purchase made by those shoppers, which also means adding higher-ticket products to the mix of general merchandise.
Target says its strategy is to have its existing customers buy groceries, swelling their purchases and bringing them into the stores more often. The company says it is not counting on luring customers from other supermarkets. It also assumes that former Kmart customers will wind up at Wal-Mart rather than Target.
In some areas, Wal-Mart has already shown how it intends to compete with Target, which promotes ”fast, fun and friendly” service. In some stores in Phoenix, for example, Wal-Mart hired extra workers earlier this year to try to beat Target in the crucial area of customer satisfaction, said Burt Flickinger III, a managing partner at Reach Marketing, a retail consulting company in Westport, Conn.
”So you had this big change, with shoppers raving about the amount of customer service in Wal-Mart stores,” he said.
It is a tactic that can be replicated almost anywhere, because the two companies compete across the country. About 70 percent of Target’s stores are in markets where there is also a Wal-Mart, and Target has more stores in California, Texas and Florida than anywhere else — just as Wal-Mart does.
Because most shoppers have a choice, the question becomes whether the two companies can coexist.
”They are getting 40 percent of their growth from SuperTarget this year,” said Michael Porter, a retail analyst for Morningstar in Chicago, referring to Target’s plans to increase its grocery operations. ”And that puts them squarely in Wal-Mart’s ballpark.” Target’s strategy also has risks, he said, because groceries, unlike apparel and housewares, offer little opportunity for differentiation.
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”You can’t have Michael Graves oranges,” he said, referring to the designer who has helped Target give its housewares a distinctive style.
There is, however, a Fuji apple at SuperTarget that has been screened for sweetness, using infrared equipment that measures the fruit’s sugar level, and a banana that has been temperature-tested to make sure that it does not ripen too fast.
In any case, executives at Target, which was founded 40 years ago as the discount arm of the Dayton Department Store here, say their shopper is not a Wal-Mart shopper, and vice versa.
”People who are oriented toward quality and design do more of their shopping at Target,” Mr. Ulrich said in a recent interview. ”People who are focused on price tend to go to Wal-Mart.” Executives at Wal-Mart are less succinct in defining their customers. They say a natural extension of their strategy is to appeal to better-heeled shoppers — as long as that does not mean alienating their traditional customers, the ones who buy everything from peanut butter to paintball masks at their local Wal-Mart.
Retailing analysts said they believe that after battling other discounters successfully for years, Wal-Mart can now attract shoppers who go to Target, Costco and other chains that have gained a foothold with the upper middle class and the wealthy by selling groceries and carrying luxury goods — like video cameras, fine wines and designer-label clothes — at cut-rate prices.
Target knows that, but its executives say they can hold their ground. ”Yes, they are the biggest company in the world, and yes, we feel threatened by them,” Mr. Ulrich said. ”But if we do our job every day, there’s still a niche and a need for Target.” He is doing his best to keep that niche distinctive, from the products to the profits squeezed from the sale of each one. And in that last area, Target beat Wal-Mart last month: its profit margin was 8.44 percent, versus Wal-Mart’s 7.21 percent. Some of the difference can be attributed to Wal-Mart’s larger sales of groceries, which typically have a significantly thinner profit margin than general merchandise.
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NEVERTHELESS, analysts cheer the progress at Target. ”We see the operating profit margin gap between Target and Wal-Mart widening,” said Wayne Hood, a retail analyst for Prudential Securities in Atlanta, who recommends that investors buy both Target and Wal-Mart stock. (The firm owns about 600,000 shares of Target, or about 0.07 percent of the shares outstanding.) Target monitors profits extremely well. Few retailers apart from Wal-Mart keep such tight control over their business, from selecting the inventory to ringing up a sale. Its basic premise — that customers first must be happy if they are to buy anything — means telling clerks in the sprawling stores to be ”fast, fun and friendly” and watching them, electronically and otherwise, to make sure that they are.
Target managers grade store employees regularly — green is good, yellow is alarming, red is trouble. A store with too many red grades gets a special visit from a district manager, who then returns at 11-day intervals until he or she sees improvement. All stores give the central office daily reports about topics like returns and checkout speed; Target customers are polled at least twice a year about their experiences.
Employees learn that they are crucial to Target’s success. ”We tell them, ‘Your job is to manage the brand at the store level,’ ” said Bart Butzer, the executive vice president of Target Stores, who keeps thick binders of report cards on every store. ”The challenge is getting all 1,100 stores to run the same way and deliver that Target experience every day.” Managers, whom the company calls store team leaders, hold ”huddles” with workers each morning and are encouraged to thank them for jobs well done.
IN the back room of a SuperTarget in Minnetonka, Minn., a western suburb of Minneapolis, the quest for controlled excellence can be seen from the spotless floors to the posted ”error rates,” which measure how often a worker puts a product on the wrong shelf. One worker — or associate, in Target’s language — had an error rate of 0.2 percent; the goal is 3.5 percent or lower.
Returning, say, loose bottles of creme rinse to the right place is made easier by a filing system that is as organized as a library’s. Instead of open shelves in the return room, however, shelves hold cardboard containers, arranged by bar code, that match the coded information on every product.
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”This little machine runs the entire store,” said Mike Kuast, a manager, displaying a hand-held scanner that reads bar codes, calculates how much is needed on a shelf, matches it against predetermined product needs for the store and tells the company’s nearest distribution center when that store is likely to need another shipment. Wal-Mart also uses sophisticated computers to track its inventory.
Target’s penchant for control was tested after the company went into the grocery business in 1995, with a handful of stores in the Minneapolis area. (There will be 92 SuperTargets by October.) The stores follow a plan sent from headquarters: each has a Starbucks coffee bar just inside the front door, a sushi chef hired from a California company and an elaborate bakery and deli section.
At the end of most aisles is a red service phone that customers — known as ”guests” in Target-speak — can use to get help in finding the Gulden’s mustard or the Philippe Starck chocolate spread. Everyone from the clerks on the floor to the vice president in charge of stores knows when that phone rings. ”Headquarters gets a printout of how many times it went on and how fast the response was,” said Jon Radtke, a manager in the Minnetonka store.
But aisles don’t always have to look like a page out of a trade journal, as the company learned the hard way when sales failed to take off. ”We found that guests thought the display was too perfect,” Mr. Radtke said of the cereal aisle, cradling a box of Life. ”So instead of filling the shelves continuously, now we do it only once, at 2 o’clock, and then again after the store closes.” Initially, giving away free bites of bologna or potato salad did not sit well with Target executives. To Target, that’s ”shrink,” or lost revenue, said Jeff P. Thomas, the manager for perishables at SuperTarget, who arrived last year from a supermarket chain in Virginia. He and others hired from the grocery business helped change that mentality; these days, someone strolling near the lavish deli counter at a SuperTarget may well be offered a sample.
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TARGET’S venture into groceries has produced mixed results, some analysts say. ”The concept has not taken off as quickly as some hoped, and Target’s marketing might in the apparel category did not immediately prove effective for food,” Shari Schwartzman Eberts, a retail analyst at J. P. Morgan Securities, said in a recent note to investors. ”We continue to struggle to see SuperTarget’s niche in the food space and are concerned that returns on capital may prove lower than expected if food sales productivity does not improve.” While the company includes food advertising in the newspaper circulars that it uses to sell Mossimo slacks and other products, shoppers have been slow to adjust their assumptions about what Target sells.
”I might come here to pick up a few things,” said Jeanne Thompson, of Orono, Minn., who was in the clothing section of the Minnetonka store recently. But, she added, she usually buys her groceries at Cub, the low-priced chain.
In every Target department, waste is anathema, and planning and evaluating are constants. Those are tips picked up from Wal-Mart, where negotiations with suppliers are notoriously tough, though reduced profit margins are supposed to be made up with high volume.
”Given that we compete against an entity as efficient and as disciplined from a cost standpoint as Wal-Mart is, it is an absolute requirement, year in and year out, that we seek new and different ways to deliver our offerings to our guests,” said Douglas Scovanner, Target’s chief financial officer. ”It requires a relentless pursuit of cost control. For well-run companies, there is never an end to that pursuit.” Manufacturers noticed that principle in action as Kmart weakened, leaving Target in a stronger position. ”We just got a notification from Target that they have changed their payment terms,” said one longtime supplier, who insisted that he not be identified. Instead of paying invoices within 30 days, Target declared, terms would be 60 days, with a 2 percent discount, he said, adding that he was told to ”take it or leave it.” A Target spokesman would not comment.
Target’s advertising budget is rising rapidly. In 2000, it spent $824 million on advertising, up just 4 percent, or $33 million, from the previous year. But last year, that budget was $924 million — a 12 percent jump. Marketing is essential, said Michael Francis, the company’s marketing chief, to help build Target’s persona and create what he called ”the wow” for its customers.
Such marketing, though, is not something that Wal-Mart makes a priority. One way that Target is trying to offset such disparity on the balance sheet is by expanding its credit card operations. Credit card income generated $445 million in pretax profit, or about 15 percent of Target’s pretax profit last year. Mr. Scovanner said the company expected that to rise to around 20 percent of total earnings in the next year or two.
”Credit cards are important because of what they do,” he said. ”We are a retailer, and the purpose of offering credit to our guests is to increase shopping frequency and to increase average transaction size.” For decades, the company has issued Target credit cards to shoppers, and with relatively smooth results. Last year, it began rolling out its Target Visa card to the top 5 percent of its current card holders, as measured by their spending. The information gathered through those customers’ Visa purchases outside Target stores will be used to evaluate customer shopping patterns and to increase sales.
CREDIT’S flip side is risk. Earlier this spring, Wall Street’s worries about possible write-offs from bad credit card debt knocked 8.3 percent off the price of Target shares in two days. The stock quickly recovered, but executives at Target say they still cannot understand it. Somehow, Wall Street believed that Target would end up just as Sears, Roebuck did a few years earlier, with a cumbersome credit card division that was a drain, not a boon.
But Target executives said their plan would not miss. ”We know what our objectives are,” Mr. Francis said. ”Making sure we never become complacent, ensuring that we are always able to paint a picture of what we want Target to look like.’