Targeting Wal-Mart

In North Olmsted, the battle rages between good, evil, and inexpensive hosiery.

Wal-Mart or Target: Where would Jesus shop? - Cam  Forsley
Cam Forsley
Wal-Mart or Target: Where would Jesus shop?
Its architecture would please the Supreme Soviet. The 100,000-square-foot concrete box perches at the edge of Brookpark Road and Great Northern Boulevard with a "Where else you gonna shop?" pugnacity. The hues of its gray and beige cinder blocks coordinate with the dismal winter sky. There are no windows, only darkly tinted sliding doors. Exiting customers lug jugs of milk past an emaciated Salvation Army Santa.

Welcome to Wal-Mart.

Until October, it beckoned from across the street as the discount alternative to the more elegant fare at Great Northern Mall. Then, a more benevolent-looking behemoth landed next door.

Helloooo, Target.

While other businesses have accepted defeat by the world's largest retailer, Target -- America's fifth-largest retailer, though often referred to as No. 2 -- is proving itself the Hannibal of discount shopping. In North Olmsted and elsewhere, it's going toe-to-toe with the reigning champ, which has routinely vanquished all comers with superior buying power, low costs, and unparalleled discounts. Though Target refuses to discuss its strategy, apparently it sees the champ as vulnerable.

As Wal-Mart increasingly moves into urban environs far removed from its Arkansas roots, its labor, civil rights, and purchasing practices have grown into PR nightmares. Two-thirds of all new stores face protests. In Cleveland, city council went so far as to push an ordinance specifically barring Wal-Mart. (But in true council fashion, members forgot to formally pass it, allowing the company to sneak in through the back door.)

All this has provided Target with one major advantage: It's simply not Wal-Mart. And because Wal-Mart has been so busy hogging the limelight of evil corporate misdeeds, its competitors receive little scrutiny, leaving Target to position itself as the white hat of retail.

The attitude of Cleveland AFL-CIO chief John Ryan is emblematic. "We focus more of our attention on Wal-Mart," he says. "Target does not have -- at least in Cleveland -- the same deliberate record of stopping unionization as Wal-Mart. We can't draw a real example between the two."

But in retail, all things are relative.

With full raises, including all possible bonuses and adjustment for inflation, it can take Wal-Mart's part-time employees -- the majority of its 1.6 million "associates" -- nearly a decade to reach the $10 mark. At Target, the 300,000 "team members" start at anywhere from $6.60 to above $11. And while a Wal-Mart employee must work 32 hours a week in order to qualify for benefits, Target workers need work only around 25 hours.

Target has also been a model of philanthropy. Since its inception, its practice of donating 5 percent of its pretax profits to charity has pushed competitors to fill the generosity gap.

Yet the morality of the fight between the two companies tends to play out at the podiums of council meetings, or in newspapers and websites. In the shopping aisles of Northeast Ohio, where disposable income often means an extra 20 bucks a week, morality has a propensity to ride coach.

Across the street from the North Olmsted Wal-Mart, yellow and red bricks give Target the feel of an urban shopping district, an impression accented by carefully crafted window displays lining a debris-free sidewalk you can't help but stroll.

The women popping out the sliding doors don't look as if they're suffering through oppressive domestic chores. Their bull's-eye bags bounce with the cathartic glee of a good buy.

Inside, Carol Ann Charboneau and her daughter-in-law, Bambi Charboneau, navigate neatly organized aisles of pet food and beauty products. "I try to avoid Wal-Mart," says Carol Ann. "I'm what you'd call anti-Wal-Mart. I don't like the way they do business."

As they search for Christmas-themed paper towels, the women are vociferous in their disdain for Wal-Mart. "Their labor practices are horrible," Carol Ann says. "They even hire illegal immigrants to build their stores."

When asked if she knows whether Target's employment practices are any better, she admits she knows little. She's not alone.

Co-op America, a liberal watchdog group that has organized a holiday boycott of Wal-Mart, can't specifically comment on Target's practices either. "We do have concerns about many of the large retailers in the U.S.," says spokesman Todd Larsen. "Wal-Mart is highlighted because they exemplify the worst practices."

Larsen points to both companies' records for use of sweatshop labor. But while he gives Wal-Mart an F, Target receives a passing D-plus. That's because Wal-Mart buys from at least six foreign suppliers known to use sweatshop labor; Target works with three.

Still, Larsen won't name a lesser evil. "We encourage people to shop at local businesses they can trust," Larsen says.

Bambi concurs. She and her mother are both small-business owners. "And it's been overwhelmingly documented that Wal-Mart moves into towns and then marks its prices down so low that the small businesses can't compete. Then, when they've all gone out of business, it marks its prices back up. I haven't heard of Target doing that."

But even Bambi succumbs to the lure of Wal-Mart. She pulls a creased K-Mart coupon from her purse, along with a sealed copy of Star Wars: Battlefront -- a Christmas gift for her son.

K-Mart was offering the videogame for just $12.99, but when she arrived at the store, it was sold out. She went to Target, where the game went for the sticker price of $37. When she flashed her K-Mart coupon at a salesman, he informed her that Target no longer met competitors' prices. So she went to Wal-Mart, which still does.

"I also still go to Wal-Mart for cereal and stuff," Bambi says. "They're just so much cheaper, you can't compete. But I'd never buy a piece of clothing at Wal-Mart. I don't mean to sound like a snob, but it's just the truth."

Where Wal-Mart rules in price, Target's high-end aesthetics have paradoxically earned it a class status that has housewives howling "Tar-zhay!" It allows gals on barmaid budgets to look posh, even though they're shopping cheap.

A good chunk of the North Olmsted store is dedicated to women's apparel, and the offerings are as stunning as any display at Nordstrom or Dillard's, heavily stocked with Levis, Mossimo, Fiornucci, Isaac Mizrahi. Knock-offs of gold BCBG heels and beaded Steve Madden moccasins are plentiful. Nothing is priced for more than $40.

In the hosiery section, twentysomethings Kathy Mason and Sarah Thompson pick through a rainbow of fishnets and socks. Labor practices and philanthropy have nothing to do with their presence. "The clothes are just so much cuter at Target, and they're better-quality too," Thompson says.

Mason, a self-described "Waloholic" whose Rubenesque figure is stuffed into mismatching sweats, disagrees. "I don't like the clothes here, just because Target doesn't fit fat people. I feel more comfortable in the stuff at Wal-Mart."

"But it's so cluttery and disorganized over there," Thompson argues. "I can think more in here. I feel like I'm in sheer chaos when I'm at Wal-Mart."

Mason wags her head. "It might be more cluttered at Wal-Mart, but they have a better selection, it's cheaper, and the workers are friendlier than at Target."

"They are not!" Thompson shouts. "And they aren't that much cheaper."

"But Target's more upscale," Mason says. "And anyway, it's more convenient to get to the Wal-Mart."

"What are you talking about?" Thompson asks. "Target's right across the street!"