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Walmart, Target, Kmart Showdown

We assessed several factors when comparing Walmart, Target, and Kmart and used a variety of methodologies, including site visits, customer and expert interviews, an informal Facebook poll, and analysis of online reviews.

We started by visiting one location for each retailer within the same market, armed with a shopping list link here to chart of items from major departments. A simple price comparison of Walmart, Target, and Kmart showed Walmart the cheapest, with a bottom-line total of $1,776.15, followed by Target at $1,866.10 and Kmart at $2,092.82.

While shopping, we assessed each store's organization, inventory presentation, customer service, and cleanliness. Target and Walmart fared well in all areas while Kmart fell short. The Kmart location we visited was poorly maintained, shelves were empty, and unhelpful sales associates left customers disgruntled.

We also compared the stores' websites and shipping policies. Here, Walmart stood out with far more online offerings, multiple shipping options, and a marketplace for third-party sellers (like that of Amazon). Additionally, we evaluated the pharmacy, health, and vision services at each store. Walmart and Target offer health clinics, vision centers, and low generic prescription prices, among other perks. Kmart's offerings are far more limited.

A single visit to a single store won't necessarily yield a representative shopping experience, so our conclusions factor in what others had to say about Walmart vs. Target vs. Kmart in external surveys, in person, on Facebook, and elsewhere online. While those sources also have their limitations -- e.g., non-random sampling of customers -- the picture that emerged of each retailer closely aligned with our own in-store experiences. Target surfaced as a favorite among shoppers for its pleasant atmosphere and desirable products. The stores are clean, the atmosphere is calm, the employees are obliging, and the products seem well made. Shoppers voiced a strong preference for most store-brand items at Target, saying the quality is superior. In particular, customers take to Target's clothing lines and several also contend that the house-brand home goods and furniture hold up better than counterparts at Walmart and Kmart. A handful of parents highlighted Target's Up & Up brand baby products. "Up & Up diapers, wipes, and formula are all as good as the much costlier name brands," one Facebook comment reads.

A majority of respondents to our Facebook poll, however, consider Walmart's house brands the best value. "For the most part, the consumer lives in a world of commoditization run amok and chooses stores' brands based on their price," said Cliff Courtney, who studies consumer behavior as executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Zimmerman Advertising. Shoppers from all corners, including a broader monthly survey by Bloomberg Industries, confirm Walmart's reputation for low prices. The retailer also scored high in our research for good service and (usually) clean stores, although some shoppers find the stores too big and overwhelming. One customer told us it's tough to get in and out quickly, so trips are reserved for large shopping hauls when low prices really count. Others stated that Walmart is always too crowded and the frenzy just isn't worth the cash savings.

Little love was lobbed in Kmart's direction. Most shoppers we encountered in the store were disappointed with the service and some deemed the facility dirty. We queried other consumers about their Kmart shopping habits and learned that they don't visit the store regularly. Several told us they stopped going when they noticed the high prices and how often the shelves were empty. Others were deterred by the lack of a nearby location. Such negative feedback, combined with our own shopping experience and Kmart's higher price point, relegated the retailer to a distant third in our comparison.

Identifying the victor was not easy when it came down to Walmart vs. Target. Each claims a loyal customer base, is endowed with a certain reputation, and boasts different strengths and weaknesses. The distinctions between these fierce competitors are real but subtle, turning on perceptions and subjective judgment as much as on any objective variables.

"For a long time, our research proved that many consumers, especially Walmart's core of blue-collar moms, saw Walmart as a necessary evil," Courtney said in an email interview. "Target owned the emotional high ground, as well as the same kind of design cues that consumers gravitate to in record numbers -- the 'Apple-izing' of retail." (Zimmerman has done work for Target but is not the retailer's agency of record.) Courtney cited an effort Walmart launched several years ago to revamp its image -- de-cluttering stores, cultivating a friendlier atmosphere, and changing its tagline from "Always Low Prices" to "Save Money. Live Better." "They finally gave the consumer a better reason to shop than price," he said.

Walmart and Target ran neck and neck in the race we sponsored. In the end it was Walmart by a nose, fueled by its prices, value, breadth of offerings, and near ubiquitous presence.

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