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Take it from Target: Dont dilute your perks to promote low prices

Take it from Target: Dont dilute your perks to promote low prices

Over the past decade, Target established itself as a one-stop shop for all things necessary and everything slightly left of necessary, yet still affordable, practical and unique enough to justify an impulse buy. People always joke that you can’t escape Target without dropping a cool—and unexpected—$200. You go in for a get-well card and some gum and wind up with a new swimsuit, two pairs of sandals, three picture frames, a jumbo pack of AA batteries and a bed skirt.

Sharing a home state with Target, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Land of Red and Khaki. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say my forays to the local Boulder outpost have been underwhelming over the past few years. Sure, I’m stoked that the store sells private-label pickles (albeit non-organic pickles) for cheaper than Whole Foods, and I like that I can pick up some poster board and then cruise the culinary selection. But overall, the clothes, the shoes, the accessories—the things that would’ve easily enticed me a few years ago—just haven’t been as alluring. Plus, the store’s return policies stink, the parking lot’s always packed and the sticky-handled carts’ wheels too frequently go kittywampus.  

Despite my dronings (an admitted habit), I actually hadn't thought much about Target's tumble from top-notch before stumbling upon a Wall Street Journal article this morning. The headline, "More Target Than Tar-zhay? 'Cheap Chic' Retailer Criticized for Too Much Focus on Food and Low Prices," says it all--and proves I may not be so far off in my criticsims.

According to the report, once the economic recession hit and suddenly fewer shoppers were stuffing carts with unplanned purchases, Target went all Walmart on itself and stocked its stores with cheap grocery items and discounted miscellany. Problem is, such "deals" were on items more Rite-Aid than ravishing, and customers' impressions of the retailer began shifting from a place to score hip yet inexpensive items to a toilet-paper-and-juice-boxes destination. Toss in the effect of endless Kohl's sales and JC Penney's reboot into a more accessible terminus, and Target's stronghold on the niche it had carved was suddenly weakening.

Retail analysts in the WSJ article say Target’s moves may have been smart or even necessary when the economy’s bottom fell out a few years back. But in scrambling to keep up with the Walmarts, the ShopKos and the five or six still-in-business Pamidas, Target clouded its unique identity and wound up losing its edge. Now with the economy trending upward (well, let’s hope), the Target that so many loved and would appreciate having back isn’t all there. Neither the company’s sales figures nor its stocks are stellar.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to natural products retailers, many of whom were (and still are being) hit big time by the recession. Committed naturals consumers shop local health food markets and supplements shops for the quality selection, customer service, educational programs and sense of community. But as shoppers’ purse strings tightened, some found it necessary to forgo these perks (at least temporarily) for the cost savings offered by conventional retailers.

Of course, natural products stores gotta do what they gotta do to stay competitive, and in dismal times, promoting low prices might be a must. But I think the Target example sends a valuable message: Don’t dilute or skimp on what sets your store apart, what makes it great. Don’t lose sight of your missions to serve the community and promote health. Remember your attributes and make them shine. In the long run, you and your loyal, returning and new customers will win.  

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