The slim tunics and velvet blazers on Wal-Mart's clothing racks this holiday season are more than the latest trendy fashions -- they're a sign that the intense competition between the world's largest retailer and its upscale discount rival is ratcheting higher.
There are other indications that Target Corp. has put pressure on Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Hoping to get customers shopping earlier, Wal-Mart will open its doors at 5 a.m. Friday, the official start of the holiday shopping season; that's an hour earlier than during past holiday seasons. It's also promising to match competitors' prices on specific merchandise that day.
"This is the most aggressive Wal-Mart I have seen in 10 years," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C. "Target is definitely going to have to be more promotional. It needs to respond."
Wal-Mart stumbled last holiday season when its discounts weren't big enough to satisfy customers and its stores lacked must-have items including iPod music players. So far this year, it looks like Wal-Mart has gained ground -- this time it's Target that's been less generous with discounts, charging more on toys than Wal-Mart and Toys R Us Inc., according to Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt. And Wal-Mart began promoting holiday merchandise a week earlier than Target.
Wal-Mart's more aggressive marketing may already have stolen some business from Target, which warned that sales from stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales, are tracking well below its 4 percent to 6 percent growth forecast for November. Same-store sales are considered a strong indicator of a retailer's health. Wal-Mart has held to its November sales growth forecast of 3 percent to 5 percent.
"Overall, things are changing," said Gail Lavielle, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. "We have to be relevant to a broad range of customers. Price is important, but we are also concerned with value. Value is not just price. It is assortment and convenience."
The early positive signs from Wal-Mart are a welcome turn for the retailer, which has been under increasing criticism for how it treats its workers. But Target appears to be unfazed.
"We feel we will be absolutely competitive with Wal-Mart and the rest of our competitors," said Lena Michaud, a Target spokeswoman. "Our marketing is just starting."
Target, whose stores will open at 6 a.m. on Friday, is reprising one of last year's marketing gimmicks, a wakeup call to shoppers that they can arrange in advance. This year, it's also adding tuck-in calls, which customers receive the night before the big shopping day.
Target's early stumble is surprising since the retailer has enjoyed a robust 6.2 percent increase in same-store sales so far this fiscal year, surpassing Wal-Mart's modest 3.6 percent gain. Target, the No. 2 discounter whose affordable but trendy fashions appeal to a higher-income shopper, has been less vulnerable than Wal-Mart to economic woes such as higher energy prices; Wal-Mart's core customer is from the lower-income brackets.
But Target faces tough competition from Wal-Mart on more than just price. Wal-Mart has sharpened its merchandise selections in hopes of reaching out to its more style-conscious customers who'll go to Wal-Mart for food and basics, but avoid the fashion and home furnishings departments. One new attraction is Wal-Mart's new brand called Metro 7, which offers such designs as low-priced velvet jackets and camisole tops. Shoppers will also see more luxurious linens and a broader array of consumer electronics items that includes higher-end plasma TVs and digital cameras.