business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Living as I do near Washington, DC, I’m aware that I do not live in a typical part of this country. Forget the incredibly entertaining presence of the federal government and just think about this: our area still does not have a single Walmart Supercenter.

Beyond the retail issues, it’s easy to argue that my local newspaper, the Washington Post, doesn’t represent the mainstream either. And that’s why I was stunned recently to see an incredibly clear demonstration of the changing face of retail wars on the pages of the Post.

A week ago Sunday I was stopped in my tracks in the Post’s news section by a bright red, two-page spread ad from Target. The message of the ad was simple: a few months earlier Target asked for suggestions to improve its stores and it wanted to report on the 627 responses it received. The questions were good and the answers complete, offering good explanation or responses to shopper ideas...

Except once I turned the page, it became clear how badly Target had missed, well, the target. Because exactly one page later was a full page ad from Walmart touting “unbeatable prices every day” and featuring a $12 special on assorted small appliances.

The difference could not have been more startling. Target talked about how they are going to improve the shopping experience; Walmart talked price and value.

It almost seems like piling on to mention the props Walmart got for free later in the same edition, but the reference is too importance to miss. That same day the Post’s auto editor glowingly reviewed the Hyundai Sonata with the following terms: “Hyundai is the Walmart of car companies. It has turned ‘value’ into a word meaning substantially better than ‘cheap.’ It has given dignity to the concept of ‘bargain.’”

Then later in the article the review wrote: “My hunch is the people at Hyundai studied the people at Walmart to learn how to consistently deliver a higher meaning of value - excellent products and excellent service at an excellent price.”

It’s impossible to know how many people actually read the auto column, but those who did got a glowing review of value from Walmart.

Obviously, Target couldn’t do anything about that and probably couldn’t prevent Walmart from getting the ad slot right behind them that day. However, the lesson of the two ads shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Think of the message each company got across and then think of the following.

The late Mike O’Connor, the longtime president of Supermarket Institute (FMI’s predecessor) and someone who deserved the title industry expert, had one of the best philosophies for business that I have ever heard. Mike would say: "Less of how it came to be and more of what it means to me."

In short, talk about what matters to the customer, not how hard it was to make it happen. It occurs to me that the Target/Walmart ad comparison played that beautifully. Target, one of the best companies around at building customer loyalty, this time talked about process in hoping to make a case; Walmart shouted them down with value. One talked about what it took to be; the other about what it means to me—the customer.

I bet we know how this fight turns out. Think about your messages.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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