The continuing image battle between Walmart and Target

Two articles from CBS illustrate the image battle being waged between Target and Walmart. While the stories are supposedly about what you should and should not buy at each place, here are the opening paragraphs about the relationship between the two retailers. The first story focuses on Target:

In the battle for public opinion, Target has shellacked its larger competitor, Walmart. Whether it’s environmentalists attacking the very concept of big-box retail or workers’ rights advocates lambasting the chain’s treatment of employees, Walmart has become the poster boy for the excesses of capitalism. Target, meanwhile, has built a reputation for cheap chic, pairing with Liberty of London and Michael Graves to churn out high-design at low prices. Walmart gets blamed for putting mom and pop stores out of business, while Target recently opened its first store in Manhattan, a market Walmart has yet to crack.

Recently, however, Target has looked vulnerable, suffering more in the economic downturn than Walmart did, and committing a rare public relations gaffe by making a political contribution that angered gay groups.

The companion piece examines Walmart:

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Walmart is the nation’s largest retailer, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in one. To these folks, Walmart conjures images of a rapacious juggernaut of stadium-sized stores offering low-quality merchandise, spotty service, and mistreating employees and the environment — while driving small local retailers out of business.

But many of those misgivings are starting to fade, partly as a result of some well-timed improvements to the company’s product line-up and its environmental record. What’s more, there’s nothing like the worst recession in 80 years to nudge “low prices” a little higher on the collective priority list. And while Walmart may not be making its employees rich, the chain handed out very few pink slips in the downturn and remains the country’s largest private employer.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to remain wary of the retail behemoth. Whether you are concerned about the threat to a downtown business district, object to the retail culture, or just have a mental picture of the Walmart shopper that you can’t square with your own self image, it may not be for you. But it’s worth keeping in mind that, when it leverages its enormous scale for good, Walmart can make a difference in a hurry. It’s one thing when a boutique sells fair-trade coffee, but when Walmart gets into the game, a lot of sustainable farmers benefit. Here are five product categories where you can comparison shop in good conscience at the nation’s “low-price leader.”

These openings are illustrative of how brand image matters in our world. The Walmart article opening begrudgingly admits that Walmart could contain some good for shoppers and shoppers could benefit if they are “in a hurry.” The real meat of the story is supposed to be the good deals (and not so good deals) each store offers compared to other retailers but this gets buried behind this editorializing about the image of each place. There could be a lot of interesting work done on examining how exactly Target has crafted a different kind of image and what markets each store serves.

Even with the negative publicity, surveys suggest Americans feel fairly favorably toward the Walmart. According to Rasmussen data from the summer of 2009, only 33% view Walmart unfavorably and only 26% “rarely or never shop at the store.”

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