Market Basket's situation keeps getting worse with many employees off the job in protest, customers angry at shopping disruptions and some suppliers ending their relationship with the grocery store.
After another disappointing earnings report this week for Target, it's time to take stock of what has happened to the cheap-chic retail industry darling that everybody used to call "Tarjhay."
Target cut its profit outlook on Wednesday, while reporting poor earnings and continued sluggish sales in the latest quarter. While the news was more or less expected—Target recently hired a new CEO to address its well-known struggles in the marketplace—things look as grim as ever for the all-purpose retailer that few shoppers refer to as the fancier-sounding “Tarjhay” anymore.
“Target has given investors ZERO reason to be encouraged that a global turnaround is secretly emerging,” Brian Sozzi of Belus Capital Advisors wrote, responding to Target’s latest earnings report—and rating Target stock as a sell. “At the domestic store level, merchandising issues persist, including weak assortments in apparel (notably the hot category of athletic apparel) and the over-buying of seasonal categories in light of persistent negative traffic.”
“You have seen a brand that has lost its way,” Steve Beck, founder of the management consulting firm cg42, said of Target in early August, after it was revealed Target had lost $148 million as a result of last year’s holiday season credit card data breach, according to MarketWatch. “And the end result is poor performance.”
So how exactly did Target lose its way? Why don’t shoppers flock to Target for cheap chic fashion in the numbers they used to? Target itself deserves much of the blame, but the economy and big shifts in the retail landscape also factor in.
Part of the explanation is that one-stop shopping, which not long ago was perhaps the best sales pitch in retail, is not the draw it used to be. The concept of one-stop shopping made sense for retailers on several levels. All-purpose stores like Walmart and Target expanded grocery sections in order to offer more convenience and efficiency to harried, time-crunched consumers. Many dollar store chains followed the same playbook, pumping up selections of groceries and other household staples to give shoppers reason to pop in multiple times a week, rather than every so often when they needed cheap party favors or random craft supplies.
The idea is that shoppers will come in specifically for low prices on certain items, and perhaps—in the case of Target, especially—for exclusive designer goods that can’t be found elsewhere, and that while they’re in the store, they’d also pile up impulse buys and needed household products alike into their shopping carts. This is all possible when almost everything under the sun, from spicy mustard to designer end tables, fishing poles to kids’ winter coats, is available under one store roof.
Yet at Walmart supercenters, which represent the ultimate in one-stop shopping in America, foot traffic and sales are on the decline. Sales and customer visits have likewise been falling at Target, and even smaller, nimbler dollar stores have seen growth go flat, prompting the need for a dollar store merger that’s yet to be determined.
Many factors have affected sales recently at these outlets, notably the decrease in food stamps to America’s poor, who therefore have less money to spend at Walmart and dollar stores, as well as the monumental data breach at Target, which damaged the company’s reputation among shoppers. Stagnant wages among American workers, and general uncertainty in the economy have hurt sales too. But part of the equation is that, in the age of Amazon Prime, one-click buying, and a range of online grocery shopping services that eliminate the need to browse store aisles, the appeal of one-stop shopping has diminished substantially. If saving time is a primary concern for consumers, there are far better, far quicker ways to run errands and gather essentials than hitting a gargantuan Target or Walmart location out at the mall or by the side of the highway.
When Target was the media and shopper darling nicknamed “Tarjhay” for its chic fashions and dependable household staples, the perception was that it truly delivered on its slogan “Expect more, pay less.” Target’s big problem is that the motto has rung hollow for quite some time. “The dimension of ‘expect more’ is gone,” said Amy Koo, a senior analyst at Kantar Retail. “As for ‘pay less,” well, pay less than what? Folks are savvier today. They’ll order at Amazon. It’s easy to find products that are much cheaper online, and it’s much more convenient to a shopper’s needs.”
Similarly, Walmart’s slogan (“Save money, live better”) is less resonant with shoppers today because if they were truly living better, they wouldn’t be shopping at Walmart—at least not in the physical stores themselves. Today’s consumers expect more than ever, and they want to live better by burdening themselves as infrequently as possible with chores such as shopping for groceries and other boring basics. Essentially, they expect more than even the biggest supercenter can provide—which will inevitably pale in comparison to what shoppers can find in terms of pricing and selection online.
While Walmart has mostly competed on price to keep sales from drifting away to its online and brick-and-mortar rivals, and it’s been extremely difficult to fend off dollar stores, Amazon, and the rest, Target became a phenomenon back in the day by having a pretty good track record at picking styles and designs that suited shoppers’ tastes at the time. Then the Great Recession destroyed household disposable income streams, and even cheap chic wasn’t cheap enough. There were some big mistakes—developing an online presence very late in the game, the epic debacle that was the high-price Target-Neiman Marcus partnership, a largely unsuccessful expansion into Canada—but none has been bigger or more destructive for sales in the post-recession era than Target’s concentrated appeal to a core group of wealthier free-spending shoppers, said Kantar’s Koo.
“Target is saying: We don’t care about the low-income shopper, we’re going to focus on the people who can spend more money,” said Koo. As a result, the styles and prices at Target were “suddenly not in line with many shoppers. It’s no longer tailored to meet the mass audience.”
Lately, Target has been undergoing some soul searching. One Target location in Minnesota was turned into a test store for trying out new products and services to get the reactions of customers. A new CEO, Brian Cornell, was hired, and his first promise was to listen and learn rather than make any sudden dramatic moves. This week, the company announced some stores would stay open until midnight on a trial basis through the holiday season to woo night owls and people working odd hours.
Extending store hours will help Target make the case that it’s more convenient, and more in tune with what shoppers need today. It just appears unlikely that any of Target’s tweaks will prove to be game changers and turn things around quickly for the struggling retailer. It also appears pretty much an impossibility that the “Tarjhay” nickname will resurface anytime soon.
Consumers have been told that everything car-buying experts have been advising about the best time to buy a new car is wrong. So what's the right approach now?
Earlier this summer, the car-buying research site TrueCar offered some stunning insights concerning car prices throughout the year. The takeaway from the numbers seemed to throw the conventional wisdom of when to buy a new automobile on its head. August, TrueCar data revealed, “has historically shown to have the lowest average transaction price of the year at $29,296.” After analyzing data from 2009 to 2013, the site concluded that consumers in August paid $716 less for a new car compared to all other months and declared that August may very well be “the best time of the year to buy a new car.”
What’s more, the numbers showed that Sunday is “typically the best day of the week to buy a new car,” with transaction prices that were $1,402 lower than the daily average, and that “the first two days of the month are the best time to shop for a new car,” because prices on those days represented an “average $390 in savings over the remaining days of the month.”
If you’ve ever read an article on the best time to buy a car, you’ll know that these tips basically spit in the face of the consumer expert consensus on the matter. For instance, a fairly boilerplate post from Kelley Blue Book offers this advice to shoppers who want to get the best prices on cars:
• Buy around the last day of the month — dealers have monthly sales quotas
• Buy at the end of the year — some dealers will clear out inventory for tax reasons
Meanwhile, analysts at Edmunds.com are regularly quoted saying things like, “December has become one of the best times of the year to buy a new car,” and virtually every article on car buying mentions advice along the lines of: “As you might guess, the end of the month is often a good time to buy a car, particularly if salespeople are trying to meet their quotas or qualify for a monthly bonus.”
What gives? Should we throw out the conventional wisdom on when to buy a car? Well, yes, says TrueCar CEO Scott Painter. “When you look at the real data, you see that you’re almost always better off doing the opposite of what conventional wisdom tells you to do,” Painter told CBS Moneywatch recently. “Unfortunately, much of the conventional wisdom is just wrong.”
The truth, however, is a lot more complicated than what Painter would have us believe. August may be a great time to buy certain kinds of cars, and the first couple of days of the month could be an opportune time to seal the deal. Then again, depending on the buyer and car model in question, those times might not be ideal to get the best price.
Here’s why, despite TrueCar’s seemingly groundbreaking analysis, the conventional wisdom on when to buy a car still holds up—even as TrueCar isn’t 100% wrong.
Let’s start with the business about the first couple days of the month. A representative for TrueCar replied to our inquiry about this issue by explaining via email, “the end of car sales month goes a few days into the next calendar month. Dealers are more eager to sell cars at the end of a ‘sales month’ to reach manufacturer incentive program sales targets for the month.”
In other words, car sales finalized on the first or second day of September generally count for August in terms of the purposes of the dealer’s and salesperson’s tally. So it’s somewhat of a matter of semantics: Yes, you still want to follow the conventional advice and buy at the end of the month—only be sure it’s the end of the dealership’s sales month, rather than the regular old calendar.
Now let’s move on to TrueCar’s data regarding average transaction prices, which are lowest in August ($29,296) and peak in December ($31,146), and what this actually means for buyers. On the one hand, sure, August tends to be a good time to buy because car dealerships are eager to get rid of leftovers from the previous model year and make space for the new, more in demand (and higher priced) models. On the other hand, it’s much too simple to state that the deepest discounts on leftover models take place in August and August alone. “The model-year changeover is another opportunity for a great time to buy,” said Kelley Blue Book analyst Tim Fleming, “but this has generally taken place more in the September-October timeframe rather than August.”
What’s more, the average vehicle transaction price in any month depends a lot on what vehicles people tend to be buying during that month. Fleming explained that December has the highest transaction prices because it’s an especially big month for sales of luxury cars and SUVs. It goes without saying that cars in these auto categories cost more than the average sedan, so when many of them are purchased, the average transaction price increases.
A closer look at the TrueCar data shows that the average incentive (a.k.a. dealership discount) is higher in months such as December ($2,686) and March ($2,746) than it is in August ($2,619), even as August has the lowest average transaction price. How could this be? It’s because the average sticker price of vehicles purchased in August tends to be lower than other months. To a large degree, cars cost less in August because people are buying cars that are cheaper to begin with. It’s not because cars are being discounted by a larger amount.
“Anyone generating an average of transaction prices would be remiss not to consider the mix of models being sold,” the car-buying experts at Edmunds.com said via statement, in response to an inquiry about TrueCar’s advice. “Edmunds.com’s data suggests that historically March has actually had some of the lowest average transaction prices over the past few years, and this is largely due to the types of vehicles that sold during the month.”
Finally, what about buying on Sunday? Let’s defer to some older insights from TrueCar on that matter. “Weekdays are better than weekends,” TrueCar advised car shoppers in 2010. “The fewer people on the lot, the more likely the dealer is willing to make a favorable deal.” TrueCar has also gone on record stating that one particular Sunday—Easter Sunday—is the absolute worst day of in the whole calendar year to get a good deal on a new car.
If you've been a slacker thus far in rounding up your kid's back-to-school supplies, there's good reason to keep on procrastinating.
The simple reason why this is so is that very soon, almost every store will be putting kids’ scissors, notebooks, glue, pencils, and other back-to-school merchandise on clearance. For that matter, clothing marketed for the back-to-school season will be deeply discounted starting around Labor Day as well if not sooner, in order to make space for the next big seasons for retailers—Halloween and Christmas.
Don’t tell your kids about this, especially not at the start of the school year when homework and exams are about to become painful realities, but the truth is that sometimes it pays to sit back and do nothing. Many consumers are utilizing this “strategy” this summer, though it’s unclear whether they’re doing so consciously—or, more likely, lazily and obliviously. The Integer Group estimated that more than half of shoppers wait until one to three weeks before school starts to buy school supplies, and that 36% of consumers won’t do any back-to-school shopping at all, up from 31% who skipped back-to-school purchases last year.
The most prudent, responsible, cost-conscious approach for back-to-school shopping is for a parent to dutifully browse for bargains throughout the summer and scoop them up when they’re optimal. Back-to-school promotions started even before the previous school year ended, and Staples, Walmart, dollar stores, and other retailers have periodically rolled out 1¢ folders, 25¢ rulers and protractors, and other loss-leader sales in order to rev up business. For that matter, truly savvy shoppers understand that kids tend to need more or less the same supplies every fall, so they strategically snatch up pencils, notebooks, and whatnot whenever they’re at rock-bottom prices throughout the year.
The ship has sailed on the chance to do the prudent thing and buy items whenever the optimal price appears. That approach is too time-consuming and requires too much attention for the average parent anyway. This late in the game, there are two options left: 1) Turn into a whirling dervish and hit one store to buy everything your student needs in the few days before school starts; or 2) make do with what you have for the first day of school, then complete your kids’ list sometime around Labor Day.
The first option is the more responsible one, of course, and ensures that your child will have all of the required supplies on time. Yet the Integer study found that price is the most important element in back-to-school purchases for roughly three-quarters of consumers, and with this first approach, shoppers will wind up paying more than is necessary for many school staples.
That leaves us with the second (slacker) option, which is attractive not only because you can do nothing for a little while longer, but also because of a bonus in the form of saving a bundle of money. By the time Labor Day arrives, the majority of what you need to buy will likely be marked down for clearance sales. You’ll get the cheaper prices on glue, notebooks, and such without having to shop around, monitor Sunday circulars, or hit multiple stores. All in all, you’ll save time, effort, and money, with the main tradeoff being that your kid might get dirty looks from the teacher if he shows up on the first day of school with an empty backpack—or perhaps no backpack.
“Like most seasonal items, the longer you wait to buy back-to-school items, the better your chances are of scoring a significant discount,” said Lindsay Sakraida, features director at the deal-tracking site dealnews.com. Normally, clearance aisles are a hodgepodge of random, undesirable leftovers, but this isn’t the case for basics like pens, notebooks, and calculators, which are more or less immune to trends and seasonality, said Sakraida. “While sorting through the clearance section can sometimes yield limited options, it’s less of an issue with school supplies, making this an even more appealing option for cash-strapped back-to-schoolers.”
She suggested starting to look for big back-to-school markdowns a few days before Labor Day weekend. Around that time a year ago, Staples and Office Max cut prices dramatically on many items, sometimes with discounts of more than 75%. Other retailers will surely be posting printable coupons good for 20% or 25% your entire purchase over the holiday weekend, said Sakraida.
And prices will only drop from there as retailers try to clear shelf space to prep for the next season’s goods. In terms of fall clothing and school supplies alike, “look for the deals to get pretty aggressive by mid-September,” NPD retail analyst Marshal Cohen told the Wall Street Journal.
Even if your kids are fully outfitted for this school year by then, it might be wise to hit the clearance section and round up some supplies for next fall. You know prices will be cheap. And perhaps by planning ahead you’ll show your children that even the laziest procrastinators can change their ways and become more responsible.
An unusual kind of price war is rocking the world of dollar stores, with two suitors seeking to buy out the same competitor. As you might imagine, a lot of dollars are involved in the competition—nearly $10 billion.
Three weeks ago, when Dollar Tree bid to buy Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it seemed like more or less a done deal. On Monday, however, the biggest player in dollar stores, Dollar General, offered its own bid for Family Dollar, reportedly in the neighborhood of $9.7 billion. One way or another, it looks like one giant dollar store company will emerge after one of these bids is accepted.
But why are these companies involved in this unusual breed of “price war”? And what does it say about the low end of retail that either of these colossal mergers would make sense?
The dollar store has been one of the great success stories of the recession era, with chains such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General posting record sales figures, broad expansions, and soaring stock prices over the past half-dozen or so years. Ironically, though, the merger may be a sign that the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.
Here’s a look back at the recent evolution of the dollar store, with a particular focus on why many shoppers have come to view them as handy neighborhood general stores—and not just for cheap stuff.
The Great Recession destroyed shopper budgets. In the late ’00s, the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the jobs market took an ugly turn. All of the factors combined meant that the free-spending habits developed by consumers in the preceding years would have to be broken and replaced by new strategies to live cheaply. The much-heralded demise of conspicuous consumption spelled trouble for products like GM’s Hummer, but it also meant boom times for low-price retailers—dollar stores especially.
With little money to spend, especially if they’d cut up their credit cards as many had in a move to a cash-only existence, consumers stretched what few dollars they had at dollar stores. Consequently, dollar stores flourished. Dollar General doubled its store locations in the first decade of the millennium, for instance. According to one study, by 2011 there were more dollar stores than drugstores in the U.S.
Dollar stores pushed one-stop shopping. Shrinking American household budgets helped the rise of dollar stores. So did the broad campaign by dollar stores to push beyond the idea that they were good only for junky throwaway trinkets, off-brand canned goods, and anything else that had grown stale on the shelves of mainstream stores.
Among the goods shoppers started seeing more of at dollar stores are groceries, home decorating items, and even beer and wine. In some cases, dollar store offerings have been celebrated as surprisingly chic: A New York Times columnist wrote about his adventures decorating his apartment with dollar store purchases, while the 99-Cent Chef developed a following based on recipes that use ingredients purchased only at 99¢ Only stores. According to one survey from 2010, 18% of shoppers said that they were buying food and drinks for holiday parties at dollar stores.
Chances are, they were also buying wrapping paper and some stocking stuffers at dollar stores too. And that’s the point. When a shopper can buy fresh bread, produce, a gallon of milk, birthday cards, laundry detergent, shampoo, Christmas presents, and maybe a few bottles of cheap Chardonnay at the dollar store, there’s less need to hit the supermarket, liquor store, drugstore, or big box retailer. Dollar stores have been actively promoting themselves as one-stop shopping options with almost anything you need to buy—and with more locations and a smaller, easier, more manageable layout than, say, the nearest Walmart.
They’re not as cheap as you think. While there are undoubtedly some great bargains at dollar stores, shopping experts also advise against the purchasing of certain items there. Like, say, electronics and pots and pans. If you’re surprised that dollar stores even have such items, bear in mind that oftentimes, not everything in a dollar store is priced at $1. Dollar Tree has stuck to $1 pricing for everything in its stores, but Family Dollar and Dollar General don’t bother abiding by the $1 price rule. Among other items, the Dollar General website lists a Craig Android tablet for $78 more than $1.
Dollar stores employ the age-old strategy of drawing shoppers in with bargains and hoping that they grab some other (non-bargain) goods while they’re at it. A Family Dollar spokesperson told the New York Times columnist mentioned above that low-priced cleaning supplies were “almost like the gateway product” for dollar store shoppers. “It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”
Or perhaps a tablet, or a bottle of wine—which will also cost more than a buck ($2.99 and up, usually, when available.) Shopping centers have been embracing dollar stores in their slight turn upscale because they’re able to attract slightly better-off clientele. But budget-conscious consumers must be careful: In many cases, dollar stores charger higher prices per unit than what’s to be found at Walmart, Target, or a warehouse club such as Costco. It’s just that dollar stores seem like bargains because the items are low quality or they come in exceptionally small sizes. A few weeks ago, a controversy was stirred up when Dollar General offered a special on diapers in “all counts and sizes” that Walmart and Target failed to match, even though they have price matching policies. Why? Because Walmart and Target offer diapers in far bigger sizes than what’s available at dollar stores.
Speaking of Walmart and Target, they’ve slowly been rolling out a counteroffensive to dollar stores by way of smaller retail locations, often in the densely populated urban hubs where dollar stores are ubiquitous. Supermarkets have entered the battle too, with stores that are half the size of the usual grocery shop. The smaller size means these stores can easily fit in a strip mall or city block, making them a lot more convenient and practical for millions of shoppers.
So now we have a situation in which dollar stores do what Walmart and Target do best by stocking groceries, electronics, and a little bit of everything, and Walmart, Target, and grocery chains do what dollar stores do best by offering small, convenient locations (and more of them) and many bargain-priced goods. The retail lines are blurring. Every player wants to be the convenient, one-stop shopping destination for shoppers, and it has gotten much tougher for a dollar store or any retailer to stand out. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and it’s hard to grow, it’s probably time to combine with someone in the same boat to help you compete.
That’s what seems to be why both Dollar Tree and Dollar General want to buy Family Dollar. In today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, a merger represents their best chance to grow, or at least survive.
Right now is a terrific time to buy jeans—partly because jeans haven't exactly been hot sellers lately.
CNBC recently cited data from the NPD Group indicating that jeans sales are down 6% year over year. What’s more, last fall, the NPD Group also reported that sales of higher-end jeans had dipped significantly, including a 40% decline on the West Coast for jeans priced at $75 and up.
The numbers may not seem like that big of a deal. But given that the average consumer has seven or eight pairs of jeans—and 25% of women own 10 or more —any drop in the sales of such a traditional, iconic fashion staple is a pretty big deal.
On top of the fact that most American closets are already clogged with jeans, another factor is the emergence of yoga pants, leggings, and “athleisure” wear as the day-in, day-out go-to choice for more consumers. “Athletic and activewear are certainly the new everyday wear and that’s happening no matter what age people are,” one analyst told CNBC.
Because consumers don’t feel compelled to buy the obligatory pair of jeans (or three) during retailers’ all-important back-to-school season, stores have been rolling out extra-large discounts to entice shoppers into squeezing a little more denim into the family budget (and closet). Target is currently offering 40% off jeans for the whole family. All jeans at American Eagle Outfitters are under $30. Rollback prices at Walmart mean some Levi’s jeans are now under $13. Hollister jeans are on sale starting at $19, while skinny jeans at H&M are down to $10, and Old Navy has gone as low as $8 for kids’ jeans during this back-to-school season.
None of this means that iconic American jeans—worn by celebrities for decades, celebrated in books like Alice Harris’s The Blue Jean—will be disappearing anytime soon. But much like what happens to the color and texture of denim over time, the ubiquity and everydayness of jeans seems to be fading. The shift isn’t merely about trends and changing tastes either: The cost of jeans, and how denim prices compare to other options, is certainly a factor.
It’s hard to say exactly when America reached Peak Denim, but it was probably not long ago, around the time that “premium denim” jeans were given list prices of $300 (and even $1,000) to see if anyone would bite, and when infomercials for Pajama Jeans were all over TV. We’ve since moved on to a period when jeans, or at least “jorts” (jean shorts) are widely mocked by the likes of Esquire and Buzzfeed.
The yoga pants craze may have been kicked off by a company (Lululemon) charging $90, but nowadays shoppers are more likely to turn to comfortable leggings. “I can wear leggings from yoga to going out at night,” one shopper explained to the New York Post. “Most people go for leggings because it’s easier and cheaper” than a pair of jeans, the manager of an American Apparel store in Manhattan explained. “Denim is just denim,” she said. “The leggings are more versatile.”
While leggings cost as little as $10, the average price paid for a pair of jeans has been measured at $34 and $39 in various studies. When you add in that the typical consumer already owns more than a half-dozen pairs, it’s no wonder that shoppers are increasingly choosing cheap, flexible leggings over yet another pair of denim bottoms. It’s also no wonder that stores are feeling forced to drop jeans prices to make them more appealing.
For a look at denim through the decades, check out the gallery below.
Walmart is testing in-store health clinics in select parts of Texas and South Carolina.
The company's new mobile payments app means no more waiting for a server to give you a check.
Reservations app OpenTable already lets users book a table at 31,000 restaurants nationwide without having to go through the trouble of talking to another person. Now, the company is taking this service to its next logical level by letting diners pay for their food without any tedious human interaction.
As of Monday, the app will allow customers in New York City who made OpenTable reservations at one of 45 participating eateries to pay for the meal with their smartphone. The service will become available in 20 more cities by the end of the year. That means the age of waiting for a waiter to bring you a check may be coming to an end.
Sarcasm aside, this is a logical next step for OpenTable, and restaurants in general. The fact that we’re still stuck using pen and paper to pay for a meal in 2014 is a little strange considering that most people are carrying around internet-connected devices wherever they go.
There’s currently no fee for the service. According to Bloomberg, OpenTable hopes to make money by attracting more people to download its app. The company gets paid by participating restaurants for every reservation it schedules. But the Wall Street Journal ominously reports that while OpenTable CEO Matt Roberts isn’t currently making a profit from mobile payments, “he hopes to eventually.” So enjoy the free service while it lasts.
OpenTable isn’t exactly the first company to come up with the idea of dinner-centric mobile payments. In addition to Seamless and GrubHub, two companies that let users order take-out and delivery meals over the internet, there’s a whole industry emerging around letting diners pick up the tab on their phone. The Journal notes that startups like Cover, Dash, and TabbedOut, in addition to giants like PayPal, have all created similar apps.
That might make the market seem saturated, but in reality most restaurants don’t work with any of these products, meaning the market is wide open for anyone who gets it right. OpenTable probably has the best chance, given the size of its pre-existing network, although Paypal is aggressively growing its network internationally.
No matter who wins, the question remains: Which minor inconvenience will technology solve next? Maybe an app that lets you order pizza with a single button? Oh wait, that already exists…