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Target, Wal-Mart, and Kmart: Who has the best deal?

Nov. 19, 2012 at 7:22 AM ET

Target is getting more aggressive with price matching this holiday.

By Raechel Conover, Cheapism.com

In the perennial war among discount superstores Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart for shoppers' dollars, the edge goes to the retailer with the best and the most bargains. Cheapism found that Wal-Mart scores a clear win with the cheapest prices and largest selection and holds its own in other realms that frugal and savvy customers consider important -- convenience, a pleasant shopping environment, and products they consider a good value. Target is pressing in from a position of strength and Kmart, once the biggest of the three, no longer competes in any aspect we considered important.

For this in-depth comparison of Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart, in the 50th anniversary year for each, Cheapism took a multi-pronged approach. We sent a researcher into each store to check prices and evaluate the shopping experience. We also conducted consumer and expert interviews, fielded a Facebook poll, and analyzed online reviews.

By the Numbers

On price alone, Wal-Mart leads the pack. When we totaled up a shopping cart of 30 identical and like items, including clothing, electronics, groceries, health and beauty supplies, home goods, and toys, the bill came to $1,776.15 at Wal-Mart, $1,866.10 at Target, and $2,092.82 at Kmart. What's more, Wal-Mart's price-matching policy doesn't require consumers to show a competitor's print ad in order to pay a lower price. Target is upping the ante this holiday season, however, by extending its own guarantee to online prices from Nov. 1 to Dec. 16.

Price Isn't Everything

While its prices are modestly higher on many items, "Tar-zhay" enjoys a reputation for relative quality and attention to design, particularly in areas such as apparel and home goods. Consumers gravitate to Target's clothing lines for their fashionable styling and durability. A Facebook poll respondent extols the retailer's other store brands, saying that the Up & Up baby products, for example, parallel pricier name brands. Wal-Mart carries a more basic selection of clothing, including heavy work clothes such as coveralls and thermal flannel shirts. Kmart showcases a couple of celebrity lines, but its offerings didn't register with the sources we queried.

Wal-Mart and Target appear to field plenty of employees on the shopping floor who were almost uniformly friendly and accommodating during our site visits. Kmart, by contrast, seemed woefully understaffed and the few employees present weren't all that willing to help out. One irritant common to all three discount retailers: long waits and other problems at checkout. We found that too few lanes were open to handle the crush of shoppers and numerous consumers posted negative experiences on our Facebook page.

The atmosphere varies by location, of course, but generally shoppers perceive Target as well-organized, tidy, and calm. Wal-Mart strikes some consumers as frenzied and crowded, a tad overwhelming, and occasionally in need of a quick cleanup, according to our research. Kmart disappoints with understocked shelves, messy displays, poor signage, and generally scruffy facilities.

Goods and Services

All three retailers stock a variety of products in numerous departments, from foodstuffs to office supplies to jewelry and more. For the most part, Target and especially Wal-Mart have become one-stop-shopping destinations. With thousands of stores scattered about the country, they are within convenient reach of many consumers. Target is expanding the grocery offerings in more than 200 stores this year but still has a ways to go to catch up with Wal-Mart, which includes full-service grocery departments complete with bakeries and delis in its 3,000 Wal-Mart Supercenters. Kmart stocks a more limited assortment of products -- particularly groceries -- in addition to charging higher prices.

Pharmacies at all three retailers' locations sell generic medications at low prices, although Kmart levies a $10 annual fee to obtain low-cost prescriptions. Some Target stores and many Wal-Mart locations contain health clinics and vision centers, as well. Kmart's health services don't extend much farther than flu shots and periodic "health events" such as blood pressure checks.

Wal-Mart and Target both feature photo processing. Wal-Mart provides the greatest variety of financial services, but all three retailers issue credit and/or debit cards. We found that an offer of 5% savings on all purchases and free shipping for online orders has made Target's REDcards a consumer favorite. Kmart stands out only for its well-known layaway program, for which it's waiving the service fee through Nov. 21. Wal-Mart supports the layaway option, as well, but only during the holiday shopping season.

The three stores also maintain extensive online inventories, and Wal-Mart's website includes a marketplace for third-party sellers. Wal-Mart.com offers free shipping to a local store and some items qualify for free home delivery if the order exceeds $45. Eligible items at Target must total $50 for free shipping. Kmart offers a fee-based membership for frequent shoppers that comes with free shipping on many items. In online reviews, consumers cite shipping-related problems with all three retailers.

Ranking the Discount Retailers

What factored into Cheapism's final verdict:

1. Wal-Mart

  • Lowest prices, generous ad-matching policy
  • Thousands of Supercenters with vast inventory, especially in grocery
  • User-friendly website with myriad offerings and free Site to Store shipping
  • Full selection of services, including photo developing, portrait studio, health clinics, vision centers, and holiday-season layaway

2. Target

  • Fashionable clothing and home goods, reputation for quality
  • Modest prices
  • Clean stores with well-organized displays and helpful employees
  • Calm atmosphere that makes for easy shopping

3. Kmart

  • Highest prices
  • Limited selection, especially in grocery
  • Disgruntled and unavailable employees
  • Empty shelves and unkempt displays

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