Now Playing in Aisle 8: Retailers in Popular Culture

Target Gets the 'Prestige' of Tar-zhay, Walmart Gets the Anthropological Treatment and Kmart Is the Butt of Jokes

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Forget diapers and groceries. Big -box retailers have made another commodity -- inspiration -- easily available. Discounters provide a rich source of material for songwriters, filmmakers, comics and everyone in between.

For one thing, everybody gets it.

And two, as Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University points out, these retailers create an ambiguous, love-hate relationship.

"On one level, they represent the banality of American consumerism, the mass-market, cookie-cutter mentality," said Mr. Thompson. On another level, we appreciate their overflowing stock and lower prices.

The phrase "Walmarting" is emblematic of this push-pull. Union experts and other critics use it pejoratively to discuss how low costs inevitably lead to plunging wages or to lament the homogenization of American retail. But it's also considered a way to describe American business at its best -- brilliant logistics that churn out record-breaking sales.

In 1996, Sheryl Crow used her song "Love Is a Good Thing" to criticize Walmart's gun-sales policy. The company refused to carry the album.

Separately, the retailer has been accused of cultural gatekeeping because it has banned numerous movies and albums, largely those with violent language or adult themes.

While some Walmart's references offer serious cultural commentary, others are lighthearted. Launched by two brothers in 2009, posts exceptionally weird photos of Walmart's shoppers submitted by users. Its founders have expanded the site and launched iPhone and Android apps.

Then there's fanaticism. Tens of thousands of RVers regularly seek out Walmart's parking lots to set up "camp." Several versions of the Walmart Atlas chart RV courses, provide information on nearby services and tips on camping etiquette (One is to always buy something at the store.)

Kmart, too, has had its moments. The phrase "Attention Kmart shoppers" became part of the lexicon.

In addition, Blue Light Specials (surprise discounts that a store manager announced with the help of a flashing light) became a phenomenon. Kmart discontinued the program in 1991 but brought it back within a decade.

"Kmart" also became, at one point, another word for "cheap." In a "Calvin & Hobbes" comic strip, Calvin's dad told his inquiring son that most babies came from Sears but that he had been a Kmart Blue Light Special -- "almost as good, and a lot cheaper."

"Kmart is the one that has had the most struggles with its image," said Joseph Hancock, a professor in the department of fashion, design and merchandising at Drexel University. "Where Target does a good job of creating the perception that they are inexpensive and stylish, nothing ever really worked for Kmart," he said.

The view of Target as cheap but chic gave birth to one of the clearest examples of popular culture's obsession with retailers: "Tar-zhay."

A number of sources, including Oprah Winfrey, have been credited with creating the word. But according to Tony Jahn, senior archivist-historian at Target , a customer in Duluth, Minn., came up with the "French" pronunciation in 1962, the year Target opened its first stores.

"The store was so different to the folks in Duluth that they called it "Tar-zhay' and gave it more cachet by using a French accent," Mr. Jahn said.

It became so popular that Target licensed the name Targé for a line of higher-end clothing in 2006. Maybe people picked up the term to poke fun at Target shoppers who thought it was high-end, but the company wisely supported the perception and continued to differentiate itself with design partnerships and stylish advertising.

Target 's "bull's-eye" design is one of the most-recognized brand logos of all time, in the same class with McDonald's "golden arches" or Nike 's "swoosh." 

"Target Lady" skit (with Kristen Wiig) on Saturday Night Live.

Mr. Jahn also pointed out that the retailer has been featured in the "Target Lady" skit on "Saturday Night Live," as well as in movies such as "10 Items or Less" and "Career Opportunities."

What about Kohl's? That is one of the big four discount retailers that never seemed to have done much to capture people's imagination, which might be telling in and of itself.

Explanations vary widely.

According to Mr. Hancock, Kohl's focuses on softlines and attracts more women than men, and a retailer must have broader appeal to influence pop culture.

Mr. Thompson said that Kohl's -- with 1,127 locations at the end of 2011 -- simply isn't sufficiently available. Whereas Walmart, which has 4,400 U.S. locations, "seems to be everywhere," he said.

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