What's In Store at Retail

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Next time you're in Wal-Mart, stop by the customer service podium near the checkout aisles and take a look at the number that's pasted on the front. That number, often in the hundreds, represents the amount of products being purchased every hour at the store. It's a stark reminder that today's consumers are turning to mass merchandisers, especially Wal-Mart, for everything from fertilizer to flannel shirts, cookies to computers. According to How America Shops 2000, an annual survey by WSL Strategic Retail, 55 percent of Americans say they shop weekly at mass merchandisers, up from 25 percent in 1996. Of that group, 39 percent shopped weekly at Wal-Mart, 16 percent at Kmart, and 11 percent at Target.

Americans average 3.5 shopping trips a week, a figure that has remained constant since 1998, the survey reports. But those shopping excursions are getting longer. Consumers now hit 2.9 stores in a typical week, up from 1.4 in 1996. "Proximity is a key reason," says Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York City. "Along a mile of suburban highway, you may find two supermarkets and three national drugstores. Mass merchandisers, like Wal-Mart and Kmart, face each other across the highway. It is so easy to get a lot done on a single shopping trip." Consumers aged 18 to 34 account for 4.1 trips a week, the most of any age group.

Mass merchandisers are cutting into the business of practically every type of store, the report concludes. Roughly 57 percent of consumers shopped at a mall in the past three months, down from 76 percent in 1998. Home improvement stores lost customers too, with 48 percent of consumers visiting on a quarterly basis, versus 61 percent two years ago. And 83 percent of Americans went to a supermarket in the past three months, a drop of 15 percentage points since 1998.

Don't be surprised to find affluent shoppers chasing after blue-light specials. The survey finds that 84 percent of households with incomes $70,000 or more shopped at a mass merchandiser in the past three months. High income households are also more likely than the average consumer to buy from catalogs (52 percent vs. 44 percent) and on the Web (23 percent vs. 5 percent).

Overall, lower income households place a higher value on service than do wealthy shoppers. Roughly 83 percent of households earning $15,000 to $25,000 agree strongly that it's important to receive excellent service, compared to 57 percent of high income consumers. Young adults are more likely to be impulse shoppers: One out of two 18-to-34-year olds say they usually buy more than they planned. Wal-Mart has plenty of impulse shoppers wandering its aisles - 25 percent of consumers who visited the chain in the past three months say they bought more than they planned. Indeed, no other mass merchandiser comes close to matching the positive association Wal-Mart has with attributes important to shoppers. For example, a full 40 percent of Wal-Mart customers say they get the lowest prices on most things they buy at the store - only 9 percent of Target shoppers feel the same.

For more information about How America Shops 2000, call WSL Strategic Retail at (212) 924-7780.

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