Target, Wal-Mart fight big-box store image battle in Hernando

Shoppers on Thursday cruise inside the new Target store on Spring Hill Drive. Target’s welcome expansion locally doesn’t seem to be shared by Wal-Mart.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Shoppers on Thursday cruise inside the new Target store on Spring Hill Drive. Target’s welcome expansion locally doesn’t seem to be shared by Wal-Mart.

Gwen Bassick made her birthday plans months in advance, based on a sign she saw as the new Target went up on Spring Hill Drive.

The sign announced that the store — or, more to the point of this column, the 140,000-square-foot, big-box retail outlet — would open July 26, which happened to be two days before Bassick turned 60.

"I've been driving by the sign forever, and I just said to myself, 'That's how I want to spend my 60th birthday,' '' said Bassick, who lives north of Brooksville.

And even though the store — excuse me, big-box retail outlet — opened a few days earlier, and even though Bassick didn't have specific plans to buy anything, she was there as scheduled Tuesday afternoon, pushing one of the store's trademark bright red carts down one of its trademark wide, uncluttered aisles.

Layout is important, said Bassick, who formerly worked in the corporate offices of Levi Strauss & Co. and the upscale cooking chain Williams-Sonoma. So are the choices of merchandise Target carries, which she says are more thoughtful and stylish than Wal-Mart's.

Also important is that the employees, in her experience, are more courteous and numerous than those of its main rival. You hardly ever have to wait in a checkout line at Target, she said.

"I don't like shopping at Wal-Mart,'' she said. "I do like shopping at Target.''

Maybe it's that simple. Many people like Target better than Wal-Mart.

Maybe it should have been obvious that this was the answer to the question I had in mind: Why one big-box retail outlet and not the other?

After all, any aesthetic, environmental or economic objection applies equally to both: the traffic they create; the architecturally bland buildings; the vast, impermeable parking lots; and, though any jobs are welcome now, the kind of low-wage service positions that have been blamed for dragging down our economy.

So how come the opening of a Target is treated as a joyous occasion — even a worthwhile way to spend a landmark birthday — and a Wal-Mart planned for this same part of the county was as welcome as an outbreak of swine flu?

Two years ago, you might remember, residents from Pristine Place and Silverthorn crowded into a County Commission meeting to speak against a store the retailer wanted to build less than a mile to the west of the Target.

The commissioners voted it down, partly for good reason.

Traffic from the Wal-Mart would have poured onto Barclay Avenue near schools and entrances to subdivisions. The Target, meanwhile, is next to the Spring Hill interchange of the Suncoast Parkway.

Wal-Mart two years ago was pursuing a scary expansion strategy called "saturation marketing,'' and the Hernando market, with three supercenters and a Sam's Club, was already pretty well-saturated. The Target, which is only a deli and a bakery shy of "SuperTarget'' status, is just the county's second.

Still, considering Wal-Mart had a clear right to build on the Barclay site, I detected a bit of bias in the community's opposition. It was almost enough to make you feel sorry for the world's largest retailer, as though nobody liked it.

You might have noticed Wal-Mart is trying change that.

Yes, its stores are still piled high with a lot of cheap merchandise. And, yes, the people shopping there tend to express not joy, but resignation. Wal-Mart still offers bargains, pure and simple (which, most analysts agree, is why it has outperformed Target since the start of the recession).

No, Target is in no danger on the fun-to-shop front.

But it was Wal-Mart, not Target, that started a curbside recycling program in the city of Brooksville.

It was Wal-Mart that began donating damaged plants, mulch and other garden supplies to the city.

And it never escaped my notice that while many shopping centers got rid of the county recycling bins in their parking lots, the bin at the supercenter on State Road 50 became the busiest in Hernando.

Somewhere in the past few years, it seems, the chain noticed that being a national symbol of sprawl and greed was not good for business.

Its public relations people actually returned calls (though not for this story, unfortunately). The saturation marketing strategy was scaled back.

Some of this was no doubt calculated.

But I also know that workers at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center do a lot of unnoticed community work, including helping out at a recent fundraiser for Dr. Paul Farmer and securing company donations for his cause worth about $11,500.

Is it enough? Do people like Wal-Mart? Well, last I heard, the retailer still planned to build a supercenter on County Line Road near the parkway, so maybe we'll find out then.

Meanwhile, the parking lot at Target was full even on a weekday afternoon this week. Some of shoppers were actually smiling. It was almost like a party.

Target, Wal-Mart fight big-box store image battle in Hernando 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 8:47pm]

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