What is it about a Target store that makes normal people go gaga when a new one opens in their neighborhood?
Consider Geri Gizzarelli. She was among the hundreds who cracked the code to find out weeks ago when the new Target in the Tyrone area would begin practicing on live customers for the unofficial opening. She absolutely, positively, could not stand to wait the extra couple of days until the store officially opened.
"I'm absolutely thrilled!" gushed Gizzarelli, an office manager at Palms of Pasadena Hospital who showed up Wednesday. "It's a been a real pain driving from my home in St. Pete Beach all the way to their store in Largo Mall."
These are the people who have had it with Wal-Mart and Kmart. They're trading up. To them, Target has ditched the signs of cheapness that gave discount stores their Blue Light Special image.
"Target just doesn't feel like a discount store," said Jennifer Ryan-Molasky, a nurse who is calling off her bi-weekly, 45-minute pilgrimages from northeast St. Petersburg to the Target in Clearwater.
Target is designed to stand apart from its bargain-based cousins. Fans of its casual fashions jokingly pronounce it Tar-zhay, as if it's some French couture line.
The self-described upscale discount store chain (an oxymoron if there ever was one) has proved that in the frugal '90s, even a discount store can develop snob appeal.
Browse a Wal-Mart and a Target and the differences are obvious.
The dominant colors in Wal-Mart's current fashion pallette: teal, beige, red, white and blue. Target's are hunter green, mustard, plum, maroon, white and navy. Wal-Mart's jeans are the traditional washed-out blue; Target's have a more fashionable dark-blue tint. For teens, Target even carries those strange retro shirt-jackets Kramer wears on Seinfeld.
Wal-Mart is working class, designed to draw customers driven by price. Target appeals to the fashion- and trend-conscious.
The stylish colors and feel extend to virtually every department. Wal-Mart's houseware and home-furnishing departments stick to the same mostly homespun, country styles year-round. At Target even the decorator colors in these departments change every season. Right now the place is a forest of hunter green and maize. Red and green come in for Christmas, the latest pastel shades at Easter.
Wal-Mart stores are typically jammed with people and densely packed with merchandise (some of it even piled up overhead); Target stores sport extra-wide aisles. Targets are festooned with signs, 11 pallets of them per store, that make it easier to find things. The interior walls of a Wal-Mart are concrete block painted gray. Target's are smooth beige plaster accented with neon.
If Wal-Mart is the Taurus among discount stores, Target is the Thunderbird. In its home state of Minnesota, suburban towns have even lobbied and staged petition drives to land a Target.
Closer to home, deprived shoppers in South Tampa and St. Petersburg have looked enviously at such places as Spring Hill, Port Richey and Brandon, home to Targets for years; 1996 will stand out as the year they stop driving 45 minutes or more to the suburbs just to hit a Target.
The St. Petersburg store opened this week. South Tampa gets a Target in October. And Target is still trying to land somewhere (probably Gateway Mall, if it can be rebuilt) in northeast St. Petersburg in a year or two.
Many hard-core Tampa Bay-area shoppers even think Target's arrival in their neighborhood is a bigger deal than the prospects of Saks Fifth Avenue finally moving into Tampa's West Shore Plaza in 1997.
This for a discount store? It must be more than just merchandise.
Target's brass spent a ton on research finding the flaws in modern discount stores. Everything is geared to be fast and friendly.
If you need help, pick up one of the answer phones all over the store. An operator either will tell you how to find what you are looking for or summon a clerk on a cellular phone to walk you there.
Register clerks are trained to stand in front of their checkout counters when they are free and actually flag down customers. Signs direct parents to checkout lanes that purposely have no candy displayed to tempt children.
Target is part of a dramatic change in the way we shop. Just 15 years ago, shoppers mostly went to regional malls. We still go to malls, but only about half as often. All over the country a parade of new discount stores have helped whisk us away.
In the Tampa Bay area, Kmart shared the field a decade ago with the now-defunct Zayre. Back then, 50 percent of all shoppers were in a Kmart at least once a month.
Today, Kmart's monthly traffic has increased to 62 percent, according to the Scarborough Report. Meanwhile, 66 percent of all Tampa Bay shoppers are in a Wal-Mart at least once a month. And 35 percent have been in a Target, even though it had less than half as many stores as Wal-Mart when the survey was done.
Unlike Wal-Mart and Kmart, Target traces its corporate lineage to department stores, not variety stores. It has grown into the crown jewel of Dayton Hudson Corp., the Minneapolis-based owner of such fashion department stores as Marshall Field, Dayton's and J.
Wal-Mart boasts the lowest prices. But Target is comparable. On a Graco Stroller Bed, for instance, Wal-Mart beat Target's price by 3 cents on a $60 item. A pair of private label Faded Glory jeans at Wal-Mart cost $14.92; a pair of private label Greatland jeans sell for $14.88 at Target. Wal-Mart has the Jurassic Park video at $9.96, $3 less than Target. But Target has far more recent video releases than Wal-Mart.
"Target goes after a more upscale customer," said Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris. "We're more for the family of six that's trying to stretch a budget."
"I think Wal-Mart's prices are cheaper, but Target's clothes are better and more fashionable," said Tina Boltz, a South Pasadena retiree.
Target long has used its more fashionable apparel and more trendy housewares as a competitive advantage to draw women shoppers. Target dedicates about 35 percent of the store to apparel. At Wal-Mart, apparel gets about 25 percent of the space.
Those who enjoy the outdoors, however, might find Wal-Mart more attractive because it dedicates four times as much space as Target to fishing and hunting.
Much of the congestion and crowding that shoppers complain about at Wal-Mart is a sign of its success. Most of the stores Wal-Mart built in the Tampa Bay area six to 10 years ago are far smaller than the ones the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant builds today. The chain is now building many new 180,000- to 200,000-square-foot replacements that include full-sized grocery stores.
With 1996 sales headed well beyond $100-billion, Wal-Mart is growing so fast nationally that the annual sales increases in each of the past five years _ that's increases alone _ are equal to the size of J. C. Penney Co.
A lot of people in Tampa and St. Petersburg wonder why it has taken Target so long to build near them. Part of the reason is that local governments enforce land use and zoning plans that make redevelopment in urban areas far more time consuming than building in the boondocks. City master plans are designed to improve the quality of life. Access to the latest shopping trends never has been part of the formula.
Target began looking for a site in the Tyrone area back when it began searching for sites for stores in Clearwater, Oldsmar, Brandon and northwest Hillsborough, which all opened in 1991.
Five years later, the St. Petersburg store is finally opening. If Target needed more proof of pent-up demand, it came when they tested the parking-lot lights at the new store by leaving them on all night.
"The after-hours phone bell just rang constantly from people wanting to know if we had opened," said store manager Glenn Hall. "Before we moved into the building in June we had a temporary phone number that was not easy to get. But somehow hundreds of people got through just to ask when we would open."
All over the country Wal-Mart and Target have learned to co-exist, even across the street from each other. It's happening again in St. Petersburg.
By Friday, without any advertising, Target's parking lots were just as full as the Wal-Mart across the street.