Off Target

TargetI’ve been shopping at Target for years. In fact, I’ve been kind of a Target freak even as I’ve railed against the “evils” of Walmart.

I know Target does a lot of the same “bad” stuff that Walmart does — fighting unionization, driving competing local businesses into the ground, forcing its suppliers to operate by its rules or lose their shelf space, skirting local taxes and ordinances — but Walmart has always seemed to be leading the “race to the bottom.” Plus, unlike Walmart, spending time inside a Target store can actually be a pleasant experience.

But the ostensible “savings” Target offers as a discount store do come at a price. Since a Super Target (a gigantic Target store with a full-service supermarket inside) opened near our home in late 2007, we’ve done almost all of our shopping there. SLP complains that their selection of many goods is lacking, and I’ve found some questionable pricing tactics (more on that in the next paragraph), but it hasn’t been enough to dissuade us from shopping there.

On the matter of pricing, here are some examples I’ve observed: Market Pantry (Super Target’s store brand) peanut butter inexplicably jumping up to become more expensive than Jif, after months of being substantially cheaper; Market Pantry milk gallons selling for $2.99 and then a few weeks later displaying a “Price Reduction” tag but selling at $3.29 (“marked down” from $3.49); 8-packs of Gillette razor blades selling for more than the price of two 4-packs of the same.

Essentially there are three tactics happening here: in the first case, Target relies on your assumption that store-brand items will cost less than their name-brand counterparts. And, in fact, they are cheaper… for a while. But then Target can, on occasion, jack up the prices on the Market Pantry items and most unsuspecting customers won’t notice. In the second case, they’re audaciously labeling a price increase as a price reduction by jacking up the “regular” price considerably, but then selling the items at a “reduced” price that is somewhere in between. And in the third case, they’re relying on the buyer’s assumption (based on years of experience) that larger quantities of… well, just about anything… will cost less per unit than smaller quantities. Most people probably don’t even check the price on the shelf, and even if they do, they’re probably not doing the math in their heads. And Target doesn’t offer price-per-unit information on those tags (unlike Cub Foods and a lot of other supermarket chains) to assist customers in making economical choices.

By the end of 2008, we were often shopping at Target 3 to 4 times per week, rarely dropping less than $50, and in general spending upwards of $1,000 per month there. Super Target counts on the fact that, since you can buy just about everything you need there, in fact you could pretty much just live in the store, you won’t be able to keep track of how much money you’ve been spending on whatever it is you’re buying there, and, you know, it works. I bought an iPod at that Super Target shortly after it opened, and on my bank’s website, the purchase was just lumped into the “Grocery” category. Even if you realize that’s what’s happening, unless you’re extremely diligent (and/or have a lot of time on your hands), you’ll probably just give up. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

So as 2009 was rolling around, an experiment was devised: we would live for one month without shopping at Target. At all. For any reason. I considered writing a daily blog about the experience; given the trend of people coming up with a random little experiment for themselves, blogging about it, and landing book deals, Oprah appearances, and whatnot, it almost seemed silly not to. But in the end, I decided there just wouldn’t be that much interesting to write about something that’s fundamentally not-very-interesting to begin with, so instead I would just wait until the end of the month, or near it, and then reflect upon the experience and the lessons learned (or not).

Today is January 26, and so far we’ve made it. It’s actually been surprisingly easy. And I’ve made some interesting observations:

  1. There’s a big difference between “if we had it in the house, we’d use it” and “we need it.” I had never released how much I was conflating the two before this. I rationalized that if it was being used in our house, it was more-or-less necessary, and if it was (ostensibly) cheap (or… oh man, on sale!) at Target, all the more reason to get it!
  2. Even if things cost more at another store, you still might end up paying less. How’s that? Well, it relates to the first observation. The individual items you’re buying at, say, Byerlys might cost more — sometimes, a lot more (the Barilla pasta sauce I was used to paying $2.09 for at Target is a jaw-dropping $3.49 at Byerlys). But if those higher prices discourage you from buying stuff you don’t really need, or less of the stuff you do, the net result might just be less money spent.
  3. There are much better places to get things than Target. We already knew this about certain things, like furniture and fresh produce. (In fact, Super Target’s pathetic options for fresh produce have long been one of SLP’s biggest complaints about shopping there.) But this experience has really reinforced that although you could live your life only buying anything you ever need at Target… why would you really want to?

January is almost over, and with it, our “Off Target” experiment. Will we go back to Target? Probably. We are starting to run out of some of the “we need it” items that, even after contemplating everything above, are probably worth going to Target for — mostly household items like dishwasher detergent and plastic bags. But will we go there less, consider our other shopping options, and/or just buy less stuff in general? I most certainly hope so.