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  • Jennifer Marks

Running the numbers

Wal-Mart was a surprise. Before the numbers were parsed for HTT's exclusive Spring Market Basket report appearing in this issue, it was a foregone conclusion that the Bentonville price crusher would yield up the single lowest price point in the survey.

The only question was how close others would come.

It turned out that the closest low price was logged by Bed Bath & Beyond — and its bottom-priced washcloth was actually a penny cheaper than Wal-Mart's $1.00 opening-price-point washcloth. More surprising was Marshall's, which offered up an opening-price-point washcloth for $0.30. You can't even find a roll of toilet tissue for that price — although it's likely the tissue is softer than the 30-cent cloth.

As with any attempt to compare retail price points, a few caveats are in order here. HTT did not include in the survey any products marked for sale, clearance or on special offer. We went in search of each retailer's everyday lowest and highest priced bedding and bath products.

Nor was there any attempt made to shop exclusively "A" stores — or "B" stores or "C" stores, for that matter. The consumer does not say to herself, "It's really not fair for me to compare the prices at my Sears store to my Kohl's store because my Sears is a C-level and my Kohl's is an A." So HTT didn't make that distinction either.

What we set out to discover was the array of choices presented to the average consumer on the average day by a leading group of retailers whose customers mostly fall into a common consumer pool.

Nonetheless, in the game of inches that mass market retailing has become, it was fascinating to take a look at how narrowly — or broadly — the leading home textiles retailers in the country stake out their posts in the price/value equation.

In the matter of extremes, Bed Bath and Beyond almost always stood out. It was the retailer with the broadest span between its lowest priced market basket item (a $0.99 washcloth) and its highest (a $269.99 queen quilt). It was No. 2 in the amount of import product making up its market basket assortment (69 percent) and also No. 2 among retailers offering the greatest amount of supplier-branded product in the survey (74 percent).

The tendency of U.S.-made merchandise to outstrip the amount of import product in the survey was unexpected. Overall, 56 percent of the merchandise across the survey was produced in the United States.

That said, it's worth noting that each store shopped by HTT carries a plethora of product priced between the highs and lows measured in this survey, so the ratio of sourced-to-domestically made product is not necessarily representative.

And if the Spring Market Basket has one overriding lesson to teach, it is that price points in and of themselves are neither inherently good nor bad. After all, the survey's low-price leader was Kmart, now operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And the survey's top price point "loser" was Wal-Mart, the most successful retail company in the world.

Which just goes to prove that it's not how big a retailer's price points are, it's how it uses them that counts.

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