• Jennifer Marks

Real Stores, Real Items, Real Prices

When I started out in the retail trade newspaper business, we used to have an argument about which type of store one should survey in putting together a report on any given retailer's merchandising line-up — the latest prototype or the regular store.

So it is each year, when HTT sets out on its Market Basket survey. My argument has always been this: It doesn't matter to the consumer what appears on the master planogram back at headquarters. All she sees is what's on shelf the day she's there.

With that, a few observations about how the baskets have changed over the last four years. Then, the highest priced item in the survey was a $269.99 quilt. It was found at Bed Bath & Beyond. In this year's survey, the highest priced item was a bed-in-a-bag. It was also $269.99. It was found at Kohl's.

The lowest priced item for every retailer in the survey in 2002 was a washcloth. Five of them cost $1.50 or less at EDLP pricing four years ago. Among them, the absolute lowest price was 30 cents. It was a washcloth at Marshalls. The second lowest priced item, also a washcloth, cost 99 cents; it was sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, beating the price of Wal-Mart's cheapest EDLP washcloth by a penny.

Only one of the lowest price items in the current year's survey cost less than $1.50; it's an 80 cent washcloth at Wal-Mart. The next cheapest item cost $1.58, at Target.

Price points have risen on the most expensive item in each retailer's basket at most of the chains in the survey. The difference between the top price point item in each retailer's basket from 2002 to 2006: Kohl's: +$120; Kmart: +$45; Wal-Mart: +$30; Target: +$10; JCPenney: +$10; Linens 'n Things: +$10; Bed Bath & Beyond: -$20; Marshalls: -$30; Sears: -$80.

U.S.-made goods in 2002 accounted for more than half the items in every retailer's market basket except at Bed Bath & Beyond (31%) and Marshall's (27%). The retailer with the highest percentage of U.S.-made goods in its basket – get ready to arch an eyebrow, now — was Target (72%)!

In this year's survey, not surprisingly, U.S.-made goods as a share of market basket did not exceed 38% (Kmart). The retailer with the lowest percentage of US-made goods in its basket: Target (3%).

But perhaps the greatest change since the launch of the survey has been the erosion of identifiable supplier brands in the survey.

Times change, of course, which is one reason why trade papers do surveys. While they aren't always scientific, they do provide a snapshot of a moment in time.

In an industry now characterized by regional assortments, 40-store test programs and more frequent seasonal sets, who's to say what constitutes The Real Assortment anymore?

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