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Jennifer Marks

The grand conundrum

The time: A recent Saturday afternoon.

The location: A home furnishings store in midtown Manhattan.

The crowd: Prodigious, and swarming through the store.

The quote of the day: "They've really found a way to make shopping not such an excruciating experience."

That was my husband talking, and you could have knocked me over with a feather when he said it. We had been in Crate & Barrel for all of two minutes, and on our way to look at couches upstairs he'd already stopped to examine a Marimekko bed, a coffee table and a shiny silver colander. It was high praise.

Before the day was out we also did some shopping at Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. Despite the fact that all three stores were bustling with customers, we were able to get help at all of them, to have our questions answered promptly and to receive information about the in-stock situation on the items we were interested in.

It was a good afternoon of errand-running, and after it was over I was struck by one question: Why is it that few of the biggest retailers in the country are considered the best retailers in the country?

I'm not talking about who's accounted the best by suppliers. They understandably measure greatness by volume. And Wall Street, naturally, bases its evaluation on EPS and the potential for future growth.

I'm talking about the retailers a consumer would choose if you asked her to name her favorite place to shop. Take a look at the top non-grocery retail companies in the United States — Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Target, JCPenney, Costco, Dell Computer, Walgreen and CVS. Some of them have customers who love them fanatically, but that certainly can't be said for all of them.

And in many cases, customers patronize them despite the misery of shopping their outlets. Let's face it, looking around a Home Depot or a Costco is terrific fun; actually placing product in a cart (or on a rolling palette) and maneuvering through the protracted checkout process is a torment.

No retailer is immune. A few years ago, I sat in on a virtual focus group whose participants were teleconferenced into the event from various points across the country. All were discount store customers, and nearly all said they shopped Wal-Mart. Most were satisfied with the store because of its reliable in-stocks and low prices. Except a woman from Tennessee, who hated Wal-Mart so passionately she couldn't say enough bad things about it.

"So," said the focus group facilitator, "where do you do your shopping then?"

Answer: Wal-Mart. It was close to her house and easier on her pocketbook than other stores in the area.

In truth, many of the largest retailers today succeed because they offer the proper balance of convenience, broad assortments and pricing. As the results from retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart demonstrate, that is a powerful formula. And as the numbers from some other retailers show, it's not an easy formula to replicate.

But having the formula is not the same as being loved, and when you're unloved, you're vulnerable.

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