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Jennifer Marks

Shopping on instinct

The mind of the American shopper is a beautifully calibrated instrument. In part because she has so many choices and so many retailers vying for her dollar.

But it's also because with retailers in all channels and price-point strata stressing value, she has become a shrewd estimator of shades of value. These shades have come to vary by product and by occasion.

The compartments look like this:

Tableware and linens for a Saturday afternoon barbecue party: Target.

Tableware and linens for hosting Thanksgiving dinner: Williams-Sonoma.

A piece of cookware to try a new recipe: Martha Stewart Everyday at Kmart.

A new set of pots for the kitchen: the local Younkers/Rich's/Robinsons-May.

New pillows to replace the old ones that have gotten too lumpy: the local ShopKo.

New pillows for the in-laws who are coming for a week-long visit: LNT.

A new doormat for the garage entryway into the mud room: Wal-Mart.

A seasonal doormat to welcome guests to the Christmas party: BBB.

Wineglasses for general use: Pier 1.

A set of wine glasses for a bridal gift: Bloomingdale's.

New dishtowels and pot holders: the local supermarket.

Dishtowels and pot holders for the dinner party: Crate & Barrel.

A computer desk for the kids: Ikea.

A computer desk for the home office: Pottery Barn.

Plastic plates and cups the family can tote to the beach: the local dollar store.

Plastic plates for the outdoor baby shower: Target.

New everyday fingertip towels for the half-bath: LNT.

Fingertip towels for the kid's Halloween party: Kmart.

The point is that cross-channel shopping has morphed into something more refined: high-low shopping. Every consumer has her high and low thresholds of acceptability. Fred Meyer might be one woman's everyday store but another woman's splurge. Ditto Macy's. Ditto Wal-Mart.

The explosion of how-to-decorate shows, such as Trading Spaces, further propels the trend by encouraging women to mix it up when they freshen a room. A friend of mine who bought a house last year outfitted her guest bathroom with Bianca bath sheets from BBB, Premiere bath/hand/wash sets from Target, metal accessories from Crate & Barrel, and an unused shower curtain she'd bought years earlier at Caldor.

She bought new linens and a duvet for her master bedroom from Laytner's. She bought Wamsutta linens and a comforter for the big guest room at BBB. She bought Martha Stewart Everyday linens and a comforter for the small guest room at Kmart. She did all these things in the same week. A few weeks later she ordered living room furniture from Pottery Barn over the Internet and a new mattress from Macy's over the phone, then drove to Home Depot for some cheap nylon folding chairs to put on her deck.

Too often we think the consumer doesn't understand the nuances of merchandising. She understands perfectly well. She gets good/better/best at gut level.

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