Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Discount Shopping

Several news items have recently indicated that at least one large, well-known discount retailer has lost significant revenue and may be headed for worse times. Naturally, this is bad news for the store and its competitors as a foreboding of continued economic woes.

No one should be surprised.

News articles and economists can shake their heads, accompanied by a collective "tsk, tsk" over the state of the nation's economy. Truth is the media may have hoped for a rapid return to the past glory years, but most of us knew prosperity was still way beyond the horizon.

Many retailers have been in dangerous territory for several years. Each year-end brings out the predictions of which companies will likely disappear before the end of the coming year. Some of the same stores have made the list for at least the past three years but are still limping along. Others -- including the current large, well-known discount retailer -- have managed to avoid being on any list, presumably deafened by the ca-ching of its registers, ignoring the clamors of discontented customers.

Like many people, I have absolutely nothing against saving money. Most of my lessons were learned the hard way, like comparative shopping the price of items I frequently purchase. However, I have found that many folks do not bother to check the prices of items from one store to the next.

Many discount retailers sell a wide variety of items, literally from A to Z. However, let's focus on groceries.

I know what I pay for certain items. Pretty good at guessing what the total grocery bill will be each trip. Checking prices is a good habit to develop. Many years ago I moved across the country and knew that my new home in the Washington, D.C. area was notoriously expensive. Not to worry, I thought. I will just be careful. On a pre-relocation trip to D.C., I trekked to a local grocery to check out some national brands that I often purchased. The prices in D.C. were not a great deal higher. But each item was from a few cents to a dollar more. Each and every item. Those small differences add up and, of course, I was confronted by a significant cost-of-living increase.

There are ways to beat price discrepancies. Don't buy the item again and do without it entirely. Try the so-called store brands. Switching often is a good tactic although I have found some store brands which are vastly inferior to the original. Another option is to splurge on the "real thing" occasionally or find a substitute in a similar product. People can learn from their mistakes.

It appears, however, that stores are not able to make the same adjustment.

This current large, well-known discount retailer has had a good ride. Some of its competitors have tried to keep up with it, providing shoddier, more cheaply-made imported goods in order to catch the same wave. But their sales -- to me as a shopper, at least -- have gone dormant. Many folks see through such attempts and simply stop shopping at such stores.

This current large, well-known discount retailer needs to wake up and make some changes. When your company is the butt of jokes, recognized by a website which makes fun of the shoppers who patronize it, you need to tend to business. Despite the fact that its founders may have been well-intentioned in wanting to bring bargain prices to the masses, somewhere along the line the message got lost. The world has changed in recent decades but the store seems not to have noticed.

Whether the prices are merely comparable or greatly reduced, what matters to many shoppers is how they are treated by the store and its employees.

Ask yourself these questions about any retailer:
     Is getting to the store convenient?  
     Is the store clean? 
     Is merely entering the store a cause of dread?
     Are the prices worth the hassle?
     Is the check-out process insufferable?
     Do I feel worse following the shopping experience?

Shoppers should vote with their feet. If I can answer "yes" to any of the questions above, I'm likely to find another place to shop.

The large, well-known discount retailer would do well to keep that in mind.

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