By  on June 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Mass merchants are recognizing that low prices can no longer make up for dirty stores and messy merchandise displays.

The country's largest mass stores are revamping their apparel departments to appeal to an ever more discerning clientele. The moves come as the chains are aiming to capture a wealthier demographic and as they step up their expansion programs in urban areas of the Northeast and West.

Target, which already sells blue chenille cloud chairs and Isaac Mizrahi mercury glass vases to fans of smart design, has admitted that there's room for improvement in its execution and display of women's apparel.

Wal-Mart also has acknowledged it needs to do better with the design and presentation of soft goods. If the world's largest company wants to attract wealthier and more sophisticated shoppers, retail experts said, it will have to retool more than just its product offerings, however: The $285 billion retailer will need to upgrade its shopping environment and, to some extent, redefine its image.

Even Kmart, now part of Sears Holdings, is tweaking some of its displays to make it look less like a mass merchant and more like a moderate department store.

Wal-Mart traditionally hasn't been interested in the niceties of product presentation, preferring to focus on its Everyday Low Prices mantra. Unlike Target, which has clever ad campaigns and a cute canine mascot with a bull's-eye logo over one eye, Wal-Mart is neither hip nor cool. In fact, it's the opposite, projecting a down-home sensibility firmly entrenched in Middle America. But for Wal-Mart to move beyond its rural and suburban roots and open stores in regional malls and cosmopolitan cities such as Chicago and New York, it will have to embrace the "d" word, as in design, experts said.

"Design will become a competitive and powerful and better-understood tool by the mass retailers," predicted Kevin Roche, a partner in RYA, a retail design consultancy. "As mass merchants move into urban areas, they're not dealing with visually unsophisticated people. They're dealing with young professionals on budgets or people who just like saving money."

And even as it is buffeted by controversy over labor practices and expansion plans, Wal-Mart is recognizing that it needs to upgrade its products and stores. Lee Scott, the company's president and chief executive officer, acknowledged the challenge at Wal-Mart's annual general meeting earlier this month. "We don't think we're doing a very good job on 'high-end' apparel, or home fashions, or electronics or other items," he said. "[Shoppers] may bypass some of these departments completely on the assumption that our competitors are doing a better job."

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