RALEIGH, N.C. —Competition is tough in the mass-market world, especially between the two biggest retailers Wal-Mart and Target. But how do the world’s biggest company and its major competitor compare?

Located in a strip-mall, the Wal-Mart at Paddington Station (which wasn’t a station of any sort and clearly wasn’t in London) here dwarfs the other small, privately owned businesses that surround it — like a dry cleaner, Nail Palace and Paisano’s Pizza. Entering the store at 9:30 on a Monday morning, there were few shoppers milling about in its atmosphere of glaring fluorescent light, gray carpeting and linoleum walkways. At the entrance, however, there was a lovely greeter, Nila, who provided a shopping cart, which seemed incredibly civilized. With my mother in tow, I began with a quick foray into the women’s room, which was spotless, and then ambled quickly past the in-store McDonald’s, which perhaps is there just in case customers get so tired and hungry from circling the massive space that they need a Big Mac fix.

The women’s apparel section was situated in the front part of the store. The first prominent corner display was of a series of White Stag ensembles which, truth be told, actually looked cute. Mannequins were outfitted in mandarin-collared vests with matching two-tiered wrap skirts retailing for $9.94 and $12.94, respectively. While my mother struggled to find a skirt smaller than a size 10, I slipped on the vest, and then chucked it into our grocery-store sized shopping cart.

There seemed to be rack after rack of elastic-waist, 100 percent cotton khakis ($14.94); slim, twill skirts and printed cotton tank tops. What made the sifting process much easier were colored tabs on the hanger necks differentiating the sizes. There were also scores of Riders jeans by Lee for $17.96 in both "eased fit" and "relaxed," while Wrangler jeans were $15.96. All the racks were bulging with clothes and crammed together in a crowded fashion, which made it impossible to wheel the Conestoga wagon of a cart through them.

To the left of the square center area that belonged to the women’s department was what appeared to be the juniors division. However, when an incredibly unhelpful saleswoman was asked if that was the case, she replied that it was all mixed in together. That was a little off-putting because women’s seemed to blend into juniors and plus-sizes without any clear delineation.Brands in the alleged junior area included No Boundaries overalls, Jordache jeans and terry cloth separates by Catalina. But right next to these racks were Just My Size elastic-waist pants, athletic pants, hospital-style scrubs, and dresses by Kathie Lee. But just as things appeared to be getting grim, around a corner was an extensive intimates section, replete with hundreds of innerwear selections, nightgowns and pajamas.

We piled the cart (sorry male readers) with luxe-feeling Hanes Her Way thongs, a mesh, seamless bra and panty set from Secret Treasures, slips from Vassarette and charmingly full, old-fashioned nightgowns in floral prints. A Venus razor also went in because they were hanging in the lingerie department. Perhaps that is Wal-Mart’s way of gently reminding women to take care of themselves before donning intimate apparel. Although an odd merchandising choice, it worked.

Accessories, tucked into the women’s department, were an odd lot of backpacks, baseball caps and belts with grommets. Hosiery had a decent selection of wares from L’eggs, No Nonsense, Kathie Lee and Simply Basic.

The jewelry department was filled with an extensive, although bland, collection of gold, silver, diamonds and gemstones. But the watch selection was pretty vast and included brands such as Casio, Armitron and Timex. A hefty, black-faced Casio watch with a thick, black rubber band went into the selection (and has since been admired by several fashion editors, who have asked which designer made it).

With a half-filled cart, I wandered to the fitting rooms, a freestanding area of stalls stuck right in the middle of the women’s area (clearly, discreet dressing rooms aren’t part of the mass-merchant world). With the aid of the off-putting fluorescent lights, I said no to black capri pants, a jean skirt and an unstructured jacket that swam on me despite being a size small.

Two-and-a-half hours after entering the store, it was off to the checkout with my final pickings. They included two sets of thongs, a bra and panty set, two Hanes Sport athletic bras, two pairs of socks, a terry cloth shirt, a Vassarette full slip and half slip, a Secret Treasures nightgown, a nightie short set, a Venus razor, an Aqua Tech digital sports watch, a White Stag women’s vest and the Casio watch. The grand total: $129.31.After lunch at a Mexican joint around the corner called El Mandado, we hit the Target on Green Road in Raleigh, a 10-minute drive away along the four-lane roads. The Target here is in good company, surrounded by other big-box retailers like Petsmart, Lowes Foods, Sam’s Club, Lowe’s hardware and a Staples.

Immediately upon entering the store, the dimmer, more subdued lighting made it clear this was a more comforting shopping environment. The women’s apparel was located along the entire left side near the front. No McDonald’s here, although there was a little in-house diner if one needed to refuel. The racks and displays were more spread out and there was less merchandise hanging on each rack, which made for easy perusing. The first merchandise in the women’s apparel appeared to be juniors although, again, it was not really carefully defined in Target either. This presumably is confusing for shoppers, as it certainly was for us.

But the clothes displayed in front were cute offerings from Mossimo and Xhilaration, including twill pants, flared corduroys, ruffled skirts, plaid skirts, jean jackets and miniskirts. Most of it appeared a bit too juniory for me, but into the cart went some moss green flared cords, a velour track suit and a rugby shirt, all by Mossimo. A band of teenage girls sauntered through the area eyeing the clothes. One of them pointed out what looked like a cute corduroy jacket and matching skirt. She disagreed. "I wouldn’t be caught dead in these things," she said dismissively.

Walking through, my mother quickly outpaced me through the juniors department, and I found her wandering rather aimlessly through racks and racks of unimpressive, bland-looking khakis, ribbed sweaters and button-down blouses by Cherokee and Merona. There were several circular racks of sale merchandise, which included prairie skirts, capped sleeve shirts and shorts — and the prices were good. But we were both hard-pressed to find anything we liked in regular apparel. We were disappointed that Target appeared to carry a meager number of brands and the only items that were hip or trendy were for juniors. Also, compared to Wal-Mart, the prices weren’t that great. Everything at Wal-Mart seemed cheaper by $10 to $20 and if you’re buying numerous pieces, that type of disparity adds up.Across the aisle, though, in an area marked Hosiery, was colorful athletic wear by Mossimo and Danskin, which gave way to a large, impressive array of intimate apparel, lingerie and nightgowns. Because the lingerie was displayed more sparely than at Wal-Mart, it was easier to look through the racks and find sizes. The overall assortment was rather refreshing in that it didn’t look like a deluxe white sale, as do many other discount intimate apparel departments. There was a large selection of colors, prints and styles and it seemed quite modern. Brands included Gilligan& O’Malley, Vassarette (again), and Xhilaration. The nightwear was also cute. Not only did they have old-fashioned, fine cotton full sleeveless numbers, but also flannel pajama pants, knit tanks and more sultry pieces like satin short slips.

The watch and jewelry departments were nowhere near as impressive as Wal-Mart’s, with Diamonique pieces and some silver jewelry and Timex watches, but nothing as slick as Wal-Mart’s Casio.

Sales staff were sparse, as at most discounters, but Target’s solution is to have red courtesy phones throughout the store to summon assistance. I picked one up to find out how efficient the system was. The woman who answered clearly had never heard of Philippe Starck — despite Target’s endless promotion of his new line of home products — and put me on hold to try to find out where his products might be. My mother, of course, pointed his stuff out to me in no time flat a few aisles away, so I hung up.

We made a pit stop in the bathroom, where the floors were strewn with toilet paper. However, there was a sign on the door asking customers to call a manager if they were unhappy with the cleanliness of the facilities. It made me feel better that the messiness could, at least in theory, be resolved with another phone call.

Back to the task at hand, the accessories were pretty hip, but young. There were messenger bags, satchels and Hello Kitty backpacks. An L.L. Bean-looking tote in hand, it was off again to the dressing rooms. As in Wal-Mart, they were a rather generic affair with numerous stalls, but at least these were situated at the back corner of the store and were clean. A pair of cords was too flared and a button-down shirt was ill-fitting, but the Mossimo track suit was cute as was a long, white nightgown (although there was some dirt around the hem).On a final lap through the store, I was transfixed by all the great-looking housewares, sleek bicycles and cute baby clothes. Then it was time to hit the registers, where the final purchases included a Gilligan & O’Malley nightgown, a Mossimo velour track suit, a medium-sized canvas tote, a hip-looking straw hat, three pairs of socks, an Xhilaration bralette, and three mesh thongs from Gilligan & O’Malley and for my mom, a measuring cup, two bottles of water and a box of Smints. The grand total came to $117.81.

At the end of our shopping outing, I queried my mother as to what her impressions of both stores were. "I thought the clothes were displayed better at Wal-Mart," she said, referring to the White Stag display. "But everything seems nicer at Target."

And there, in a nutshell, you have it.

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