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Shopper SpotCheck: Rating the Invader

TORONTO -- Donna Belanger held out an earth-toned, batik-print tunic at the Wal-Mart store in Kitchner and eyed it approvingly: all rayon, short sleeves, gold knot buttons, selling for $16.93. A definite possibility for a wedding she would soon...

TORONTO — Donna Belanger held out an earth-toned, batik-print tunic at the Wal-Mart store in Kitchner and eyed it approvingly: all rayon, short sleeves, gold knot buttons, selling for $16.93. A definite possibility for a wedding she would soon attend, she said. But the 35-year-old florist, surrounded by circular racks of polyester pull-on pants and microfiber stretch stirrups, wasn’t sure she could find anything to go with it.

“Everything’s so old-fashioned, for old ladies,” she said. “I like bold colors, but I’m not seeing them.”

Still, she said she liked the prices on Wal-Mart’s plus-size garments, compared to the specialty chains she usually haunts. And after discovering some crinkled palazzo pants priced at $24.33, she decided to at least try them on.

A regular shopper at Woolco before Wal-Mart bought 122 of its discount stores from Woolworth Canada Inc. last January, Belanger said she found little improved in the apparel department.

Others were more impressed.

“So far, everything I see I like,” said Janet Coombs, 46, a factory worker on the lookout for jeans, her shopping cart already containing snack foods and tube socks. “I find the prices very good.”

Her first venture into Wal-Mart earlier this year sold her on the chain. She found a color-blocked swimsuit with tummy control, a “real deal” on sale at about $17. “It looked great, it looked expensive, but it wasn’t that expensive. I get a lot of compliments on it.”

Having found T-shirts she liked for $14.95 and $19.95 on earlier forays, she concluded that Wal-Mart’s offerings, at least in casual attire, are better than Woolco and comparable Canadian chains.

“They seem to have more,” she said. “The quality seems to be better. It doesn’t seem to be as cheap-looking.”

Janette Croft, a 48-year-old factory worked agreed. “I’ll be here a lot,” she predicted, lauding the friendly staff, reasonable prices and an apparel selection she said is superior to competing discount stores. “Right now, I’m shopping for a present for my daughter.” She found a white sweatshirt with a patchwork theme for $14.88 and went off in search of matching casual pants.