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Target Facing Difficult Headway in Canada

The retailer's well-known reputation for style and design might be getting the best of it in the country as shoppers may perceive prices to be higher.

Target’s well-known reputation for style and design might be getting the best of it in Canada. Rather than drawing customers into stores, shoppers may perceive prices to be higher.

“We know there is a gap in guest awareness of how low our prices really are,” said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer. “We’re deploying multiple tactics. Our efforts will drive greater awareness.”

Chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Canadian Tire and Loblaws No Frills and Real Canadian Superstore offer price-matching guarantees against competitors, while Drug Mart and Loblaws full-line stores don’t. Target’s prices in Canada were higher than Wal-Mart’s, according to a price study by Kurt Salmon & Associates, which said pricing is a sensitive issue for Canadian consumers. KSA said some shoppers were surprised that Target’s new stores weren’t on par with the retailer’s pricing in the U.S.

“There’s certainly an interest in fashion and an awareness of fashion in Canada,” said Wendy Liebmann, ceo of WSL Strategic Retail, which recently completed a study, “How Canada Shops.” “The Bay and midtier department stores have upped their offer in anticipation of Target’s arrival. While Canada doesn’t have as many [retail] options as we do in the U.S., they have some good food options, like Loblaw. There may not be as many stores or retailers, but there’s Costco and Wal-Mart.”

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No one expects Wal-Mart to take the competition lying down. Wal-Mart said it will spend 450 million Canadian dollars ($430 million at current exchange) on growing its operations in Canada, a year after spending nearly $750 million to open 46 stores. The retailer, which offers fresh food in about half of its locations, plans to make fresh food available in all stores. Target has been aggressive in this area with PFresh in the U.S. In Canada, the merchandising is similar.

Liebmann said foreign retailers often underestimate the Canadian market. “The complexity of Canada is going to be more challenging than originally anticipated,” she said. “There’s a cultural thing that just makes it different.”

The Canadian retail scene will get more competitive. Safeway last week pulled out of Canada, selling its 223 stores to Sobeys, which will be a formidable competitor, experts said. Ann Taylor, J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret and Chico’s are looking to enter Canada, and Nordstrom is launching there in 2014.

One retail executive who’s not eager to open stores in Canada is Terry J. Lundgren. The chairman, president and ceo of Macy’s said in June, “We’ve looked at Canada longer than anybody. We’ve been looking for 15 years and many opportunities came that we passed up. There’s certainly growth happening in the market. There’s going to be an onslaught of retailers fighting it out for market share. My point of view is, I think it’s done. There’s going to be a big battle going on there for next 10 to 12 years.”