Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Wal-Mart continues to score big with shoppers who favor it over other retailers because of low prices, but retail analysts contend its apparel operation is less compelling than the competition’s. That may help explain why the nation’s largest retailer slid to sixth place in this year’s WWD survey, from the fourth spot in 1995.
“Recent personnel changes, such as the appointment of Vanessa Castagna as general merchandise manager of women’s and children’s apparel, could help,” observed Jan Martinez, president of Ashford Management, a retail search and management consulting firm based in Atlanta. “Wal-Mart’s apparel is not competitive yet.”
“Wal-Mart’s initiatives in apparel haven’t worked to date,” added Mac McDonald, president of Metier Marketing, a marketing and consulting firm based here. “Other discounters, such as Target, are much more apparel-oriented.”
Retail observers have pointed out that without strong brands, it becomes nearly impossible for discounters — who battle over price — to differentiate their apparel assortments from the competition’s. For example, Target licenses national labels such as Cherokee, and has created a more upscale presentation.
Wal-Mart’s customers, like those of other national retailers, come from every age and income group, but women ages 30 to 39 are strongly represented. The biggest fans of the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain are women from households with incomes of $25,000 to $34,999, with children at home, with a high-school education or less.
Consumers who shop at Wal-Mart for apparel ranked the discounter tops for its hours, number three for prices and number four for discounts and exchanges. The chain placed fifth for overall value and location.
Wal-Mart is on an aggressive growth path and plans to open about 50 discount stores, 100 supercenters and five to 10 Sam’s Clubs in fiscal 1997. The chain also is expanding oversees; it opened three stores in China last summer, but has not yet performed up to expectations in far-away places.
Analysts agree the chain is out to vanquish competitors in the hotly contested discount market, but some believe Wal-Mart is missing an opportunity by concentrating exclusively on suburban and rural areas.
“Wal-Mart could do well to move closer into urban areas like Atlanta, where their main competition would be Kmart,” advised Neil Thall, president of Neil Thall Associates, a retail management search consulting firm here. Although Wal-Mart draws some middle- and upper-income consumers, those customers still don’t shop the discounter for apparel, he added.
“The question is, will these shoppers go to discounters to buy clothing?” Thall asked. “There still may be a stigma there, and the consumer has so many alternatives.”