Why We Like Target Better than Walmart: It’s a Visual Thing

Do we like shopping at Target more because it is more visually appealing?

I recently taught a class entitled “Information Design in Society,” where we talk about the design of public spaces. In the course, we address typography, signage, wayfinding, architecture, colors, and emotional reactions to objects and areas. On multiple occasions during the semester, students brought up Target and Walmart as examples (apparently they are the two places we can ALL relate to). Overwhelmingly (I might even dare say 100%), the students would effectively criticize Walmart and praise Target. The phrase “I hate being in there” was even tossed around on multiple occasions—when talking about Walmart, of course.

At first, I thought their reactions were just a visceral response to a cultural stigma. We’re not supposed to like Walmart, right? The biggest, wealthiest companies are always targeted for society’s problems and thus, if we’re responsible, we’ll “hate” them. After all, Burger King and Wendy’s don’t take near as much heat as McDonald’s for making people fat (and neither does the Cheesecake Factory, for that matter, whose “worst” entree almost more than doubles the fat and calorie count of McDonalad’s worst meal). I thought it was possible that students reacted this way because they felt like it was uncool to like Walmart. (See an infographic that compares McDonald’s calorie count to the Cheesecake Factory; you might be disgusted).

But, the truth is, I like Target better, too. And so do most of my friends. Try this (if you haven’t already): ask the people you hang out with which store they would prefer going to, if convenience didn’t matter (meaning, if Target and Walmart were equal distance from their home). My guess is you’ll get either one of two responses: either “Definitely Target!”; or “Target, unless I’m trying to save money—then Walmart.”

The second answer makes a lot of sense, right? We all like stores we can’t afford, so we stick to the cheaper ones when we really need to shop. But (perhaps amazingly), in a spending comparison, it was found that for every $100 spent at either store, consumers actually saved $0.43 at Target! (According to author of The Walmart Effect, Charles Fishman). Fishman also noted that 80% of the products in each store are identical. There is a really interesting marketing question to be raised here about why Walmart is winning more customers than Target if their prices and products are almost the same. But that isn’t the most compelling question to me. What I wonder about is why, if the products and prices are almost the same, why do so many people have an immediate negative reaction to Walmart, and even say that they “hate going in there!”?

Maybe there is some truth to the cultural stigma thing, but I believe there is more it. And I believe it has to do with what customers are seeing. And what they see impacts how they feel about a place.

If making more money is what matters, then, obviously, Walmart is winning the battle. But if having a positive experience and enjoying where you shop matters, it seems like Target is winning. Information design theorists and researchers have identified a number of visual elements that physically affect our emotional reactions and I think Target is winning in these areas. Here are my thoughts on three of them:

1. One theory of design is called “horror vacui,” which is Latin for a “fear of emptiness.” A principle of this theory is that we view white space, openness, and to some degree emptiness, as being worth more. In other words, if a place feels more open, uses more “white space,” and is less cluttered, it feels more expensive. Consider when you walk in Target compared to when you walk in Walmart. Which, to your field of vision, seems more open? The visceral, gut reaction to seeing openness in Target’s entrance and aisles might suggest that we feel like we are in a nicer store, which equates in our minds to nicer products and a better place to be in.

2. Another theory of design has to do with the psychology of color. There are positive and negative uses of every color out there, but red seems to have less significant negatives than blue. According to the psychology research, red makes us feel warmth, comfort, excitement, and intensity. Blue, on the other hand, supposedly makes us feel calm, serene, secure, and orderly. At first glance, either of these colors seem suitable for a big box store. But consider the negatives: blue can make us feel cold, sad, and aloof. It is also known as the least palatable color and recommendations have even been made for people to eat on blue plates to lose weight! Interestingly, people tend to be productive when they are in blue rooms. When you put blue together, shoppers in Walmart are likely to feel orderly, possibly cold, and productive, but they may have a bad taste in their mouth. All in all, customers in Walmart may feel like they want to get in, buy stuff, and get out; they may leave feeling efficient, but have a bad memories afterward. Conversely, Target customers may not be as productive, but they might feel warm, loved, and comforted, which makes them like being in the store more. As a side note, red is widely recognized as the color of room we enjoy eating in the most (think about all the restaurant chains you know—how many of them have a red logo and red color scheme?) We all like to eat, so maybe that translates to shopping!

3. Third, cognitive scientist Donald Norman has suggested that when there is an element of play and fun designed into an atmosphere, people will like it better. He defines fun and pleasure as something that isn’t necessary for any other purpose but amusement. Target has a miniature bull terrier dog as a mascot with a painted target on its face. Many Targets also have very large red balls lining the front of their stores that serve no purpose other than to look cool. What in Walmart is as visually fun as that?

These, of course, are just theories. I don’t really know why people seem to love Target more than Walmart. But I know I fall into that category of Target lovers. And I strongly believe it’s because of what Target is communicating to me visually more than it is selling me better products.

Emotional Design, by Donald Norman. (2004). Basic Books.
Universal Principles of Design, by Lidwell, Holden, and Butler. (2003). Rockport Publishers.
“Walmart vs. Target Redux: More Alike than You Think,” by Katherine Boyle. (2012). http://reclaimdemocracy.org/walmart-vs-target-redux-they-have-more-in-common-than-you-think/

One thought on “Why We Like Target Better than Walmart: It’s a Visual Thing

  • December 14, 2015 at 1:18 am

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