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Can Target tackle Canada’s West?

Target mania arrived in Victoria, B.C. this week. I know this because of the hoots and cheers as shoppers entered the store. I know this because of the traffic jam that drove one driver mad enough to flip me the middle finger.

Thankfully, that's not all I got out of my hour-long trip to this Target store, one of 22 that opened on Tuesday in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, many of which saw some 200 shoppers flood the stores within five minutes of opening.

Rather, in B.C.'s capital, under the bright fluorescent lights shoppers exuded excitement as they strolled the sprawling 122,000, square-foot discount store.

"They have some nice merchandise," one woman said, while shopping in the apparel section. "I'm just here for the visuals," another said to her friend. "Everything today is free," an older man said to his wife, to which she replied: "It's hard to see the price tag, isn't it?" Fewer are the days of mass protests against the big-box store.

Julia Chenowith, 29, said she spent just under $200 during her 90-minute shopping excursion, buying a polka dot dress for girls night out, some throw pillows and snacks for her daughter. After months of anticipation, the stay-at-home mom is happy Target finally arrived.

"It is an American company coming up. It will give us access to designers that we've never seen before or we've only heard about," said Chenowith, who added she likes shopping at Target for its fresh, hip and wide-aisles.

At the same time, she's heartened by the retailer's pledge to stay attuned to the needs of Canadian shoppers. "I liked that when I first walked in the door I saw a display of Roots clothing," she added.

Chenowith said she doesn't mind paying a little more at Target for what she describes as a "better shopping experience," and that her total bill was generally reasonable. But as a dollar-conscious consumer, she's bound to shop at Target for some things and go to rivals like Wal-Mart for others. At other times, she'll shop at local boutiques.

'Expect more, Pay Less'

Just how much more or less a shopper pays at Target is still being debated. The Minneapolis, Minn.-based Target has been open in Canada for a couple of months now, with the first of the retailer's stores unveiled in Ontario amid a splashy public relations campaign involving celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame and Blake Lively, well known for her role in television show Gossip Girl. Target expects to open 124 stores across Canada this year.

The soft rollout has given Target and its "guests" some time to get to know each other, with generally positive results despite early complaints of empty shelves at some locations.

Ahead of the Target's entrance, Robin Sherk, senior analyst at consultancy Kantar Retail in Boston, Mass., said a key to Target's success will depend on the ability to offer the same prices and variety of products. So far, so good.

In March, Kantar conducted a price analysis between Target and Wal-Mart in Canada, and found Target's prices to be generally competitive. For a basket of 29 items, more than half were roughly within 3 per cent of each other, the consultancy said in its report.

"They're trying to live up to their 'Pay Less' proposition," said Sherk. "That tells us that they are very serious about getting the every day trip. Apparel and fashion and home, those types of things, are fun but you don't need them on a weekly basis."

Lisa Gibson, spokeswoman for Target Canada, said the company continues to conduct weekly shops on some 20,000 goods, ranging from groceries to household items to apparel, in order to be competitive. "We'll continue to evolve our pricing strategy. We're going to continue to competitive shop and just make sure we're competitive in the marketplace," she said.

Shopper Alan Barton, 48, who's also been waiting for Target to finally open, said he's not too bothered about the price debate. He says his price comparison is not a Target in the U.S., but rather a Wal-Mart or other big-box in the same city. "As long as the value is there, the quality is there," he said. "The bigger the company, the bigger the buying power, the lower the prices. I'm sure it'll be comparable."

Traffic at this mall has surely changed forever, and as I experienced may even drive some people to the brink. Chalk that up to an unfortunate side effect of when stuff comes here.

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