Last month, I walked into a Wal-Mart store for the first time in my life. I'm from San Francisco, a place proud for its efforts to keep big-box stores out of city limits (Target is acceptable, although the nearest one is in South San Francisco, officially a different city). I have always tried to support my local Mom and Pop stores but the last time I was pricing home-improvement supplies at Progress Hardware down the street, something just snapped.

I closed my pocketbook, swallowed my pride and drove to the nearest Wal-Mart (still a 20-mile drive across the bridge to the more-inclusive East Bay). The stark florescent lighting and messy aisles weren't a shocker. The suprise for me was that I saved 40% on hardware and also bought groceries, a PlayStation game and, gasp, a shirt. I never thought I'd see the day when I bought clothes at a Wal-Mart (Target with its cute Issac Mizrahi stuff was a different story). Then again, I thought pigs would be flying when major Wall Street banks, Detroit carmakers and my state's government were on the brink of bankruptcy in less than a year. Sorry, Progress Hardware. I have to regress for now and buy my hammer, nails and basic necessities at the cheapest discounter around.

And I'm not the only one. More people are foregoing full-price fashion and organic food to make Wal-Mart their one-stop shop. The world's largest retailer, which announced its quarterly earnings on Friday, is one of the few retailers in America that made a profit during the past three months. What's more, its stock has risen 21 percent in the past year, while rival Target has seen its shares fall by 40 percent. Isn't Tar-jay a big-box retailer too? Yes, but once-fervent customers like me see it primarily as a place for cheap-chic non-essentials, and I don't need more Mizrahi right now. Target reports its quarterly earnings on Monday, and analysts aren't expecting great results. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is touting its low-priced food and medicine, holding early holiday sales and announced that it will slash prices every week till Christmas. While I'll never be a fan of its florescent lighting or its treatment of employees, I'm a sucker for the lowest prices. And if that means driving 20 miles over the bridge to find them right now, so be it.

I must admit I miss my favorite shopping therapy cure: Nordstrom's fab shoe department. Ah, the hours I spent trying on pumps and platforms there! But Nordstrom and other department stores are, for now, as irrelevant as print newspapers. The thought of paying full-price for clothes just seems so 2007. I don't mean to pick on Nordstrom in particular -- its emphasis on customer service made me feel like a queen -- but it too announced earnings on Friday, shocking Wall Street by announcing third-quarter profits fell 51 percent (but its outlet chain Nordstrom Rack can still be considered hot -- its sales actually increased 3.6 percent). Nordstrom then announced it lowered the price on its wares by an average of 22 percent. Department stores across the board held their fall sales a month earlier than usual and they can't afford to stop there. Which one of them will follow Mervyn's to Chapter 11? It's sad when a great store that makes it seem okay to feel aspirational has to follow in Wal-Mart's footsteps.

Hang in there, Nordstrom. Maybe I'll come calling again when markdowns are at least 50 percent off, but right now even marked-down shoes just seem too frivolous to be fashionable.




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