As our economy continues to falter, Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) drawing increasing notice from investors -- in a positive sense, no less. Several news articles on MSNBC over the last several days discussed Wal-Mart's current competitive advantage; it seems that struggling U.S. consumers may suddenly see Wal-Mart as less of a "bad guy" in business.

Low, low prices on consumer staples can arguably make a retailer look downright ethical these days. Nonetheless, all that attention doesn't necessarily make Wal-Mart's stock the best bargain at the moment.

The return of the (discount) king
For years, Wal-Mart struggled with public relations problems that many argued resulted in negative ramifications to its brand, and even drove potential bargain hunters to other retail rivals like Target (NYSE:TGT). Its relationship with workers has frequently been criticized. Many communities protested Wal-Mart's arrival as a threat to their local businesses. For a while, it seemed obvious that such attitudes were hindering Wal-Mart's growth and eroding its competitive advantage -- a huge reason why I doubted the company's prospects for many years.

However, in cash-strapped times, this Motley Fool Inside Value pick can seem like a good guy without even trying, given its relentless devotion to low-priced goods. Right now, those cheap prices are luring tons of consumers back to the store, which in turn is catching many news outlets' attention.

MSNBC solicited reader feedback, drawing comments from both Wal-Mart fans and detractors. Quite a few posters admitted that even though they don't particularly like it, they're forced to start shopping at Wal-Mart because their budgets are squeezed by spiking prices and the housing crash.

Even though I can't call myself a Wal-Mart fan, over the last several months I've had to admit that the discount retail giant's firmly back in its element, now that the stumbling economy has made super-low prices popular once more. I also pointed to discounters like Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco (NASDAQ:COST) as logical plays on a tough economy back in January. Wal-Mart shares have risen 22% in the last six months, and it's now trading at 18 times last year's earnings.

Bargains, bargains, bargains
Given that, maybe investors longing to put Wal-Mart in their portfolios might want to wait for a temporary dip to buy in, since the company's been on such a roll. After all, there are tons of retailers trading at tantalizing bargain prices right now.

Look at Target, which hasn't been able to keep the same kind of pace lately; it's trading at just 14 times earnings. What about Coach (NYSE:COH), with a price-to-earnings ratio of just 16? Or consider American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO), which has gotten smacked down repeatedly and is now trading at less than eight times earnings.

Meanwhile, as I pointed out in my article a week ago on Wal-Mart's logo "facelift," although the discounter has made major inroads with its public image, long-term investors may want to be sure that the retailer can excel in bad times and good.

I'm neither totally bearish nor bullish on Wal-Mart. It's obvious that tough times have pushed consumers toward lower-priced goods, leaving Wal-Mart thriving at present. But for the long term, I think the company still must prove that it can further polish its tarnished image. Personally, I'd wait and watch the company's progress on this front, rather than jumping in now.

And with the current emphasis on bargain-hunting, why not look for some of the market's many dirt-cheap stock deals in the retail sector? At present, it seems that "low, low prices" are as prolific on Wall Street as they are in Wal-Mart.