Yahrtzeit for Target Canada (Part 1 of 2): My Relationship with Target

12 Apr

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the closing of Target stores in Canada. In the Jewish tradition, we mark the anniversary of a passing by observing yahrzteit, or remembering.

And in a pair of essays, I reflect on Target Canada.

Most analyses of the fiasco tend to repeat the same points over and over again: Target overreached. Target couldn’t get its product mix right. Even when they did, they couldn’t get the stock levels and prices right.

So, in this reflection, I’d like to do something different. In the first part, I explain what Target means to me personally. In the second part, I talk about some of the longer-term effects of Target’s entrance and exit, about which few people have focused.

Starting My Long-Term Relationship with Target

My first contact with Target was the night of my fraternity initiation at a university in Pittsburgh. I can’t reveal the details of the secret ceremony–partly because I swore an oath of secrecy but mostly because they were actually short of memorable–but I can say that the ceremony involved waiting.

Endless waiting…. what seemed like an eternity.

I finally got so bored that I started reading magazines lying around the room.

One–a business magazine (I don’t remember which one)–profiles Dayton-Hudson, family-owned department store chain in Minnesota that managed stay independent when all of the other American chains had been acquired by the likes of Federated, Allied, May, and similar conglomerates. The profile noted that one of the strategies used by  Dayton-Hudson to remain independent was launching it own discount chain called Target.

Dayton’s (the department store) and Target (the discount department store) both sounded like they had a bit of an edge that was already being lost in the department and discount store business in the Mid-Atlantic, which was led by drab, poor-service department stores like May-owned Kaufmann’s and the Hecht Company.

I wanted to check out these stores, but they were located in the Upper Midwest and the western boundary of my world was Pittsburgh.

The Early Years

For reasons unrelated to Dayton’s or Target, I ended up moving to Rochester, Minnesota three years later. So I sought out the two stores. Dayton’s had a beautiful department store in Rochester that still had many of the departments that other department stores back east had dropped, like notions. I was so intent on buying something at Dayton’s that I bought a mattress for my first home there on a one-day sale, even bought I hadn’t leased an apartment yet.

Unfortunately, Target didn’t have an outlet in Rochester yet (as disappointing to me as it was to the entire population of Rochester. So the day before I started my job, I drove to Minneapolis with Target at the top of the list of places to visit.

I was entranced: it was everything K-Mart wasn’t: great prices, great style, a pleasant place to shop, and no annoying announcements for blue light specials. (I probably shouldn’t put it that way; I had a friend in Rochester who used to make those announcements.)

Although I had student loans, just bought a car, leased an apartment to go with my mattress, and was still paying off an expensive watch I gave myself as a graduation gift (which a friend encouraged me to buy because I had a Visa card), I couldn’t help myself and bought $US 69 worth of stuff (in 2016 currency, that’s $US 211 today). I still keep a $US 3.99 wicker basket and $US 10 oriental rug I bought that day as momentos of the visit.

That trip began a monthly routine of visiting the Twin Cities, and no trip was complete without a Target run.  And no matter how small my shopping list, I always spent a minimum of $50 per visit, usually more. But I charged it to my Dayton’s credit card, which also worked at Target.

Within a few years, Target finally opened in Rochester and the city observed an unofficial holiday in honour of the occasion. I could (and did) visit more frequently: the store was literally located right across the street to my office.

My First Move to a Target Desert

After a few more years, I accepted a job transfer to Atlanta. The choice wasn’t easy; it meant giving up Target as Atlanta had no Targets at the time. I tried to make do with Richway—the discount division of famed local department store Rich’s. I think Rich’s attempted to copy Dayton’s strategy with Target. But Richly was no Target. It wasn’t even close. Like K-Mart, Richly was discount in every way imaginable. Apparently Atlantans didn’t love Richway all that much either and, when its parent company went into bankruptcy, Federated dumped Richway to the curb.

Target bought out all of the Richway leases, but not the store. After a going-out-of-business sale, Target moved in with the construction crews, rebuilt all of the stores as Targets, and opened a slew of them on a single day. Of course, I was there for the opening and renewed my special relationship.

Because I was an experienced Target shopper, I introduced all of my Atlanta friends to the store, who quickly took to the store.  My neighbours and I would occasionally make collective runs to Target.

In fact, introducing people to Target became an important part of my life over the next several years.Target opened in Baltimore, my home town, in the early 1990s. Unlike in Atlanta, Target had no chain of stores whose leases it could buy, so Target entered the market one store at a time. Within a few years, it became part of the local landscape. One day, my niece showed me something she bought. “You’ll be so proud of me, Uncle Saul,” she said.

“Did you buy it at Target?”

“Better. I bought it at Target on sale.”

A Target for Every Mood

I moved back to Minnesota in the late 1990s, this time to Minneapolis, the world headquarters of Target and where one never has to drive more than 15 minutes without encountering a Target. I visited as many as I could and found that, even though they share merchandise and a common look, each Target also had a personality. Some were Greatlands, with an expanded selection of merchandise.  Some were Super Target (just being tested as the time), and some were just plain old fashioned Targets. I shopped at enough different Targets that I noticed different Targets suited different moods of mine: my whimsical Target, my depression Target, my happy Target, and so on. It’s as if Target were a religion.

 

Target as Class Assignments

While in the Twin Cities, I made a long-term career change and became a professor. My first teaching position was at a university in St. Paul.  One of my students was a second-generation Target employee and, knowing of my interest in Target (because I found a way to work it into lectures), made sure that every one of her class projects was about the store.

About that time, Target launched its designer phase with its partnership with Michael Graves. Who knew such beautiful pieces (which ultimately proved impractical—his phone literally hurt my ear), could be sold at such ridiculously low prices? (I also owned the $350 Alessi tea kettle.)

But after being successfully recruited to a tenure track job meant I would be moving to Boston, a mecca for higher education but a Target desert. In fact, when I interviewed for the job, Target had no stores in the Boston area.

Apparently the retail gods knew Saul needs Target and, as I was preparing to move to Boston, Target bought the leases to several stores (I think they were once Ames) and planned a grand entrance into the market much like the one in Atlanta. Target open its first stores the weekend after I arrived to town (I could say that we coordinated schedules but that wouldn’t be true).

Once again, I was introducing people to Target. I even arranged a class field trip to Target to point out some of the design features of the store. Too bad the job didn’t work out as the class assignment (which taught communications students about the intricacies of designing a three-dimensional experience).

Another Target Desert

So I ended up moving to Montreal, which had Zellers. I sensed that Zellers had some sort of relationship with Target—they both used the same displays for greeting cards—but Zellers lacked the pizazz of Target. (It actually lacked any pizazz but it reminded me a lot of stores that had long left the USA, like Woolworth’s and McCrory’s).  Rumors frequently appeared in the news suggesting that Zellers would become Target but they did not become fact until 2011.

A Move Towards Complacency

By that time, though, Target USA had lost some of its pizazz. Its once-exclusive designers left for greener shelves: Michael Graves for JC Penney, Isaac Mizrahi for Claiborne, Philippe Starke to return to his regular business and designing condos in Montreal’s Griffintown. Target focused, instead, on a new category: groceries. But, other than great deals on  Chobani yogurt, the selection was ho-hum, the same ho-hum that seemed to become the norm throughout the store (save a few flash deals like the Lilly Pulitzer line in which the merchandise literally lasts just an hour or its pop-up like “The Shops,” which usually ran out of the good stuff quickly). Not only was Target losing the chic, it wasn’t all that cheap, either.  Walmart’s prices were often the same or a bit better (at last 2 cents, because Target ends its prices with $.99 and Walmart with $.97) and much of the merchandise overlapped except clothing.

Target’s increasing conventionality mirrored a similar trend in Dayton Hudson’s namesake department stores. By my second stint in Minnesota, Daytons’ lost enough of its cache with me that it became my only-if-they’re-having-a-decent-sale store. I remained a customer of Macy’s, which became my go-to department store during my years in Atlanta.

A couple of years after my second departure, Dayton-Hudson Corporation renamed itself Target Corporation.  Soon after, it dropped its iconic Dayton’s nameplate in favor of that of sister store, Marshall Fields. Analysts felt that the company was positioning the department stores for a sale. Indeed they were: The May Company bought Marshall Fields in 2004. A year later, May merged with Macy’s.

The sale left Target with just one store–Target–and flush with cash from the sale.

Onto Canada

This post-cool but cash-rich Target whose US sales had flattened despite an economy that would foster growth in a discount department store that came to Canada in 2013.

And they followed the same playbook that successfully worked in Atlanta and Boston: buy out the leases of a bunch of stores. Kick them out and fire all the employees. Rebuild the stores as Targets and hope for a profit from Day 1.

To be honest, I still maintained my loyalty to Target but mostly because we had transitioned from novel explorations to a comfortable, predictable relationship. The wide aisles at Target were easier to traverse than the crowded ones at Walmart. Target didn’t depress me the way that K-mart did. But I can’t say the merchandise excited me any more (except, perhaps, the Chobani yogurt).

But I was definitely excited about the entrance of Target to Canada. My old store was joining me in my new country. My Canadian friends and co-workers knew about my relationship to Target. But some weren’t all that enthusiastic about Target’s arrival in Canada. Some missed Zellers (perhaps misplaced sentimentality). Others didn’t want another American retailer to displace yet another Canadian retailer. They bashed Target in front of me, sometimes with pride. I told them that Target is sort of my other religion and I was going to report them to HR for religious persecution. It didn’t deter the comments.

A Crisis of Faith

And to be honest, I couldn’t argue with them that Target Canada sucked. If Target was my other religion, Target Canada fostered a crisis of faith. Although some aspects of the store were fine, most were not: starting with the shade of red chosen for Target. It was Zellers red, which is a bit darker than Target red. In other words, in trying to invoke Zellers, they failed to be Target.

The clothing selection seemed relatively similar but the housewares, pharmacy and health and beauty, and grocery sections were nothing like Target. The products significantly differed between those in the American stores and the ones in Canada. Heck, in Quebec, the pharmacies didn’t exist for half the lives of these stores; they didn’t open until 6 or 7 months after the rest of the store. Even the store brand products—Up and Up and Archer Farms—differed. They offered different products clearly manufactured by different suppliers and at different prices.

In those few instances were products matched, prices didn’t. And that made no sense at the time because the dollars were close to par. Starbuck’s Coffee: $11.99 in US stores, $14.99 in Canadian stores.

So, as much as my heart didn’t want to believe the problems with Target reported in the press and by my friends and co-workers, my mind couldn’t ignore them. And as much as my heart couldn’t believe the predictions that Target would pack up and return to the US when they first started to appear in the summer of 2014, the announcement in early 2015 that Target indeed planned to close up shop wasn’t totally shocking.

It hurt.

But what hurt more was the way that Target left Canada.

Dayton-Hudson, the company that launched Target, was a great community citizen. It offered good jobs, it supported a number of community causes (10% of earnings), and it paid its taxes. In fact, Dayton Hudson was so beloved in Minnesota, that when JC Penney tried to buy it in 1987, the governor called an emergency meeting of the state legislature to prevent the sale.

So when news surfaced within a week of Target Canada’s closing that one of the checks it wrote to a community organization bounced, I was disappointed. This isn’t the Dayton Hudson Corporation that I knew.

Although it was great that Target Canada ensured salaries of its staff for several months, it was still going to unleash 18,000 workers into softening job market. Although Target has a responsibility to its American shareholders, doesn’t it also have a responsibility to its workers and the Canadian communities that welcomed it? What about the Canadian suppliers who were also becoming dependent on Target?

As the months wore on, and questions arose about the appropriateness of the particular bankruptcy provision under which it filed, about Target’s leaving many vendors with unpaid bills, and about Target being difficult about releasing its store leases. In other words, not only had Target massively disappointed as a store, it also disappointed as a corporate citizen. Admittedly, the average American is unaware of Target’s tacky exit from Canada. But most most industry insiders and Canadians are.

More personally, I am aware. And I am disappointed.

And now?

Because I visit the US frequently, I still have opportunities to shop at Target.

I’ll admit it. I still do. I can’t stay away. If it’s any consolation, a part of me feels guilty about it.

But more of me wants to see Target USA recover. In addition to its debacle in Canada, the company suffered a huge data breach (which I didn’t discuss here) as well as years of increasingly dull merchandising.

On my last visit to Target USA, I saw the first signs of life in almost a decade. The housewares department has been re-designed and the display is the most imaginative thing I’ve seen in that store since the launch of the Michael Graves Collection. If the current president of Target risked long-term damage to the corporation by extricating itself from a poorly executed launch into Canada, at least the reason for doing so—to revitalize the US stores—seems to be sincere. And as hurt as I am about the way that Target left Canada, I was heartened to see its new housewares display.

I have also seen photos of a reimagined grocery section and that, too, looks encouraging.

I guess like any relationship, mine with Target had its good times and bad times. We’ve had more good times than bad, and the bad really disappointed me.  But I guess I’m in it for the long-haul with Target, Canadian misadventures and all.

I’m more cautious. I’m less impressed. I spend less. But I still visit. And I still buy.

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