In an exclusive interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, Target’s CEO, Brian Cornell, delved into the recent wave of controversy surrounding the retail giant. Faced with a surge of discontent from conservative consumers, Cornell addressed the company’s foray into progressive merchandise, which included items like “tuck-friendly” female swimsuits and Pride clothing with a unique, edgy design.
During the interview, Cornell emphasized that the conservative backlash against Target stood out as one of the most significant challenges he has faced during his tenure. Surprisingly, he noted that the uproar over woke merchandise posed a more formidable threat than the challenges the company confronted during the tumultuous days of store looting in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests.
This candid conversation sheds light on the complex landscape of modern retail, where values and ideologies often intersect with commerce. Target’s journey through these contentious waters serves as a compelling case study in a rapidly evolving consumer landscape.
“Well, why don’t we step back? So this is my 10th holiday season at Target you and I have been talking almost every quarter during those 10 years. And, you know, I’ve seen natural disasters. We’ve seen the impact of COVID leading into the pandemic, some of the violence that took place after George Floyd’s murder, but I would tell you that the, what I saw back in May, is the first time since I’ve been in this job, where I had Store team members saying it’s not safe to come to work,” Cornell stated.
Cornell asserted that Target locations faced threats from disgruntled consumers, alleging that some products had even been destroyed. This situation, he suggested, posed a more significant danger than the chaotic ransacking by hundreds of individuals.
“What was happening to them. Very aggressive behavior, store level, lots of threats, product being destroyed, point of sale being disrupted. And when we started to hear that, we knew we had to take action. We had to prioritize the safety of our teams. And I knew personally, this was not going to be well received. But we had to prioritize the safety of the team. And we made some changes the location of the product, we curated the assortment, we addressed some of the products that were getting the most attention,” the CEO added.
Cornell further detailed the reported confrontations with consumers while emphasizing that Target’s woke initiatives were not a recent development, having been in practice for over a decade. He stated, “We’ve been commemorating heritage moments like Pride for more than ten years, and we’ve never encountered this level of reaction before.” Nevertheless, amidst the influential Bud Light boycott, it appears that something has finally resonated with conservative shoppers, who are demonstrating their willingness to hold woke companies accountable through their purchasing choices.
Cornell also conveyed that going forward, the company would need to reevaluate how it handles the array of “heritage” months it traditionally observes.
“But in the moment, we said the best thing for us to do is address the issue. We can combat each and every statement that’s being made and do the right thing for our team. Take the learning as we go forward. But it was a difficult time. But in the environment, we said look, let’s focus on deescalating the issue, taking care of our team, celebrating the moment and take the learning as we go forward. And we talked during a recent earnings call, we will manage these moments very differently. These heritage moments whether it’s pride or Hispanic heritage or black history,” he said.
"We've been celebrating heritage moments like Pride for over a decade now. We've never seen that kind of response," says $TGT CEO Brian Cornell. "I knew personally this was not going to be well received. But we had to prioritize the safety of the team." pic.twitter.com/m1nP44kBzo
— Squawk Box (@SquawkCNBC) November 2, 2023