Target Corp. spent the week in the bull’s-eye of the nation’s culture war.
The Minneapolis-based company on April 19 issued a six paragraph statement saying that transgender men and women could use its bathrooms and fitting rooms that align with how they identify themselves.
It did so, representatives say, to clarify the situation in its stores in light of North Carolina’s law restricting restroom use in government buildings to one’s biological sex, and other legislation popping up across the country.
But as the first major retailer to take such a prominent stance — and one whose size and influence routinely bring scrutiny for everything from the slogans on its T-shirts to the models in its advertising — Target drew swift criticism from backers of the North Carolina law and conservative activists and groups.
Among them was the American Family Association, a Mississippi group that first garnered attention in the 1980s with boycotts of bookstore chains that sold Playboy magazine.
Last week, that group started an online petition calling for a boycott of Target.
It has gathered media attention nearly every day since by announcing rising numbers of signees that it says now surpasses 1 million.
Some critics, though, have noted that the numbers can’t be verified by outsiders and that people can sign more than once.
Target won’t say if its sales have been affected by the backlash.
But the American Family Association says it’s the biggest response ever to one of its online petitions.
“We did not expect this kind of response,” said Ed Vitagliano, the organization’s executive vice president. “We frankly thought we might get to a half million. This thing has just exploded.”
While he acknowledged it’s hard to know how many of those who signed are frequent Target shoppers, he said that other companies are closely watching the backlash that Target is facing in deciding whether to take a stand on the issue.
Most retailers have said nothing. Richfield-based Best Buy and Wal-Mart have not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are among those that have come out with similar positions to Target when asked.
Target stands by its statement. The retailer has had a similar policy in place for store employees since 2009, spokeswoman Molly Snyder said.
In the wake of questions from employees and customers, it decided to make its position more public and to extend it to customers last week.
“We certainly respect that there are a wide variety of perspectives and opinions,” Snyder said in a statement in response to the boycott. “As a company that firmly stands behind what it means to offer our team an inclusive place to work — and our guests an inclusive place to shop — we continue to believe that this is the right thing for Target.”
She added in an interview that customers are welcome to use unisex or family bathrooms, which are in most Target stores, if they do not feel comfortable using the men’s or women’s restrooms.
In Oxford, Ala., which passed an ordinance this week saying residents must use the restroom that corresponds with their biological sex, Snyder said Target will abide by the local law, but remains committed to inclusiveness.
Meanwhile, the Family Equality Council launched a counter campaign called #standwithtarget, encouraging people to show their support on Facebook and Twitter.
A MoveOn.org petition supporting Target’s position was also gaining momentum Friday, garnering more than 60,000 signatures by the end of the business day.
YouGovBrandIndex, which surveys consumers on a daily basis, found the percentage of shoppers who said they would consider buying items at Target the next time they shop is down to 38 percent this week from 42 percent two weeks ago. Ted Marzilli, YouGov’s chief executive, said it’s hard to know whether shoppers actually follow through on pledges to not shop there.
“I think you’re seeing some uncertainty by a lot of people in the general population about walking into a public restroom and being surprised about who you find there,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about being in danger or being scared, it’s about what their comfort zone is and what they’re used to.”
In making its decision to make a public statement on the transgender issue, Target likely did the math and figured that its customer base, which tends to be younger and more liberal, would mostly welcome its message, said Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“Given their current position, my instinct is this is not a bad bet,” Rao said.
On social media Friday, some of Target’s most vocal critics claimed that the 2.2 percent drop in the company’s stock that day was due to its bathroom stance.
Stock analysts noted that other retailers were also down on the day after rival Amazon.com Inc. reported a blockbuster quarter. Wal-Mart’s stock was down 3 percent.
Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with Edward Jones, said while Target may see some slight, short-term effect from the criticism, it is unlikely to affect its quarterly sales and profits.
“I would be shocked if that happened,” he said. “Over the long term, this blows over.”