This back-to-school season, Target Corp. wants to tap the same sort of feel-good consumerism that helped put Toms Shoes on the map.
The Minneapolis-based retailer will announce Wednesday that for every purchase of certain school supplies, it will donate a similar item to students in need. The “buy one, give one” promotion will be good only on Target’s private-label Up & Up brand and will run in stores between Sunday and Aug. 2.
The campaign, which will donate up to $25 million in products, is just one of the ways Target is trying to bring “newness” into its stores and energize its back-to-school season, the second-most-important sales period of the year. Target executives hope this promotion will help set the retailer apart from the pack by allowing it to tout its philanthropic efforts through specific purchases, much like Toms Shoes does with its “One for One” model that donates one pair of shoes for every pair sold.
“We have an opportunity to tell that story in a more bold and direct way that resonates with our guests,” said Laysha Ward, Target’s president of community relations.
The new initiative is part of Target’s commitment to donate $1 billion to education by 2015. Target already allows customers to donate 1 percent of their Redcard purchases to a school of their choice, and through the end of last year, it had raised $875 million toward its education goal.
The inspiration for this year’s campaign came in part from a new brand of school supplies Target began carrying in June called Yoobi, which donates an item to a classroom for every product sold through the Kids In Need Foundation. Target has partnered with the same foundation for its own promotion.
The “buy one, give one” concept has gained steam in recent years after the success of Toms Shoes. Now larger corporations have become interested in the concept, said Christopher Marquis, a Harvard business professor who has studied the trend. Skechers, for instance, launched a line of shoes a couple of years ago with a charitable twist.
However, there can be skepticism when big companies take on this kind of corporate citizenship, especially when there’s no explicit link to the brand, Marquis said. But that shouldn’t be a problem for Target, since it has a long track record of philanthropy, famously donating about 5 percent of its annual profit, he said.
“I think this might not only have a long-lasting impact for Target, but for diffusing the model more broadly,” Marquis said.
Indeed, Ward is not worried about skeptics who might think this is just a marketing ploy.
“This isn’t a ‘cause of the moment’ for us — it’s been part of the company since its inception,” she said. “Now it has manifested itself in a way that is authentic to the times.”
Last year, Target gave $5 million to schools through a “Give with Target” campaign in which it distributed up to $10,000 to each school based on the number of votes those schools received on Target’s Facebook page.
Some critics wondered at the time whether more popular schools — and the neediest — would get most of the money. Ward said the campaign was “very successful,” but the retailer decided to try a fresh approach this year.
Dave Smith, executive director of the Kids In Need Foundation, said $25 million would be more than double the next-largest donation it has received to date.
“It’s a wonderful day for us — without question,” he said. “And it’s a wonderful day for a whole bunch of kids in the U.S.”
He said Target worked with the group to focus on the items most in need — notebooks, pencils, scissors, etc. The foundation, which reached 3.6 million kids last year, works with schools where about 70 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The partnership with Target could help it reach another 2 million schoolchildren.
Amy Koo, an analyst with Kantar Retail in Boston, noted that this campaign also is a way for Target to highlight one of its private-label brands that it expanded last year around the back-to-school shopping season. And with the promotion starting in the middle of the summer, the retailer can get an early jump on sales.
“It’s good timing to get those sales a little on the earlier side of back-to-school prep season rather than last-minute shopping,” she said. “While they’re in there buying crayons, they might also pick up new clothes for school as well.”
Rick Gomez, Target’s senior vice president of brand and category marketing, said the retailer has improved some of its Up & Up school supplies this year, making them more on par with national brands. He also said that back-to-school shopping provides another opportunity for Target to drive more traffic to its physical stores.
“When it comes to school supplies, they are predominantly purchased with a list in hand in the stores,” he said.