Aside from a hint about a store of the future with robots, Target Corp.’s annual employee meeting was more about Retail 101.
It started with a mea culpa from Chief Executive Brian Cornell.
“I owe each and every one of you an apology,” he told the crowd of 13,000 employees clad in red who filled the Target Center on Wednesday afternoon. “While we’ve been focused on strategy, lifting us up on these priorities, trying to get our company back into a growth mode, I personally didn’t spend enough time drilling down on the retail fundamentals.”
He listed problems that the store managers who had flown in for the meeting have been telling him about for months: Target’s point-of-sale systems sometimes freeze up. The handheld devices store employees carry around with them to look up inventory don’t always work. It’s still too hard for customers to find products and otherwise navigate Target’s website. And there are too many empty spots on shelves because of stocking issues.
His promise to fix those issues elicited loud cheers.
Later, he told reporters that he didn’t understand the depth of the issues when he started in his role a little over a year ago. But he added that many of the problems are “growing pains” as the Minneapolis-based company, whose infrastructure was built to support stores, has been strained as it also handles online shopping.
John Mulligan, Target’s former finance chief who was recently promoted to chief operating officer, boiled down the three priorities of his new role this way: “Out of stocks, out of stocks, and of course, out of stocks,” he said to laughter and cheers.
At the same time, Target executives also dropped hints of ways the company is trying to innovate. While there were some jabs about Amazon’s drones, executives said Target is working on a “concept store” that would include robots and digital displays. Casey Carl, Target’s chief innovation officer, said Target is scouting locations and hopes to open in 18 months. But details were otherwise scant.
“The future isn’t that far away,” he said.
In the more immediate future, Target will be putting about 50 of its latest store updates — things like its beauty concierge service, baby advisers and new home department layouts — in 25 stores in the Los Angeles area later this year and into early next year. The idea is to see how all of the store innovations Target has rolled out to different stores come together in a series of stores and to guide the retailer’s thinking in figuring out future store prototypes.
Executives laid out other new initiatives: testing a digital service ambassador in stores dedicated to helping customers use Target’s apps and website, hiring 100 visual merchandisers to jazz up product displays and toying around with giving customers more help with sizes and styling in the fitting rooms.
The company also said it would team up with Techstars to open a retail accelerator for start-ups next year in Minneapolis.
But the meeting was not strictly business. As Target does every year, it treated employees to surprise performances from a number of artists with whom it has partnerships. This year the list included Shakira, Imagine Dragons, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
And there were more pep rally moments, such as when Cornell put up a slide on the jumbo screen comparing Target’s stock performance with rival Wal-Mart’s. There was a lot of celebration about Target’s stock price, which has increased by more than 30 percent in the past year.
Brandon Sather, a store manager from Nashville who was in town for his ninth annual meeting, said this year the message felt more “down to earth.” He was happy to hear about the focus on fixing issues in the stores.
“They way they’ve empowered the stores has been great,” he said after the meeting as he walked in a sea of red through downtown. “I’m really looking forward to this Christmas season.”