Standing before a roaring crowd of 14,000 of Target Corp.'s red-and-khaki faithful, CEO Brian Cornell couldn't help but acknowledge some recent "bumps in the road" at the company's annual preholiday pep rally.
Yet the Minneapolis-based retailer's fall national meeting Thursday was to fire up his team for the critical holiday season, and he asked the headquarters employees and store managers flown in from around the county to give him everything they had for the final sprint.
"We have 137 days in front of us to turn this into a winning year, to start that second-half rally," he said, standing on the same stage where he first proclaimed two years ago that Target needed to be cool again.
Last month, the Minneapolis-based retailer reported its first comparable sales drop in two years and lowered its sales forecast for the rest of the year.
Cornell said recent headlines have made the company's situation seem worse than it actually is. The way he sees it, it's half-time and the score is still 0-0, he said. After all, he noted that comparable sales for the full year so have been flat.
"I've got so much confidence in our strategy, our plans and in all of you," he said after recounting many of the company's wins earlier this year such as Target regaining the No. 1 position in swimwear. "I know we get to write the final chapter of 2016."
He didn't get into the particulars of the hiccups in Target's grocery makeover, the transition of its pharmacies to the CVS banner and the plummeting electronics sales that the company has cited in part for its recent woes. Instead, he tried to fire up employees by giving them a preview of the upcoming holiday campaigns and telling them what the company is doing to make their jobs in the stores easier.
The company, as it does every year, also enlisted the help of some entertainment superstars to get employees pumped up. The list of performers the retailer has worked with in the past or signed for upcoming partnerships is always a secret. On Thursday, both Bon Jovi and Gwen Stefani performed between executives' speeches.
"Jon Bon Jovi just opened up for me," John Mulligan, Target's chief operations officer, quipped as he followed the rocker on stage.
Mulligan was new to his role at this time last year, and he told the audience then that his top priority was to reduce out-of-stocks, an issue that has plagued the retailer in recent years as online shopping strained its previously stores-focused supply chain. In the last year, his team has been focused on the problem and has decreased out-of-stocks by 25 percent, he reported on Thursday.
Then Mulligan offered his own sports analogy by likening Target to a football team in the midst of rebuilding years — referring in particular to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Badgers. When he was a student there, the team was on a losing streak so it hired a new coach and recruited new players.
"You know what happened? We got worse!" he exclaimed.
But a few years later, things began to click and the team started winning.
"This is our rebuilding time," he said. "Any fan will tell you the rebuilding years are the hardest. … The hardest part is it's messy. For me, the messy is OK. Because in the mess, there's progress."
The progress includes expanding Target's ship-from-store capabilities this fall to 600 more stores. So by November, about 1,060 of Target's 1,800 stores will be directly fulfilling online orders, making it more likely an item will be in stock to get to customers' doorsteps faster. Last year, he noted stores ended up filling about 50 percent more ship-from-store orders than planned, so this will help even the workload.
Target is also adding enhanced customer service counters in 70 stores to streamline the process of picking up online orders.
While in-store pickup is a popular service, one of the biggest complaints is that customers get impatient having to wait in line. That function will now be fulfilled in a separate line than returns and exchanges.
Thursday's meeting also included appearances from a number of new additions to Target's executive team.
Janna Potts, who was promoted earlier this year to be Target's chief stores officer, donned a red leather jacket for the occasion and told the store managers that this holiday season will once again be the most competitive ever. Winning, she added, can come down to just getting a couple extra dollars in every customer's basket.
"I ask all of you to channel your inner badass so when we look back on 2016 we can say, 'Yeah, we crushed it,' " she said.
Mark Tritton, the new chief merchant who joined the company this summer from Nordstrom, told some stories about the magic of the holiday season, including a tale about how when he was much younger and growing up in Australia he agreed to dress as the store mascot "Wally Potamus" for a now-defunct store.
He also had some news to share. Target has teamed with Garth Brooks to sell an exclusive 10-disc boxed set, including the country star's new album, which will hit stores on Nov. 11. Brooks has had similar exclusive deals in the past with Wal-Mart.
The audience initially thought Brooks was going to come onto the stage right then and so many rushed the stage.
"Pleased to meet you, but he's not here," Tritton joked as he found himself surrounded by employees. "Sit down."
It turns out the employees had just jumped the gun. Brooks ended up on stage to close out the meeting with a couple of his greatest hits.