Target is going to great new lengths to understand its customers — to the point where corporate leaders are going into people's homes, opening up closet doors and poking around cupboards.
CEO Brian Cornell was going to Chicago Wednesday night for another home visit, hoping to understand such things as consumers' food choices, fashion trends and shopping habits. So far, he and about a dozen key officers have met with Hispanic moms and single millennials in various cities to do some "fundamental ethnography work," an approach new to the retail chain.
Most times, consumers have no idea they've got the undivided attention of the man in charge.
It's all part of Cornell's plan to make the nation's No. 2 discount chain more nimble and better able to woo a generation of consumers who are digitally savvy and harder to pin down.
"It's not just about Mom anymore," Cornell said Wednesday, as he laid out a vision for the retailer's future in a speech to about 300 business leaders in downtown Minneapolis.
He also said the retailer would hire 1,000 IT professionals to meet the needs of the new consumer.
The retailer's traditional customer — a white soccer mom, driving a minivan and living in the suburbs — has changed, he said. The focus has broadened to include consumers who are more urban-centric, and increasingly Hispanic. Target is competing mightily with Amazon.com and other retailers to grab the attention of young millennials as they strike out on their own and start careers and families.
Evoking the still-strong popularity of Bruce Springsteen, who is 66, Cornell said the Boss understood that "to make great music, he had to evolve with the times."
Cornell took over the helm at Target in August 2014, at a time when the retailer had suffered three quarters of negative sales. As he reminded members of the Economic Club of Minnesota during the lunchtime gathering, "a lot of people were asking if we had lost our mojo."
Cornell rejected the notion, ticking off accomplishments that included positive trends in the fourth quarter, with strong store traffic and digital sales that are growing twice as fast as industry competitors. Cornell didn't offer details of Target's critical holiday performance, with earnings scheduled to be announced on Feb. 24.
While the bulk of Target's sales still come from its stores, the company is facing steep competition from online retailers, such as Amazon.com.
Cornell made clear his determination to change a workplace culture full of "rigid practices" and complexities that get in the way of it being more fleet of foot.
"We must have more agility," he said, echoing the words of his idol, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
To that end, Target Corp. will beef up its specialty IT workforce in the coming year, with half of the 1,000 new engineers and technology workers in the U.S. and half in Bangalore, India, Cornell said. The retailer is trying to bring its website and mobile operations up to snuff and improve supply chain operations.
Target laid off about 235 technology workers in September, capping a year in which it trimmed about one-fifth of its corporate staff to cut costs and reduce layers of bureaucracy.
The new positions include specialists in such areas as analytics and economic modeling, Cornell said.
Target's website was overwhelmed by traffic on the Monday after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest shopping days of the critical holiday season. Shoppers were put into holding queues in the morning for more than an hour, and difficulties with mobile apps persisted through the afternoon.
Said Cornell: Cyber Monday offered "one more reminder that while we've made progress, we have a lot more to do going forward."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335