At a tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday, Target Corp. CEO Brian Cornell raised concerns about a recent drop-off in shopping among Latino customers, weighed in on Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods and elaborated on how the company is now approaching innovation.
He didn’t specifically mention the election of President Donald Trump, whose campaign prominently featured the promise of building a wall at the border with Mexico and whose administration has widened immigration crackdowns. But he said the slowdown in shopping among Latinos in recent months is an industrywide issue that Target is spending time figuring out how to address.
“There’s almost a cocooning factor,” he said at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. “They are staying at home. They are going out less often, particularly along border towns in the United States. You’re seeing a change in behavior.”
In his talk, Cornell cited a statistic that shopping among Latinos is down about 11 percent. A Target spokesman said later he was referencing industrywide data from the NPD Group. An NPD spokeswoman said the 11 percent drop was in shopping visits among Spanish-dominant households in November and December.
In recent years, Target’s key demographic and core customer has gone from being a suburban soccer mom to a shopper who is more likely to be a millennial living in an urban area and increasingly Latino. As a result, Target has been catering more to this demographic. During the holidays last year, for example, it boosted its spending on Spanish-language ads and featured a Latina girl as the main character.
In the wide-ranging conversation with Andrew Nusca, Fortune’s digital editor, Cornell also weighed in on other topics such as the Amazon-Whole Foods deal and the company’s approach to acquisitions and partnerships.
Target’s stock, like that of many other retailers, took a tumble when Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was first announced last month. Cornell said he and other Target executives weren’t surprised by the deal.
“But what it did do is really validate what we’ve been talking about for almost four years now, and that is that in today’s environment, stores still matter,” he said. “And even for Amazon, I think there’s a recognition that a physical store and proximity is important to the consumer.”
The Amazon-Whole Foods deal — as well as Walmart’s recent acquisition spree that has included such online brands as Jet.com, Bonobos, Modcloth, Moosejaw and others — has created questions about whether Target should do the same. For now, Target has been more conservative when it comes to acquisitions, although it invested $75 million in online bed-in-a-box company Casper, whose products Target has begun to sell in its stores and online.
“In today’s retail environment, partnerships are really important,” said Cornell. “We can’t do everything ourselves. … Partners are very important today and they will be even more important going forward.”
But he added that Target is very selective in who it teams up with. He noted that he spent a lot of time getting to know Philip Krim, the founder and CEO of Casper, and his team and the company’s vision before partnering with the company.
Meanwhile, a recent cutback of innovation projects at Target launched by entrepreneurs-in-residence have raised questions about Target’s innovation agenda in the age of Amazon. One such idea in the works was to build farms inside stores. Casey Carl, Target’s chief innovation and strategy officer, left the company in April as those and other projects, such as a robot-infused store of the future being built in Silicon Valley, were axed.
“I’ve learned a lot — and I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Cornell said Tuesday. “We had some great experiences with entrepreneurs we had brought in and gave them some seed money and said, ‘All right, go think about the future.’ Unfortunately, they were drifting out to another universe. We had to reel things back in and say, ‘All right, innovation has to first start with what is our guest expecting from Target and how does it help our core enterprise? And what are the things we can do to build a stronger brand?’ ”
So innovation efforts going forward, he said, are being imbued across all teams at Target in key areas focused on meeting the needs of consumers and staying competitive. Target’s new strategic road map includes launching a dozen new in-house brands, opening smaller-format stores in urban areas and overhauling its supply chain to keep shelves better stocked and get packages to customers faster when and how they want them.
While some are still wondering how Target will compete with Amazon and Walmart, Cornell said he thinks the company’s strength lies in being a hybrid of a mass and specialty retailer, making it one of the few multicategory players out there.
Target is not a food retailer, though food makes up 20 percent of its business, he said. It’s not a home or apparel retailer, though those areas are a $26 billion business for it. And it’s not, he said, an electronics retailer even though it does big business with Apple, Samsung and Google.
“The versatility of our model — the multicategory nature and our ability to fulfill that both from a physical and digital standpoint — it makes us very unique in the market,” he said. “We’ve got the agility to lean into trends, to lean into different categories when the time is right and also know when to back away to say, you know what, we need to over-invest in trends that are emerging. … So I think we’re uniquely positioned.”
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113