After Jamie Foxx and before Taylor Swift, the new leader of Target Corp. took the stage before thousands of his top managers and employees and laid out the company’s challenge in six words.
“We need to be cool again,” Brian Cornell said Wednesday afternoon in the climactic event of Target’s annual two-day gathering designed to pump up store leaders for the crucial holiday season.
The crowd of 14,000 burst into cheers and applause, embracing Cornell’s candor and excitement after a year in which the Minneapolis-based retailer struggled with falling profits, a data breach that eroded the trust of customers, a difficult expansion in Canada and turnover in top leadership.
Cornell told the crowd that one of his initial strategies will be restoring Target’s reputation for style by focusing on home, apparel, baby and beauty products.
For Cornell, the moment was another first in his short time at Target. He started work as chief executive and chairman just four weeks ago and immediately plunged into addressing the problems in Canada and preparing for the holiday season.
“Hopefully, five years from now, ten years from now, we’ll have people look back and say this was a real turning point,” Cornell said in a room backstage after his speech while Swift warmed up next door. “They know this is a new day, a new start.”
For the annual meeting, the company flies in managers from its nearly 1,800 stores to learn about new merchandise, strategies and advertising. The event concludes with the pep rally-like gathering at Target Center, where everyone dresses in variations of the company’s signature red-and-khaki colors and gets treated to performances by A-list entertainers.
Cornell wore a beige suit and red-and-white shirt. Other executives wore red blazers or dresses. One attendee wore a red bow tie, sparkling red pants, red high-top sneakers and a tan fur coat. Foxx, who warmed up the crowd, put on a red hoodie to fit in.
Most of the performers have a partnership with Target. This year, in addition to Foxx and Swift, one of Cornell’s favorites performed — Coldplay. The British group’s lead singer, Chris Martin, also donned red and khaki for the occasion.
For this holiday, the initiative that elicited gasps from the audience came when Toms shoes founder Blake Mycoskie bounded onto the stage. Target will offer a limited-edition collection from Toms, known for its buy one-give one model with its canvas shoes, during the holidays starting Nov. 16. The items will go beyond just shoes, including home goods and apparel such as the chambray shirt that Mycoskie sported on stage.
Employees were encouraged to share the news on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“Let’s make this thing go viral,” Mycoskie said as he took a selfie with some employees in the audience. Target Center was quickly alight in the glow from mobile phone screens as employees did as they were told.
Target also announced it was teaming up with comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who addressed the group via a prerecorded video. The details around the partnership later this year and into 2015 are still murky, but DeGeneres will act as a spokeswoman of sorts for Target.
The meeting is usually a private event, with a lot of secrecy surrounding the guest performers and content. But for the first time, Target pulled back the curtain by inviting a handful of journalists. Jeff Jones, Target’s chief marketing officer, said that’s a reflection of the company trying to be more open.
“We have work to do, there’s no question,” Jones said. “But we have turned the page for this company. And everything about today is where we’re headed.”
He added that the red and khaki that floods the streets of Minneapolis on this day every year is a visual representation of the power of the brand.
“This day is one of the most important days in Target’s culture,” he said.
In a moment of recognition of Target’s recent difficulties, employees gave a standing ovation to John Mulligan, the firm’s chief financial officer. Mulligan took charge as interim CEO for three months this year after the board of directors ousted former leader Gregg Steinhafel.
“Everybody loves the finance guy, right?” Mulligan quipped as the applause died down.
On Tuesday, the store managers who came for the event went to workshops and walked through an exhibition at the Minneapolis Convention Center to see concepts Target has begun testing in stores.
While most of those new ideas, such as mannequins and service stations with iPads have already been rolled out to some Twin Cities area stores, managers from other parts of the country had not yet seen them up close, said Bryan Everett, Target’s senior vice president of store operations. “This is sort of like a playground for them,” he said.
One of the most popular booths, he noted, was the mock-up of the TargetExpress store in Dinkytown. Some curious store managers made field trips to the actual store, the smallest Target has ever made. It will soon open others in St. Paul and the San Francisco area.
As he worked up the crowd at Target Center, Cornell called out to the group of managers with the best sales record in the past year.
“Where is that 2 percent club I’ve heard about?” he said, drawing cheers from the employees closest to the stage dressed in “2% Club” T-shirts.
About 600 managers qualified for the select group by boosting sales at least 2 percent. Cornell said he wants to see more people in that club and wants to see them reach 3 percent and 4 percent. When he left the stage, the crowd rose up again and he walked down the center aisle, high-fiving employees.
“Fourteen thousand people on their feet. It was a very special moment. Lots of fun,” he said afterward. “I could have stayed up there all day.”