How Target went from loud and proud — to silent

How Target went from loud and proud — to silent

Daphne HowlandSenior Reporter

After years of marking Pride Month each June, Target in 2023 may have had one of mass-market retail’s boldest efforts yet celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. But amid a backlash to its Pride merchandising, including attacks at some stores, Pride Month commenced at Target with what many see as timidity. 

Before the commemorative month had even begun, the retailer pulled or downplayed its collection in some locations, and since then hasn’t heeded calls to express the full-throated solidarity that it has in the past.

“At this moment, it’s critical that Target champions equity and inclusion as it has for over a decade,” a coalition of 100 LGBTQ+ advocacy groups — including longtime Target partner GLSEN — said in a statement the day before Pride Month began. “Target consistently tops the list for brands that show genuine, authentic support of the LGBTQ+ community through outreach and policies. Target received recognition for outstanding commitment to DEI from the Executive Leadership Council in 2022. It’s time to prove the recognition was earned.” 

Target’s Pride history

For Pride Month this year, Target followed a protocol that many advocates see as essential to corporate declarations of support, especially in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests. The retailer partnered with independent LGBTQ+ designers and advocacy organizations on apparel, swimwear, footwear, accessories, toys and messaging, with uplifting, supportive and sometimes defiant slogans. Signage was vivid and large, and displays were placed at the front of the store.

The collection befits a company with a rich history of being an ally, through not just its merchandising but also its marriage equality advocacy, and gender-affirming bathroom and fitting room policies.

Two photos of an apparel display, slightly altered with different merchandise and mannequins.
A Target store in South Portland, Maine, removed a child-sized mannequin, various items including T-shirts with slogans like “Trans people will always exist!” and some signage following what a store employee described as a minor incident from a customer who objected to the campaign. The top picture was taken Thursday, the bottom one on Sunday after Pride Month began. At other locations the Pride display was moved to the back of the store or taken away.Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

The impact of this year’s collection was diminished, however, when the retailer pulled it from some stores, after people emboldened by escalating homophobia and stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community destroyed the displays and confronted store workers. Agitators on social media and right-wing networks, including members of Congress, encouraged a boycott.

On May 31, the coalition of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups called on the retailer to “release a public statement in the next 24 hours reaffirming their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.” At press time, five days on, Target hasn’t responded.

Coalition member GLSEN, founded by a group of teachers, develops anti-bullying programing and other support for LGBTQ+ students in kindergarten through grade 12 and has worked with Target for more than a decade. Executive Director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers said by email that Target can prioritize employee safety and continue to sell its Pride merchandise.

”Those at headquarters should work alongside store management and staff to create security plans to ensure hard-working employees can safely carry out their job,” they said.

The silence

The retailer has remained mum following its initial statement on May 24, in which it explained that it made “adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior” and that its “focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”

Target also didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

A sign posted on a rack of apparel for children promotes GLSEN, which "leads the movement in creating affirming, accessible and anti-racist spaces for LGBTQIA+ students.
Target has partnered with GLSEN for more than 10 years. Now the group joins other LGBTQ+ advocates in criticizing the retailer’s handling of backlash to its Pride Month collection.Daphne Howland/Retail Dive

Target’s refusal to reiterate its commitment to gay pride is widely seen as reflecting fear that it would face the sales and share price declines seen at Bud Light, which has endured vitriol on social media and faced a boycott over its brief tie-up with a transgender influencer. Indeed, in a June 1 research note, Wells Fargo analysts said that Target’s Pride collection “generated a meaningful amount of negative in-store and social media attention” that adds uncertainty to its already challenged near-term prospects and may be hurting store traffic.

“Investors are highly sensitive to the issue following the situation at [Anheuser-Busch],” the analysts said.

The retailer continues to sell its Pride collection online and in many stores, including locations where the displays remain prominent. But its caution is damaging its brand and its standing with the LGBTQ+ community and others, according to Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, which for 30 years has specialized in LGBTQ+-related communications strategy and market research. This amounts to walking away from its own previously stated values, suggesting hypocrisy and risking rejection from all corners, he said by phone.

“You not only lose the people who are mad at you who walk in the store, but also the people you claim are welcome there,” he said. “And if you’re going start backing down from your values, what do you stand for?”

What Target should do

The need to develop and stand by corporate values stems in part because these days they are, or should be, grounded in considerations of human rights, according to Alison Taylor, executive director of the Ethical Systems program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In this case, that entails ensuring the safety of store workers as well as reaffirming a commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, which could both be accomplished with some effort.

Moreover, attacks against LGBTQ+ people’s rights have intensified in recent years, so Target should have been better prepared, she said by phone. This year there have been more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills restricting basic freedoms, the coalition noted in its release.

“My overall position is, you steer into the skid, you stick to your guns, because I don’t think you can have a middle ground on this,” Taylor said. “You need to get clear on your values, and then you need to be prepared for the backlash, and you need to stick to them. The thing to do is to consult affected stakeholders, who have expertise and who are impacted on these issues. Consult with store employees and also consult the LGBTQ and transgender community. Ideally, before this stuff happens, not after, but it’s a little bit too late.”

Failure to clarify its stance risks a well-honed reputation, and Target should consider working with local authorities to boost security in stores in order to keep its displays intact, according to Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at The Wharton School.

“Clearly Target does have to take into account the safety of their employees,” she said by email. “If this is an important issue for Target, and I believe it is given their multi-year commitment, I think to retreat would set the wrong signal. Even if increased security raises short-term costs, the long-term reputation effects would be worth it.”

Not all analysts are as concerned as Wells Fargo about short-term financial consequences for Target. GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders said that the retailer should make clear its prerogative as a capitalist enterprise.

“At the end of the day, it should take the view that it has a right to sell what merchandise it wants and its customers can take or leave it,” he said by email. “If it tries to sit on the fence it will end up pleasing nobody. With the culture wars raging, it also should have thought about some of this beforehand.”

“If you frighten Target, which has been a leader, what are all the other companies supposed to think? It’s a pattern that creates cowardice among all that have ventured there.”

Longer term, the retailer risks losing support from a powerful consumer block, according to the coalition of groups pressuring Target to stand behind them. American consumers are twice as likely to buy from a brand that demonstrates a commitment to LGBTQ+ rights, and those ages 18 to 34 are more than five times more likely to want to work at a company supportive of those rights, the group said. Furthermore, in 2019 the community held global spending power of some $3.9 trillion, and household wealth in the U.S. alone of nearly $6.9 trillion, according to investment firm LGBT Capital.

“Gay people — broadly speaking, LGBTQ+ people — matter. When a corporation goes down a path of engagement, inclusion and support for the community, that matches their goals as a for-profit business, because they want to grow that business,” said Witeck. “They want to expand their customer base. And if they retreat from it, they are signaling that they are looking backwards, into the past. If you frighten Target, which has been a leader, what are all the other companies supposed to think? It’s a pattern that creates cowardice among all that have ventured there.”

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