Viewpoint: Target brand, not Hastings economy, may be behind closure

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On Monday evening, two words struck fear into the heart of many of Hastings moms: "Target's closing." I watched my wife and her friends vigorously trading texts and signing online petitions to protest the closing throughout the evening. And I do feel bad for the Target employees that will be out of a job come February.

It does seem sacrilegious for a Target to be closing in a Minnesota town. More importantly, though, it does call into the question of the economic resiliency of the town. People are asking, "If a Minnesota town can't support a Target, how healthy is that town/economy?" The Hastings community did the same thing when Panera left, or the many other companies/stores/restaurants that have come and gone. It is a valid question and Hastings has a lot of work to do to improve the local economy; however, in this case, my belief is that this closure is reflective of problems with the Target brand rather than the Hastings economy.

The demise of the Hastings Target has been long been projected, starting in the early 2000s when the Walmart Supercenter came to town. But the old bare bones Target continued to survive for a number of years. Obviously I don't have store financials, but anecdotally I would argue that the demise of the store really came in the last three to five years. My proof would be what many retail analysts use to measure the health of retail: the number of cars in the parking lot. My family moved back to Hastings in 2011, and my average walk from my car to the front door has gotten shorter and shorter each year. My belief is that health of the store has really declined over the past few years.

However, I don't think that necessarily means that everyone is over at Walmart. If you look at Cub across the street, it has plenty of traffic. I think it is a Target issue.

Target has made some missteps over the past few years. Notably, the data breach of their credit cards as well and the failure of the Canadian expansion. That brought about massive changes, notably a new CEO who ran the Sam's Club brand and would bring "fiscal responsibility" to compete with the likes of Walmart and now Amazon. There were massive layoffs downtown at corporate, and major cost-cutting initiatives. But even after all this, Target has had some quarters in the past two years which can only be described as horrendous from a financial standpoint.

Why? I would argue that all this cost-cutting and efficiency has had an impact on the retail experience. Whether it is running into buy allergy medicine and waiting 20 minutes to check out; or undertrained and/or overworked employees; or understaffing stores; or the store not being as clean or organized as they used to be.

There are other things as well. Five years ago, Target had innovative partnerships with up and coming brands/designers. Now, they have a Chip and Joanna Gaines partnership, which eerily feels like the Martha Stewart partnership with Kmart, in essence five years late to the game. Finally, Target used to be a leader on social responsibility, with donations to schools, etc. Now, they recently announced a minimum wage initiative in response to Walmart's announcement that they were raising minimum wage. Who could imagine a time where Walmart is outpacing Target on social responsibility?

In summary, this isn't a reflection on Target employees, store or corporate, who are our hard working neighbors and friends. But I think the strategic direction that Target's board and senior leadership is taking is to "cut, cut, cut" to compete on price with others, specifically Amazon and Walmart. And it is a trap that many retail stores I would argue many are falling into. But to remain successful in today's changing retail environment, I believe you need to be competitive on price (not necessarily the cheapest), but more importantly, provide a customer experience that differentiates itself from Walmart/Amazon.

I am sad to lose the store, and hopefully Target is able to figure things out sooner than later. Because otherwise, I believe that many Minnesotans, not just Hastings residents, will likely be saying "Alexa, buy another bag of dog food" rather than spending money at the historic Minnesotan corporation in the not-so-distant future.