Target CEO makes house calls

Discussion
Brian Cornell, Board Chairman and CEO, Target - Photo: Target
Jan 22, 2016

Target isn’t just for suburban soccer moms anymore. According to CEO Brian Cornell, the retailer’s customers have “profoundly changed over the past couple of years.” That’s why he and other company executives are out on the road visiting shoppers in their homes.

In a speech to the Economic Club of Minnesota, Mr. Cornell said the company has planned home visits in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“No one knows I am the CEO of Target when I do that,” Mr. Cornell told the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “They don’t even know we’re from Target. We will interview them. I have sat with Hispanic moms with five-year-old little girls, talking about their needs as they think about their baby, where they shop, what they shop for.”

The goal is to better understand customers and translate that into products and services that best meet their needs. Mr. Cornell described the process as “fundamental ethnography work” in a Minneapolis Star Tribune report.

One of the profound changes in shopping behavior in recent years is the use of mobile devices.

“Mobile, for them, is absolutely a way of life,” Mr. Cornell said (via the Pioneer Press) of current customers. “They want their demands met on their terms.”

How much value can retail headquarters executives gain from speaking with customers in stores and by visiting them in their homes? Is what Brian Cornell and the Target team doing unusual or common in the retailing world?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Mr. Cornell is ... going to their homes because, well, that’s where they shop a lot of the time, and he might never otherwise speak to them. I am very impressed. Really."
"Home visits are very helpful, but they aren’t a silver bullet. First, it’s very easy to over-weight anecdotal insights."
"Nothing better than making consumers feel welcome. Target can not go wrong with this approach as long as they have the right people doing it."

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25 Comments on "Target CEO makes house calls"


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Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

It’s somewhat ironic that Target, who competes with Walmart, borrowed an important page from the late Sam Walton’s approach to the market and customers. Sam pioneered the example of visiting stores during the week, meeting customers and asking associates what’s working, what’s not working and how to fix what’s not working.

Unfortunately, not enough retailers engage customers in their own stores let alone visiting them in their homes. Kudos to Brian and the Target team for listening rather than selling.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
5 years 10 months ago

I think this is a fabulous idea. As much as executives try to stay in touch with their customers, there’s nothing like hearing it straight from those customers, in the world where those shoppers live. Every retail executive should do this. Every retail executive should spend some time in stores, not as the visiting dignitary, but as the “undercover boss” in the trenches.

A really good leader can internalize important learnings from reports and from hearing others’ experiences, but there is still nothing like experiencing it first hand. In this day and age direct connections with customers, genuine and authentic interactions, etc., are all very important. People who try to fake that will get caught and burned on social media, and the brand will suffer as a result.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Brilliant! It used to be that retail executives worked in stores so that they could see what their store associates faced and what their customers saw.

Mr. Cornell is putting a twist on it. He’s going to their homes because, well, that’s where they shop a lot of the time, and he might never otherwise speak to them.

I am very impressed. Really.

Zel Bianco
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

This is nothing new. P&G and others have been doing this for years. Brian knows this and understands the value of meeting face-to-face with customers/consumers. It gives you the ability to truly understand needs and wants that tend to be more true, more real-world and personal. Insights that may not always come through in online surveys or in-store intercepts. It is not the only tool, but one that allows you to integrate those in-home insights into all of the other data that is being collected in order to start to identify actionable recommendations that improve the lives of the consumer and therefore hopefully moves the needle for Target and its suppliers.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Home visits are very helpful, but they aren’t a silver bullet.

First, it’s very easy to over-weight anecdotal insights. Our brains are hardwired to do this. When doing home visits, it’s important that our research team protect us from our own cognitive biases by validating any observations/conclusions with much larger sample sizes.

Second, the big value of home visits are the unprompted observations, not the responses from residents to questions. So much of shopping is unconscious, it can be a huge mistake to ask consumers for a rational account of their shopping preferences and behaviors and expect their answers to be reliable.

All that aside, it’s certainly a step in the right direction any time senior management gets out of the ivory tower and get’s closer to the customer!

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

The potential for better consumer understanding is huge with this approach. However, visiting consumers in only large cities ignores a huge number of consumers in smaller cities and none of these cities are in the Southeast. Whether the consumers interviewed are a cross section of best shoppers and whether any strong patterns emerge will determine success. Other companies have used this approach. As far as I know, they also found surprises but not all companies were able to successfully implement ideas based upon what they learned.

Max Goldberg
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Any time retail executives can get out of their headquarters and visit with shoppers is time well spent. What the Target team is doing is not unusual. I salute them for making the effort and look forward to discovering what they learn in the field.

Anne Howe
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

There is a tremendous amount of value in visiting shoppers in their homes. Asking survey questions is not anywhere near as insightful as watching people functioning in their day-to-day environment. That’s the kind of truthful interaction that can reveal unmet needs.

I’m certain Mr. Cornell has a qualified team of anthropologists on board for this research; not just the executives dropping in on folks.

Ethnography is a costly investment but those who use it wisely gain applicable insight that can truly drive change. Target is taking action on insight and it’s showing in stores and in business results.

Tony Orlando
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

If this is something they really want to do then kudos for them, as greeting the customers in store or in their homes would go a long way to creating goodwill. They would have to do this continually in order to stay up with the next generation of shoppers, and it will help build relationships. As an independent I host sit downs with customers for diabetic discussions or gluten free issues. I also take them on a tour behind the scenes of the store to show them how we do things and the way we get all of our great deals. Nothing better than making consumers feel welcome. Target can not go wrong with this approach as long as they have the right people doing it.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
5 years 10 months ago
The answer, of course, depends on how smart, observant and objective the retail executive in question is. Assuming all those boxes are checked I think it’s a great idea — as long as they bring along a trained ethnographer, cultural anthropologist, social psychologist or anyone else that is an expert in understanding how to look for behavioral cues and clues. After all, being a CEO is rarely the same thing as being a trained observer. I think more and more retailers are learning the same lesson that seems to be inspiring the Target team. I have personally worked across categories and retail segments with anthropologists, pure ethnographers and other social scientists for almost two decades and, on many client assignments, I wouldn’t leave home without one. So from my personal experience this seems more old hat than new vision although, in fairness, the approach is growing but it is generally still easier to “sell’ to manufacturers on it than it is to build acceptance for it among retailers. I suspect that will all change rapidly as… Read more »
Naomi K. Shapiro
Guest
Naomi K. Shapiro
5 years 10 months ago

Bravo for Brian Cornell home visits. If their customers “have profoundly changed over the past couple of years” so should Target (and any other intelligent merchant).

This is a wonderful way to feel the pulse of their potential audiences and provide the proper responses. Talking with a few people out of the millions of potential customers spread across the world is a small step — I hope they can extrapolate what they learn to apply it wisely locally, geographically, socially, ethnically, age-wise, etc.

Karen McNeely
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

I love this idea. What better way to get in touch with your demographic? I think retailers overall rely too much on industry trends (which I agree are also important) and not enough on listening to their customers. You can learn so much from one-on-one interaction.

My biggest concern about this being successful is the scope of the project. The geographic sweep seems limited to major cities which could skew the results and I wonder if they will visit enough homes to make their results meaningful.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
5 years 10 months ago
A very small number of carefully recruited people can provide a ton of insights. These visits must be prearranged and they include going through closets, cupboards and so on. Again, it’s all about finding that small number of people (recruited by experts) who have huge empathy, interesting lives, etc. I checked on the original story and found the following: “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.” Takeaway: These visits are the front end to big investments in the digitization of the Target experience. I also checked the comments section (this is called “virtual anthropology”) and found the following: “I went to target for lunch meat. To my surprise.., they don’t carry braunshwieger in the lunch meat selection. Also., their auto and sporting departments are slim pickings.” Takeaway:… Read more »
Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
5 years 10 months ago

What Brian Cornell is doing is unfortunately revolutionary for retail. Very often executives never speak directly with consumers and have limited exposure even to focus groups.

This exposure to “real-world” consumers will let Brian and his team hear what is staff has been telling him for some time — that Target’s customers are more diverse, more mobile-focused and have a different relationship with the Target brand than the standard “one size fits all” All-American Mom look that has predominated in Target creative and positioning for years.

Now, where does the Target team go with that insight? Hopefully to a more diverse set of products, services, store design, selection and languages to make the brand truly representative of the U.S. as it is and will be.

Brian Kelly
Guest
5 years 10 months ago
How quaint. Micromanagement in the age of personalization. OK, this is a great example of leading the organization to becoming a more “customer-centric” business. But a CEO visiting customers in their home is pure PR and a questionable use of his precious time. A panel of best customers to provide insights has been around for a long time. Which customers will he visit? Suburban, urban, big stores, small stores, wellness pilots, mega stores, under performers? Walking stores and rallying the troops is a better use of his time. Ullman’s efforts to turn around J. C. Penney were a “best practice” and proven this holiday. Cornell should focus on the front-liners; inspire and lead them across the wobbly breadth of new initiatives it is undertaking. Wexner said, “retail is detail.” Canada made a mess of details. I think what they will do with the info is a better question. How will that new feed fit with the Big Data Target has collected for years? Remember Duhigg’s book: Target were doing predictive analytics on shopping habits years… Read more »
Gordon Arnold
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Spending time in the stores behind the customer service desk, in the aisles and at checkout might have been a better way to meet his customers. E-commerce issues will be better served with investments in application software that is designed specifically for the devices they are used on. This is a matter best left to the company’s IT and marketing experts.

Lee Peterson
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Smartest thing I’ve heard from a non-digital retailer in a long time. We used to have a policy when I was at The Limited: you HAD to be in stores every Thursday night. Our stores. Talking to customers, staff, looking at displays, seeing the merchandise tried on, touching the product, etc. So when you went to put together a line, you knew exactly who and what you were dealing with in stores and with customers.

What Cornell is doing is even better. But that’s only because I’m assuming he’s also in stores all the time. The combo is going to produce some great results and a fantastic “physical retailer of the future.” Impressive — and hard — work that needs to be done by all retail CEOs right now, before they get run over by the Amazon train.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

It is very valuable to hear from customers and to hear from customers in their own home. I think visiting stores and talking to customers is pretty standard fair in retail. If it’s not, then I’m guessing that those retailers that aren’t will not be around very long.

The unique thing here is visiting customers in the home and really seeing firsthand how they interact with products you sell and what tools (smartphone, etc.) they use to make their lives easier.

Lee Kent
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

This should be done more often! Aside from the few executives who actually go to their stores on occasion or have been on “Undercover Boss” ;-), this is rare.

My 2 cents says it is a step in the right direction!

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
5 years 10 months ago

I have just one word for this effort by the CEO of Target. Creepy.

The idea that a CEO would need to do this to get the skinny on customers’ lives and their desires seems so strange. Among other things It suggests that he does not trust or have faith in his management team and store managers to “get” and relate to customers in their respective areas and report back to him honestly.

If this is anything more than a publicity stunt, it speaks volumes about Target’s ongoing problems

Arie Shpanya
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Knowing your customer is the first step toward serving them better. These home visits show that Target is personal and cares. When shoppers feel closer to a retailer, they’re more likely to become life-long customers. It’s a good PR move and the information they collect will put them in a great competitive position this year and beyond.

Kris Kelvin
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Confirmation bias, anyone?

Unless these folks are trained in methodology, they’ll in all likelihood come away with “insights” that justify what they’ve already decided to do, something retail execs are already fabulous at doing. (And really, did it take a pop-in on a customer to realize that mobile is big?)

I’m thinking this is more about PR and humanizing the face of Target.

Martin Mehalchin
Guest
Martin Mehalchin
5 years 10 months ago

This is not only a great way to gain insights on the consumer, it is also a great leadership move to reinforce Target’s customer-centric culture.

angiretlwire dixon
Guest
angiretlwire dixon
5 years 10 months ago

Talking with customers is usually helpful (as long as broad assumptions aren’t made based on a small sampling).

Several years back, I worked for a national off-price chain that had more sales volume in Men’s clothing than Women’s clothing (which is not the norm for most retailers).

Somehow it was determined that the core shopper was a woman in a certain age demographic (probably based on customer traffic rather than dollar purchases). Slowly but surely, the Men’s clothing division was de-funded and scaled back to a fraction of its former self.

My opinion is that it is important to see if market research findings square up to actual sales metrics based on actual purchases in both units and dollars.

Kai Clarke
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Brian Cornell is clearly out of his element. Target doesn’t sell to consumers in their home, but instead in a Target store. If he truly wants to understand what is going on with his customers, he needs to go to a Target store and sit there over several days to realize what is happening with his employees, his customers, and the products which he tries to sell. Hearing comments from these people in real time will give him greater insight than visiting them in their homes.

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Braintrust
"Mr. Cornell is ... going to their homes because, well, that’s where they shop a lot of the time, and he might never otherwise speak to them. I am very impressed. Really."
"Home visits are very helpful, but they aren’t a silver bullet. First, it’s very easy to over-weight anecdotal insights."
"Nothing better than making consumers feel welcome. Target can not go wrong with this approach as long as they have the right people doing it."

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