Target and Walmart Succeed by Delivering on Retail’s New Brand Promise of Health and Safety

Target and Walmart are selling safety. And they’re succeeding.

Both retailers surprised analysts by reporting strong quarterly earnings in August, sending their stock prices to all-time highs. It turns out that as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, people are choosing to visit Target and Walmart even at a time when going to the store means putting our lives on the line.

Why?

Because the brand promise of retailers has changed from “Save money and enjoy our store” to “Shop with us, and we’ll protect you from yourselves.” And both Target and Walmart have delivered on this promise big time.

Target and Walmart Make It Easy to Shop without Stepping into the Store

They offer services such as curbside pickup that limit a shopper’s exposure to the risks of being inside a store. Walmart began rolling out curbside in 2016 (the service was called Pickup and Fuel then). Target responded a few years later. Both companies are benefitting from the surging interest in curbside. Target said that sales through Target’s curbside pickup service grew by more than 700% in the second quarter from a year earlier. Walmart said U.S. eCommerce sales grew 97 percent, as more customers shipped packages to their homes and used same-day delivery and curbside pickup.

Target and Walmart Have Changed the Rules of Shopping

Early on, both Target and Walmart aggressively enacted health and safety protocols such as using floor stickers to help shoppers keep their social distance, installing plastic guards to protect employees and shoppers from each other in the check-out lane, and mandating that shoppers wear masks to enter their stores. These protocols have not worked perfectly.

Unfortunately, some selfish shoppers have chosen to recklessly endanger everyone else by not wearing a mask. And yet, Target and Walmart are convincing people to visit their stores. Target reported that in-store comparable sales climbed by 10.9 percent during its second quarter. Walmart’s U.S. same-store sales were up 9.3 percent.

The Golden Arches of Retail

Retailers such as Target Walmart have, in effect, become the new Golden Arches. Decades ago, McDonald’s famously made the Golden Arches a symbol of consistency and predictability for restaurants. Especially as Americans began to travel more in their cars in the 20th Century, seeing those Golden Arches by roads provided some measure of assurance that you knew exactly what you were getting when you stopped for a meal. Today seeing that Target logo by a highway provides some degree of predictability and comfort in the hostile land of the maskless.

This truth resonates as shaken families across the United States have tried to reclaim some semblance of normalcy by embracing the time-honored tradition of the American road trip. According to Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky, Americans are getting in their cars again and taking 200-mile road trips to smaller communities and outdoor parks. That’s because congested cities are more dangerous than state parks and hotels in the country. Air travel is more dangerous than a leisurely drive in your car. But even so, when you hop in your car and hit the road, you take on new risks, and if you travel with a family, you put them at risk, too. Depending on your destination and where you live, your drive may take you through multiple cities and states, each with their own customs for managing coronavirus health and safety. You’re literally leaving your comfort zone when you go on a road trip. Even familiar places now seem like unexplored territory.

Short road trips will continue to define the American vacation experience especially with national holidays that make it possible for people to travel for long weekends all year-round. If you took a road trip this summer, you know the drill by now: you probably planned for your trip carefully in ways you did not need to only months ago. Perhaps you investigated a motel or an Airbnb’s COVID-19 hygiene practices and protocols ahead of time. You might have packed a cleaning kit to wipe down your room when you arrived. Maybe you packed snacks to minimize having to stop at restaurants, especially if your drive took you to places where you were not sure how well people followed mask-wearing or social distancing protocols. But at some point you, needed to stop somewhere. You were low on gasoline. Your kids needed to go to the bathroom. You forgot to pack enough socks and need to buy an extra pair.

But as we know by now, a routine stop elevates your stress level. You stop at a gas station or a store by a highway exit, and you go into self-preservation mode, assessing the danger levels by using your own internal survival rules, just like Jesse Eisenberg did when he was trying to avoid encounters with zombies in Zombieland. How small or big does the location look? (Tiny aisles in roadside gas station convenient marts seem deadly.) How crowded is the place? Do they post a sign with ground rules for maintaining social distance? And are customers wearing masks?

Fortunately, at gas stations, you refill the tank outside and can manage your social distancing. But when it comes to getting a cup of Starbucks, a bottle of water, or those extra socks, it’s time to pull out your mobile phone and search for the nearest Target or Walmart. That’s because you know they have a national policy of requiring people to wear masks when they enter the store, and they offer services such as curbside. You’ve probably been to a Target or Walmart near your home and seen firsthand the policy in place. You’ve noticed the employees wearing masks and red shirts wiping down the self-checkout lanes at Target or processing your purchase from behind the relative safety of a plastic shield. Those details mean everything.

Maybe you’d like to support local businesses, and the closest big-box retailer is a bit farther than you’d like to drive. But people are getting sick and dying, and idiots who refuse to wear masks are making things worse. At least Target and Walmart, no matter where you go, require masks. It’s not a fool-proof approach — belligerent people who refuse to wear masks still slip through. But it’s something. And those wide aisles sure make it easier to avoid getting too close to some careless shopper who isn’t paying attention to where they are pushing their shopping cart. That predictability of service and safety could save your life.

My Own Road Trip Experience with Retail

I have learned these new rules of the road firsthand. My wife Jan and I have taken three road trips since the pandemic hit, two out of necessity and one for leisure. The first road trip, several hundred miles to Massachusetts in early June to see my seriously ill father, was stressful at first. When we stopped at a rest area for a bathroom break, I was anxious. But seeing chairs in public spaces put away and signs announcing social distancing procedures made me feel just a bit more comfortable. At least someone in the rest stop was taking some measures. Just about everyone wore masks, too, but not all travelers did. So we kept our stops to a minimum. As we drove east and entered New York state, the drive became more relaxing. That’s because New York state residents were uniformly compliant with their mask wearing and social distancing, whether we were visiting a rest stop or staying in a motel. The entire state felt like an advertisement for how to respect each other during the pandemic.

The drive to Massachusetts was important. Not only did we see my dad, under hospice care at home, but we also overcame our fear of traveling during the pandemic. We eventually worked up the courage to take a 280-mile drive to La Crosse, Wisconsin, for a long weekend of hiking and biking. Like everyone I know, we had hit a point where we just needed to get away — to drive somewhere and escape. We knew this trip might be like visiting the wild west. The state of Wisconsin has been more aggressive than many other states about opening its economy, and we’d heard of local Wisconsin businesses being lenient with their protocols. Halfway into our drive, we stopped to rest in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an uneventful stop. We found a shopping mall we knew about. Masks were mandatory to enter, and compliance was nearly uniform. Like the survivors in The Walking Dead, we kept our eyes peeled for mask-less mall wanderers and easily avoided being near them. When we arrived at La Crosse, we immediately visited a somewhat remote trail for a glorious late afternoon hike up a steep trail with challenging switchbacks — just the kind of experience we’d been hoping for and, frankly, one I needed to work off my COVID-19 flab. Fortunately we encountered few people on the trail, and when we did, we held our breath and kept our masks on.

After the hike, we both wanted cold water and Gatorade. So we stopped at a local gas station with a shopping mart inside. Right away, we went into self-preservation mode. And the place failed, miserably. Lots of people without masks came and went through the narrow doorway. And apparently no attempt was made to monitor the number of people in the cramped store. After sizing up the place, we aborted the mission. Unfortunately, the gas station was not the only place in La Crosse where apparently no one cared about masks. But, undeterred, we decided it was time to adopt the Target Strategy. We found a large, welcoming Target nearby, which looked like a beacon of safety in the distance. Sure enough, just like the Target near our house, the one in La Crosse mandated that all customers wear masks — which they did. And just as we’d experienced at our own Target near our home, the mask-wearing employees had the spray bottles out to keep the place clean. At the check-out lane, a good-natured employee asked us how our day was going as she wiped down the counter and rang up our purchases. We mentioned how much we appreciated the visible safety protocols. Seeing employees so diligent about keeping the place clean was comforting. She admitted that other employees sometimes grumbled about how tiresome the constant cleaning was, but she was a new employee and therefore did not have any other frame of reference. Always wearing a mask and keeping a spray bottle and paper towel at her side seemed a natural part of the experience.

The New Retail Customer Experience

A great customer experience now comes down to how quickly and safely you can get out of the store, and how well a store can assure you with visual cues that they really do take your personal health and safety as seriously as they say on their website and in their official emails. During the pandemic, Target and Walmart have sensed and responded, and there’s no turning back. 

Why Celebrities Matter Now

Celebrities sure have been stepping in it lately. A lot. In their attempts to connect with people around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, many actors, musicians, and other public figures have come across as painfully tone-deaf. Finding examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. There was the cringeworthy “Imagine” singalong by a parade of out-of-touch (and out of tune) personalities. And David Geffen trying to relate to the masses by posting an Instagram image of his self-isolation on his $590 million superyacht. Or how about actress Evangeline Lilly blithely discussing on Instagram her disregard for social distancing (unwittingly predicting the social distancing backlash that would erupt among right-wing fringe groups in April)?

Oh Madge

And then there’s Madonna, in a category all her own. As if posting an Instagram video of herself immersed in rose-petal-covered bathwater were not enough, she also created bizarre, rambling Instagram “quarantine diaries” in which she pondered a burning spear making its way into her inner core before discussing the loss of people in her life due to COVID-19 while a jaunty oboe played in the background.

And that’s just scratching the surface of celebrity weirdness. It’s gotten so bad that we’re seeing a new genre of fairly in-depth news media analysis that might be best described as Celebrity Screwups in the Time of Coronavirus, including a major New York Times article, “Celebrity Culture Is Burning,” and a BBC piece, “Do Celebrities Still Matter in a Crisis?”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yup, celebrities can be horrible. But for every miscue, many are using their power and visibility to help in some genuinely touching ways, especially when they stick to their knitting and uplift us with their talents. We saw an example of celebrities at their best during the multi-hour One World: Together at Home concert livestreamed on April 18 to benefit healthcare workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic. Several musicians ranging from Lizzo to Paul McCartney performed single-song sets from remote locations (you can view many of them here). And the performances were consistently moving. Lizzo’s powerful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” offered hope.

The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was an emotional moment that will endure for ages.

The musicians relied on their stagecraft to connect with people they could not even see. Consider the Rolling Stones, for example, appearing from four separate rooms. There was Mick Jagger, blowing us a kiss, his voice soaring above global sorrow. Ronnie, punching his fist in the air and exhorting us to sing — he could not see us, but he could feel us. There was Keith Richards, transcending the ravages of his life, smiling, lost in the moment of music, like some ancient blues man casting a spell. And Charlie Watts, grinning sheepishly as we all realized one of the world’s greatest drummers was playing air drums just like everyone else at home. The Stones have been on a journey with us during some painful times: wars, acts of terror, natural disasters, recessions, and now a global pandemic.

As of this writing, the concert has raised $127 million for various COVID-19 relief efforts, a testament to the power of celebrities to do good.

Words of Hope

But long before the event occurred, celebrities had already been connecting in personal and affecting ways. As the pandemic took hold, Matthew McConaughey offered encouragement with a convincing video. There was Ryan Reynolds, sarcastically poking fun at celebrity culture in a video exhorting people to stay at home. Or Dolly Parton, launching a series of children’s book read-alouds on YouTube.

And how about Dame Judi Dench, posting a delightfully goofy video of herself on Twitter urging us to “just keep laughing — that’s all we can do,” and John Krasinski, delvering good news from around the world through his own show on YouTube?

And I must give props to Ronnie Wood, who has taken to Instagram to speak to recovering alcoholics who, like himself, are facing struggles of their own as they are cut off from their sponsors.

In the Footsteps of Celebrities

In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time following their words and checking out their Instagram Live Q&As. Although I witnessed some boring misfires (John Mayer, I am looking at you), I’ve also seen some sparkling, warm moments. The other night the musician Weyes Blood hosted a Q&A via Instagram livestream, and I learned, among other things, that she’s a Scooby Doo fan.

“Scooby Doo, where the F — — are you?” she asked, accurately reading the room as she expressed what we have all been asking.

The poet Scarlett Sabet has hosted some Q&As on Instagram, too, from London somewhere, presumably her home. I realize that Scarlett Sabet is an award-winning poet. But many of us on that Q&A were hanging out with her virtually because she’s dating FREAKING JIMMY PAGE.

She was pretty nice and thoughtful during the Q&A, patiently handling questions from people whose Instagram handles are all variations of Led Zeppelin song names. I’m sure she realizes many of us were joining her Q&A hoping for a fleeting glimpse of Jimmy Page poking his head into the tiny phone frame or maybe playing a lick of “Black Dog” to keep things lively. At one point, I humbly posted a comment about the importance of creating art during hard times. Like everyone else’s little spurts of information, mine appeared on the Instagram screen for everyone to see. Lo and behold, she gave me a shout-out by name, even mentioning my handle.

Eventually she shut down her Q&A after a voice in the distance called her to dinner. The low murmur came so fast that I could not make out who it was. I pictured Page himself, sitting impatiently at the dinner table while pondering the possibility of re-issuing Coda as a 5.1 remix.

The Best of Times

Many famous musicians, bless their hearts, continue to perform concerts from their homes or, in the case of Neil Young, apparently from some distant planet. Dennis DeYoung, sitting at a piano, reintroduced us to the song “The Best of Times,” nearly 40 years after recording the tune with Styx. His voice, a little weathered by 73 years of living, still carried more emotional resonance than I would have dared to expect.

On March 22, Courtney Barnett hosted a three-hour benefit for Oxfam using the magic of Instagram Live — getting a jump on One World: Together at Home by a month. She brought in different musicians such as Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson from their homes. There was a homemade charm to the performances, and a lot of amusingly awkward “How do I use this phone?” moments as musicians navigated a performance without the help of their roadies.

And dang if those musicians weren’t kind of charming, too. At one point Barnett asked what all of us in Instagram-land were eating for dinner. I quickly posted “pizza” with an emoji. Her face lit up. “Pizza!” she smiled. For a hot second I could pretend that COURTNEY BARNETT KNOWS WHAT I AM EATING FOR DINNER AND APPROVES, knowing full well that probably 10,000 other people watching the livestream were posting the exact same answer with the same emoji.

There is nothing like a global pandemic to make us want to connect with each other. Most of us are doing that with our loved ones. But in our desire to connect, we’re finding some unexpected sources of connection with people we’ll never meet. In their own way, celebrities are connecting — sometimes in outrageously tone-deaf ways that belie their privilege, to be sure. But even their missteps add value by giving us a diversion from the onslaught of COVID-19 gloom and doom. We are in this for the long haul, my friends. Celebrities are not like you and me, but they are part of our lives. And I’d like to keep it that way.

Solace in the Time of the Coronavirus

I am not ashamed to admit it: I just found some solace — even hope — in a YouTube video from a movie star I’ve never met and probably never will.

Let’s face it: we’re getting hammered with bleak news on our social feeds. I don’t know about you, but I’m quickly learning how to manage my time online as the reality sets in that enduring this crisis is like running a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s not easy to curtail online time right now, though. Staying informed can protect the health of you and your loved ones. During a time of crisis, we need to know about changes that dramatically affect how we live. But on the other hand, the bleak COVID-19 news flooding our social feeds can be overwhelming. Can I get a witness?

Amid the bad news that’s taken over my digital screens, though, I have sometimes found little islands of encouragement. Let me tell you about one of them.

Yesterday, on my LinkedIn feed, a video of Matthew McConaughey popped up seemingly from out of nowhere. Because someone I especially trust and admire, Brian Solis, shared the video, I decided to click on the image of McConaughey’s tanned, angular face and find out what Mr. “Alright, Alright, Alright!” had to say about COVID-19.

In words that seemed genuine and caring, the man who stars in movies and Lincoln ads urged people to band together and prevail over the global pandemic.

“Just want to say that in these crazy times that we’re in with the coronavirus, let’s take care of ourselves and each other,” he said. “Let’s not go to the lowest common denominator and get paranoid. Let’s do our due diligence, take the precautions we need to take care of ourselves and those around us.”

Instead of needlessly dwelling on the threat, he focused on you and me. He urged viewers to embrace values: “values of fairness, kindness, accountability, resilience, respect, courage.” As he put it, “If we practice those things right now, when we get out of this, this virus, this time might be the one time that brings us all together and unifies us like we have not been in a long time.”

You could argue that this video is just another role for an actor to play, but it worked for me. For one thing, the message of treating each other with kindness is compelling. And McConaughey is both likable and credible. The star of Dallas Buyers ClubTrue Detective, and many other productions is also known as a humanitarian and overall nice guy (I still remember the time he helped rescue pets stranded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005). In 2014, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world.

And he nails it with the tone of the message: encouraging, but not sappy. Strong, but not cocky or brash.

There is a lesson here for leaders: show humanity. If you are a CEO, reach out to your employees in a personal way. Host a webcast to talk about what’s going on and to encourage people. Post a video message of your own. Let people see your face and hear your voice. Everyone is stressed. You can relieve that stress even in a small way by using digital to uplift others. By now you’ve certainly delivered plenty of bad news to your people, and that’s part of the job of being a leader. But being a leader also means encouraging and reassuring others.

You may lack the star power of Matthew McConaughey. But to the people in your life, you are as credible or more so. Note that according to a recent Edelman survey, people are more likely to trust COVID-19 news from their employers over the government or news media.

Showing your humanity is an act of kindness. And kindness is leadership.

The Banality of “Your Health and Safety Are Our Top Concern”

What have you been doing during the coronavirus lockdown?

I have been reading emails from businesses. Lots of them.

Seems like every organization in the world wants to reach out and let me know how much they care about me as the coronavirus spreads. Their emails are clogging my in-box, muscling aside missives from my accountant, online bills, and updates from my daughter’s college about the relocation of undergraduate students off campus and transformation of classes to a virtual format for the rest of the semester.

Everyone — retailers, banks, associations, restaurants, movie theaters, car maintenance companies, car rental agencies, museums, and churches to name a few — wants to contact me now to have a friendly talk about COVID-19. If you want proof of a highly planned conspiracy of email sending, I’m looking at it right now.

And boy, there sure is an outbreak of caution out there. An abundance of it.

I’m reading. But I’m not listening anymore. That’s because every message not only says the same thing, they also read like they were composed by the one beleaguered copywriter with Legal, HR, and PR breathing down their neck.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Dear valued customer . . . at [Name of Company], your health and safety are always our top priority. Therefore out of an abundance of caution, we are taking several proactive steps to ramp up our procedures and ensure that our high standards are maintained to the utmost, as follows . . .we are monitoring this evolving situation closely . . . rest assured, we are in close contact with governmental health agencies . . . we realize you are being impacted . . we are committed to keeping you informed . . .

Maybe a human being isn’t even writing these rote messages. Maybe every business that wants to tell me about their concern for my well-being is relying on the same artificial intelligence algorithm to compose the notes. If these emails were blog posts, I’d wonder if all the writers were competing to stuff their posts with the same keywords.

Alas, concern has become a commodity.

But amid the sea of same-sounding emails, one stood out, from Barnes & Noble:

The note was so short that for a hot second, I wondered if I needed to scroll down for more. Where was the offer for a discount if I visited my local B&N? Where was the impassioned statement of commitment to put my needs first?

I almost felt a twinge of loss, like an amputee feeling a phantom pain.

But yup, that’s all B&N had to say about the matter.

This was a risky message to send. Anytime a business comments on a difficult current event, they’re wading into choppy waters fraught with hazards (of their own making). Most times I’d advise a business just to leave the subject alone unless something needed to be said. Ironically, the purpose of the “abundance of caution” emails is indeed to share useful information such as a temporary change in policy to accommodate the current environment. But you have to wade through a screen full of treacly language to find anything meaningful, and when everyone uses the same words, my eyes gloss over the emails completely. Sorry. That’s human nature.

Now, I quibbled with a few word choices here and there. B&N was laying it on a bit thick with the “friends and family” language. The “Your stories are our stories” sentence had me wondering if there was going to be a call to action for some sort of writing contest, but nonetheless it’s an interesting sentence that suggests the power of story and community during turbulent times without overexplaining. And it is reasonable to position B&N stores as neighbors in their communities, thriving from great stories by merchandizing them for B&N customers.

Maybe B&N got lucky with me because they zigged when everyone else was zagging. Maybe I’m overthinking a one-paragraph note. But here I am, writing about it. Why did the email work for me? Because Barnes & Noble stayed in its emotional lane. They didn’t overstep their boundaries and try to be something they are not. Barnes & Noble cares first and foremost about selling books to me. Do they really care about my health and safety? Only to the extent that my health and safety make it possible for me to buy books at Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble must keep its stores safe to keep me as a customer, period. In its email, the company does not pretend otherwise.

Good email, B&N. Less is more. Staying in your emotional lane makes you more credible.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash