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. 

Walmart Promotes a Kinder Black Friday – and a Possible Future for Retail

After treating Black Friday like a cattle round-up for years, Walmart is finally injecting a little humanity into the year’s worst shopping tradition. On November 8, the retailer announced measures intended to make Black Friday shopping just a bit more pleasant:

  • Walmart is serving four million cups of complimentary coffee (courtesy of Keurig) and a few million free Christmas cookies from the Walmart Bakery.
  • Walmart will make it easier for shoppers to find top deals in-store via the Walmart app.
  • Check Out with Me store associates stationed throughout the stores and equipped with mobile check-out devices will make it possible for shoppers to purchase items on the spot, thus avoiding long lines.

These changes are long overdue. But why aren’t more retailers improving the Black Friday experience? For years, as part of my first-hand research into Black Friday, I’ve stood in long lines with shoppers in the cold pre-dawn of this massive shopping day. I have waited Continue reading

Apple Watch: Hot or Not?

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Adweek‘s hottest digital gadget of 2015 is also one of the most controversial. The Apple Watch has been called both a flop and a behavior-changing device. I believe that the Apple Watch is a flawed first-generation product that will ultimately take hold for these reasons:

  • The Apple Watch makes use of a natural gesture, the swiping of the wrist, to accomplish everyday tasks.
  • Businesses ranging from Target to Starwood have built a large Apple Watch ecosystem via the development of apps that support tasks ranging from shopping to checking into hotel rooms.

My new CMO.com byline discusses why any business that depends on mobile consumers needs to find a place for the Apple Watch in its customer acquisition and retention strategy. Waiting around for the Apple Watch to become mainstream will cause you to lose ground to the businesses that are already getting exploring the branding potential of the Apple Watch. Check out my new column and let me know your opinion of the future of the Apple Watch.

Will Beacons Help Target Improve the Shopping Experience?

Beacon

Target recently announced the rollout of beacons at 50 stores in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. Beacons are devices placed in locations that make it possible to share content (such as offers) with a person’s mobile device. Through beacons, Target will offer deals and product recommendations as customers shop at their local Targets. With nearly 1,800 stores in the United States and a strong brand, Target joins a growing list of major retailers putting a greater emphasis on location marketing via beacons. The news is significant because it demonstrates how technology and data together can create more relevant and useful customer experiences at scale.

In its announcement, Target emphasized how beacons can deliver content such as deals on products that might interest shoppers while they are in a store. People who opt in via a Target app will receive offers for products on a “Target Run” app home page as they navigate their local Target stores. As Target explained on its website:

Let’s say you’re browsing women’s apparel. You might get an alert about nearby items that are trending on Pinterest. As you move over to get your groceries, and you may see the “Target Run” page updated with a department-wide offer or a Cartwheel deal for items like Archer Farms Organic milk or Market Pantry cheese.

I believe the success of the rollout depends on how well Target enhances the in-store shopping experience. Cross-selling products can help or hurt the experience depending on how well Target tracks customer activity and pinpoints offers at the right time and place.  What really catches my attention is the potential for Target to make shopping easier without selling anything. For instance, customers will be able to dynamically re-sort their shopping lists as they move through a Target. (Target compares the experience to smartphone apps rerouting drivers depending on their routes.) Target also plans it possible for shoppers to use the Target app to ask for customer assistance — which could be a boon especially during the holiday shopping season, if Target staffs its stores adequately.

On the SIM Partners blog, I discuss more fully the implications of Target’s launch of beacons. I invite you to read my post and let me know your reaction.

Walmart: reform Black Friday now

The reports about out-of-control Black Friday shoppers is appalling to read about and watch on YouTube. At a Mesquite, Texas, Walmart, a surging mob nearly crushes a woman to death and destroys a retail display, which evokes the 2008 incident when a Walmart employee was crushed to death by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers in New York. At another Walmart, shoppers tussle over $2 waffle makers, and at a Walmart near Los Angeles, a woman injures 20 people with pepper spray in a violent bid to secure a coveted discounted Xbox game player. It’s only a matter of time before we experience a tragedy akin to the notorious trampling deaths of 11 people at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979. And only Walmart can make things right.

As I wrote on my blog yesterday (and back in 2008), Walmart needs to take accountability for the in-store violence. A major first step is respecting the power of the crowd. There’s a reason why crowd psychology is a formal branch of study in the field of social psychology. Crowds create a dynamic – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – that can be as powerful as a surging river rapids. When your local Walmart dangles the promise of 99-cent DVD door busters in front of a surging crowd gathered outside its store, we should not be surprised that a stampede mentality takes hold. And if you’ve been to as many Walmarts as I have on Black Friday, you know how notoriously understaffed its stores are (in an obvious bid to squeeze as much profit out of the day as possible). The formula for disaster is simple: create the conditions for a stampede in an enclosed space and then fail to monitor what happens next. Should we be surprised that these violent outbursts occur?

Jeremiah Owyang shared my post on his Google Plus page and asked, Should companies be liable that potentially chum consumer frenzy? Or should consumers self regulate safety?

Respondents ranged from Eddie Presley, who wrote, “wal-mart may not be super liable, but they are super sue-able. They need to rethink their sale across the board – even to the point of Continue reading

Black Friday breaks loose

Black Friday has turned a corner. The traditional start of the holiday shopping season has become a cultural phenomenon that spans days, and even weeks. While Black Friday naysayers criticize stores for pushing the opening of the day into Thanksgiving evening, American consumers simply shrug their shoulders, shop, and engage in a ritual that seems to transcend any economic condition. And I don’t see any signs of the Black Friday momentum slowing down.

In past years, I have waken up in the middle of the night, stood in frigid lines with Black Friday shoppers, and studied the shopping phenomenon in places ranging from the Chicago suburbs to a small town in the Wisconsin northwoods. This year, I was already suffering from a serious case of Black Friday fatigue by the time the most famous shopping day of the season arrived on November 25. By then, I had already been inundated with Black Friday promotions from retailers such as Amazon, whose “countdown to Black Friday” sale hit my email in-box on November 13. And you couldn’t do any last-minute Thanksgiving errands at Target without encountering a Black Friday war zone, as Target’s pre-Thanksgiving 4-day sale resulted in aisles saturated with merchandise at door-buster prices. USA Today reported that retailers ranging from Sears to RadioShack were using social media to promote Black Friday deals in a run-up to the day.

For Black Friday 2011, I didn’t even need to wake up in the wee hours to visit Kohl’s and Target for 5:00 a.m. openings. So many stores were open at midnight that I simply hopped in my car and continued my Thanksgiving evening once the dinner and movie-watching festivities at my house had subsided.

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Cirque du Soleil: too much LOVE

While I was shopping for blue jeans at Target this weekend, I came across a surprising find: official T shirts from the Beatles Cirque du Soleil LOVE show on sale for $12.99, and wedged like excess stock on a rack of music merchandise.

Although making official LOVE merchandise available at Target might provide a short-term dividend for Cirque du Soleil, I believe the approach is a long-term mistake. Cirque du Soleil packages LOVE as a high-end experience. Part of the appeal of seeing the show — and a big reason why people are willing to pay $70-to-$150 for a ticket — is the chance to enjoy the legacy of the Beatles in a way you cannot elsewhere.

The show occurs in a theater-in-the-round custom-made for the act in the Las Vegas Mirage. Just outside the theater, you can find exclusive (and expensive) merchandise at the LOVE boutique (an irresistible destination) and grab a drink at the Revolution lounge.

There is no other way you an experience LOVE unless you are in Las Vegas. And LOVE is an experience well rendered.

Selling LOVE T shirts at Target cheapens the Cirque du Soleil LOVE brand. You don’t think “upscale” when you find LOVE merchandise carelessly tossed on a rack as you stroll the aisles of Target looking for mayonnaise, shampoo, and $20 blue jeans. And the Cirque du Soleil LOVE brand loses its aura of exclusivity, too.

I am reminded of what happened to Krispy Kreme. Once upon a time, going to a Krispy Kreme store was really cool. The only outlet in the western suburbs of Chicago was located miles from our home, and we went out of our way to go there. The service was great. Watching the donuts made was a hoot. And the donuts themselves were delicious. But seemingly overnight, Krispy Kreme saturated the market. A store opened closer to our home. You could find Krispy Kremes stocked in grocery stores. The brand was no longer special. And the brand failed.

Krispy Kreme was by no means an upscale brand like LOVE, but it was just as special in its own way. It will be interesting to see if Cirque du Soleil LOVE remains special.

Brand loyal-tee

Conventional wisdom says brand loyalty is dead, and yet a recent discovery I made at a nearby Target store indicates we are still willing to pledge our allegiance to a logo, at least. Shoppers in the mens department are apparently willing to shell out good money for the privilege to flaunt T shirts advertising their love of products ranging from Coca-Cola to Ford, as these snapshots I took at Target show:

And of course you can find plenty more online:

So what gives? Well, I am not so sure the T shirts are about brand loyalty but rather nostalgia and hipness. The logos represent venerable consumer brands that say “Americana.” The logos (as well as the T shirt designs) have a retro feel to them. Also, I don’t think it’s any accident that the products are stocked next to tees with images of Pac Man and Sesame Street characters adorned on them. Some clever marketing going on here — making corporate logos legitimate by showing you that the SpagettiO’s smiley face can look just as cuddly as Big Bird.

Buy it?

U2 and the revenge of “old media”

Have you noticed U2’s gutsy distribution strategy for the newly released No Line on the Horizon? I don’t mean the predictable release of the album on MySpace prior to its March 3 launch in stores — but rather the heavy reliance on an allegedly dead medium, the compact disc.  At Best Buy, you can find the album available in five formats:

  • Regular CD
  • Limited edition digi pak that includes CD, color booklet, poster, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Limited edition magazine that includes a CD, 60-page magazine, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Vinyl LP
  • Limited edition box set that contains a digi pak CD, DVD of an exclusive film by Anton Corbijn, a 64-page hardback book, and a fold-out poster

At a time when digital downloads have all but rendered the CD an afterthought, what gives?  Here’s what U2 is doing:

  • Leveraging the power of the brick-and-mortar retailer.   We’ve recently seen the Eagles and AC/DC successfully move CDs through Wal-Mart.  And Prince just struck a deal for Target to be the exclusive retailer for a disc set to be released March 29.  Why?  Not because the CD is obsolete — but rather the old ways of distributing content are dead.  The Best Buys, Starbucks, Wal-Marts, and Targets of the world can act as DJ, distributor, and marketer rolled into one.  During the release of Black Ice, AC/DC provided the soundtrack for the Wal-Mart shopping experience, and well-placed displays opened up the band’s back catalog  to shoppers, too.  All told, Black Ice moved 2 million units in 2008.
  • Fighting the commoditization and degradation of music.  Rock has always been as much about image as it has the music.  Sleek packaging creates an experience that helps build image and differentiate one band from another.  By contrast, digital marginalizes a band’s image and degrades the quality of its product through inferior downloads.  It’s well known that MP3 compression causes a loss of sound quality, and the slightest glitch in your broadband connection is a total buzzkill for streaming songs.  Superior packaging and well-produced sound captured on disc are two weapons in favor of a band like U2, which understands the power of image and the relationship between its image and sonic power.

U2 isn’t the only band embracing the “old.”  In 2008, David Gilmour released at least five versions of his Live in Gdansk, for instance.  Both Radiohead and Beck have released music in playful packages with stickers that consumers can use to deocorate the CD sleeves.

Soon I’m going to learn more about how artists are seizing more control of content distribution when musician and producer David A. Stewart appears at the 9th annual Razorfish Client Summit April 21-23 in Las Vegas.  (I’m putting together the agenda for my employer Razorfish.)

He’s going to discuss how artists like himself are dropping “a neutron bomb” on the current entertainment distribution model.  I can’t wait to hear him speak.  And I hope we see more bands like U2 giving us experiences we can touch and feel.

Reforming Black Friday

Shortly after I wrote a blog post about the social nature of Black Friday, I learned about the unfortunate incident at a New York Wal-Mart, when a temporary store employee, Jdimytai Damour, was trampled to death by a stampede of Black Friday shoppers. In the aftermath of this tragedy, fingers of blame are pointing in many directions, but so far I’ve heard few solutions to reforming Black Friday. So I’ll offer some of my own based on the following premise: only by understanding crowd behavior will retailers take some badly needed steps to reform Black Friday.

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