Target Update

My last blog on the Canadian launch of U.S. super-retailer Target, struck a chord.  I’ve never had so many friends make a point of telling me they’d read one of my posts, and sharing so vehemently their points of view on the topic.  So when I heard that three Target ‘pilot’ stores were opening in Ontario this week, like a moth to a bug zapper, I found myself drawn in.

This past Tuesday, people were lined up outside the Milton store when the doors opened at 8am.  I wonder what they thought when they stepped inside.  Were they dazzled by the brand-spanking new Starbucks in the foyer?  Did they get a little flutter in their chests as they wheeled those virgin red plastic shopping carts from aisle to aisle?  Did they stop to browse the first display of colour grouped costume jewellery, or was their eye caught by something deeper inside?  

Today, my first issue was parking.  Milton Mall is a facility that has seen better days, perhaps constructed at a time when people travelled primarily on foot and by bus?  Side-stepping potholes in the parking lot, I reached a mall entrance and snaked my way past empty storefronts and oddly branded clothing stores featuring footwear of the 3 for $10 variety, towards the Target ‘anchor’ store.  It struck me that Target will either revitalize this mall or prove to be the kiss of death.  No in between. 

Inside Target, it was a zoo.  People packed shoulder to shoulder and a checkout line that was a mile long. At first, I interpreted the empty shelves in the shoe department as a signal that the merchandise must have been remarkable.  But on closer examination I discovered inventory issues everywhere that were more difficult to explain.  I offer exhibit A:

 Target March 2013

This aisle, in the health and beauty aid department, was virtually empty.  I find it hard to believe that the hair elastics and headbands were so fantastic as to result in a Sunday afternoon customer feeding frenzy.  And this wasn’t the only area of the store where I found empty shelves.  Bathroom wastepaper baskets were picked clean, only a smattering of spring handbags remained, and my contact lens solution was out of stock. 

As a ‘pilot’ there are lessons for Target management in this Milton store, and judging from the number of staff scurrying around scanning shelf tags with laser inventory devices, I’m betting that they’re doing their best to learn them.

I hold out hope that the store’s official grand openings this spring are going to be spectacular.  My advice to shoppers, is to let these ‘pilot’ stores practice on other people…. Like sneaking a peek at my Christmas presents, my visit left me wishing I’d waited for the big day.

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Target Practice

I pretty much stopped clothes shopping three years ago, when I decided to leave my job.  Economy was the name of the game and so I made do with the many things I already had in my closet.  The long neglected casual part of my wardrobe began to get more regular circulation and in time I lost touch with our local dry cleaner.  I revelled in the comfort of my new best friends; my Lululemon yoga pants. 

My consulting work was done largely at my dining room table so there was no need for office wear.  Teleconferences rendered my clothing choices open to my colleagues’ imagination and even the odd Skype meeting only required semi-professional clothing from the chest up.  However, this summer a consulting project came my way that required a fair amount of face to face client meetings. 

After months of professional isolation, dusting off my career wear was fun; I felt like I was getting ‘out there’ again.  But I couldn’t help wondering if some of my career separates had seen better days.  My friend Georgina has been working on a couple of blog posts around the topic of returning to work after a career hiatus, and more than once she’s referenced the ‘faux pas’ of showing up to interviews in dated outfits.  No one wants to look like they’ve fallen behind the times.

So with Christmas behind us, The Williams family took advantage of a free day last week to travel across the border to gorge ourselves on gross consumerism and some American size meals. 

After a full five hours trolling the Fashion Outlets mall, accumulating a gaggle of shopping bags full of stuff we did (and didn’t) need, and stuffing ourselves overfull at Applebee’s, we were ready to go.  But there was just one more item on our list… a pharmacy product.  Weighing the various retail options, we found that there really only was one answer in all of our minds…  Tar-get! 

Indeed, the addition of Target to our Canadian retail landscape is something we’re all eagerly anticipating.  I think of it as a fancy Wal-Mart full of stylish merchandise at affordable prices.  Every time I drive by their illuminated logo on the slick head office building off the 401 in Toronto, I find my gaze drawn to it, wondering what merchandising delights they’re cooking up for us inside.  Even the least enthusiastic shopper in our family, Taylor, was eager to say she’d been there.  It might even warrant taking a photo of her ‘in situ’ that she could then post on social media with the hope that her friends would be jealous. 

Target Canada has been doing a simply fantastic job marketing their brand in this pre-launch phase.  Their pop up stores have attracted crowds of Canadian fans and garnered media attention.  What impresses me most about Target`s efforts so far, is the degree to which they are taking a regional approach.  Oddly some Canadian retailers forget this simple fact, but Target has recognized that Canada is not Toronto and have embraced the vastness of our country in their marketing plans.  Check out the coast to coast Holiday Road Trip promo they ran in the weeks leading up to Christmas:  http://pressroom.target.ca/pr/tgt-en/default.aspx

Unfortunately, our first human interaction at Target in Niagara Falls, NY was an intoxicated hobo shuffling through the foyer.  I suppose that can happen in any store, but you know what they say about first impressions.  Our second impression was one of disarray.  Far from the ‘healthy mess’ merchandising strategy of legendary retailer Jean Coutu, this could only be described as a dirty mess.  Shopping carts were tattered, and staff wore wash weary red pinnies.  Merchandise lay strewn on the floor, having tumbled from half empty shelves, and Taylor slipped twice on a slimy substance in the middle of the aisle.  Unlike the spirited crowds we had encountered at the Fashion Outlets, only a handful of desolate looking shoppers wandered this sad store. 

Having secured the item we were looking for from Target’s half-hearted effort at a pharmacy department, we continued around the perimeter of the store.  There’s nothing more American than baseball, right?  Surely the sporting goods section would be better and Jack would find something to satisfy his growing baseball obsession.  But sporting goods was just as threadbare and, to my dismay, so was the selection of home goods.  The clothing section was so disturbing that we felt compelled to avert our eyes as we passed by. 

Before we left, I dictated that everyone should visit the washroom on the premise that crossing the border might take a while.  I’d call the condition of the Target washrooms the icing on the cake, but just thinking about that analogy makes me gag a little.

If this is the Target that is coming to Canada then we`re all in for some serious lunchbox letdown. 

My humble prediction though, is that this won`t be the case.  My marketing spidey senses tell me that the first Target stores that open in Canada this spring are going to be awesome.  Their pre-marketing activities have primed us to Expect More (the first part of their customer promise) and I can`t imagine that they will disappoint us.  My fear is that in time, the second half of their customer promise, Pay Less, will make it impossible to sustain.  Trying to out-discount the competition can prove a slippery slope, squeezing margins until inventory is so tight that shelves become sparse and the cleaning regimen begins to slip.  With this, the upscale clientele begin to drift away and the product selection begins skew to a discount mindset.  Until…. voila!  We`ve got our crummy Zellers back again.

Apple Seed

I take full responsibility for the fact that my kids are late adopters of technology.  And while I’d like to say this is because I’d rather them play real sports than wave wands in front of a television screen, the truth is it’s because I’m cheap.

I’ve always been tight with a dollar but when I quit my corporate job the household budget came under new scrutiny and my frugal tendencies kicked into full bloom.  I became the electricity police, trailing behind family members unplugging devices and turning off lights.  I began to consider whether expiry dates might be a suggestion rather than a rule.  And I made every effort to ensure that my kids knew the full cost of things.

“Why can’t we have a pool?” they asked.

“We could have a pool, but Mommy would have to go back to work in order to pay for it.”

Today, Jack and Taylor stroll home after school with their friends, enjoy a homemade snack and plop down in front of the television.  Comparing this to the alternative of a YMCA after school program where chaotic groups of ill-behaved kids amuse themselves until their work-weary parents arrive to pick them up, my point was crystal clear.  A pool wasn’t worth the price.

To drive home the point that life’s extras need to be earned, Craig and I insist that Jack and Taylor save their allowance to purchase their own big ticket items.  Jack eventually saved enough to buy an iPod, and thanks to an infusion of cash a couple of Christmases ago, Taylor was able to purchase her first Lululemon sweater.  But something as expensive as an iPad was out of reach.

That is, until one day a leaflet fluttered out of our community newspaper advertising jobs for carriers in our area.

For a whole year, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Taylor lugged bundles of newspaper and flyers from the base of our driveway into the house, where she assembled them.  Inky fingerprints dotted our foyer walls and elastics found their way everywhere.  Through all sorts of weather she dutifully delivered papers to 51 houses in our neighbourhood, encountering yappy dogs, terror-inducing bees and a cranky old man who declared, “This rag isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!”

But when the iPad3 was released this spring, she was finally ready to purchase.  It was a proud day for all of us.  In short order, Taylor accumulated a stunning library of music, photos and unflattering video clips of her family and friends, and mastered a plethora of apps.  She was rarely without her iPad by her side.  It came to Jack’s hockey games.  It went on sleepovers.  And on a family camping trip this summer, she even took it to the beach.

But it’s risky to take a fragile device everywhere you go.  A couple of weeks ago, in a split second of carelessness, Taylor leaned on her precious iPad and sent a spiderweb of cracks across the screen.  She was furious with herself.  Horrified.  And grief stricken.

The web is full of tales of woe from iPad owners who have experienced similar mishaps, and Taylor and I were pleased to discover that many had received remarkable service and sympathy at their local Apple store.  Some even claimed that Apple had replaced their device for free.  Well, what could be more sympathetic than a 12 year old girl who saved for a year to purchase her own iPad, only to have it meet this untimely demise?

So off we went to our nearest Apple store, conveniently located 35km away, to plead our case.

The store’s sleek design dazzled us, as did the table groups of Apple devotees raptly absorbing information from user tutorials.  Employees strode purposefully past us, and Taylor and I paused for a moment in the midst of all this activity wondering what we should do.   Was there some sort of secret signal we were supposed to make to indicate that we needed service?

We cautiously approached a rectangular table at the back of the store where a number of employees were talking to each other.  After some time, I found a break in their conversation and interjected.

“I’m wondering if someone can help me.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“What?”

It had never crossed my mind that I’d need an appointment to ask a question in a retail store.

“I really just wanted to speak to someone about my daughter’s iPad.  She cracked the screen the other day.”

“You need to see someone at the Genius Bar about that.  We don’t have any appointments today but I could fit you in tomorrow afternoon.”

Genius Bar?  Really?  I mean, I know Steve Jobs was really full of himself but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to start calling the guys who work here geniuses?  What do they make; maybe $15 an hour?  I began to wonder if I might be on some kind of candid camera show.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware I’d need an appointment… and we’ve traveled a bit of a distance to get here.  We can’t come back tomorrow afternoon; my daughter will be in school.”

“You could try the Burlington store.”

“I guess I don’t understand why someone who is here right now can’t answer our question.”

With a heavy sigh, he turned to one of three employees next to him, who were leaning idly against the table.  “Can you deal with these people?”

In the end, I suppose we got the information we needed.  No free replacement.  No interest in hearing our tale of woe.  No sympathy for the little girl who saved for a year, only to see the fruits of her labour damaged in a split second of poor judgement.

The cost of repair was close to the cost of a new iPad, and came with a stern warning that we really should purchase AppleCare to protect us from such mishaps, and a ‘tut tut’ that we didn’t do so the first time around.  The sad fact was that Taylor didn’t have enough money in her bank account to pay for the repair that Apple offered, never mind the extra cost of AppleCare.

The whole experience left us feeling somewhat sour.

A non-Apple repair shop is a less expensive option that Taylor has enough money for today, but with a bit of time to think it over she’s not sure it’s worth it.  Right now she’s thinking she’ll keep her money in the bank and work around the cracked screen.

My tree.  My little apple.

Coupon Hangups

Ever since I left my job, in a desperate attempt to maintain some of the quality of life to which we have become accustomed, I’ve been doing some fancy footwork when it comes to shopping for food and basic household supplies.

Each Thursday the local paper lands on our doorstep and I race for it, eager to scour the grocery flyers for fantastic deals.  Butter for $2.97??  I put it on the list and plan to take full advantage of the customer limit of four.  Our favourite laundry detergent for $4.97?  That’s less than half price!  And the cheese!  Every week the jumbo size seems to be on sale for less than $5.00.  Once I spotted it at an all time low of $3.97.  I can’t
believe I ever paid full price for this stuff and we’ve never had cheesier meals.

In pursuit of these deals, I’ve learned to love the discount grocery environment.  Thanks to repeated coaching by elderly Italian gentlemen, I eventually got the hang of the grocery cart release mechanisms.  FYI, those contraptions look similar from store to store, but the quarter can go in a variety of places, and that pointy thing at the end of the chain sometimes goes in and sometimes pops out when you get the quarter in place.  Now I’m a pro, and I sometimes look for struggling amateurs with whom to share my expertise.  The stores themselves were a bit of a shock at first but I’ve learned to love them in all their cardboardness.   I dance around the aisles picking up incredible deals on peanut butter, taco kits and frozen vegetables, and wonder why my fellow shoppers seem so grim-faced.  Why doesn’t everyone shop here???  Could people really be so put off by misshapen green peppers to pass up such deals?

However, I still haven’t quite got the hang of couponing.  I’ve started to think about
it lately because my kids have become captivated by the show Extreme Couponing.  They want to know why I’m not shopping with stacks of coupons and leaving the store with a cart full of goodies for just $1.54.  I tell them that the show takes place in the United States and the rules are different, which is true, but the fact is that I don’t use coupons at all.

I do clip them.  Along with my Thursday flyer ritual I pull out the coupon booklets and tear out offers for products we often use.  I even occasionally rip them out of magazines.  Then I place them in a manila envelope I keep in a basket on our kitchen counter.  But somehow the contents of that envelope only make it out of our house every six months or so when I sort through it and throw out the offers that have expired.  And each time I do this, I ask myself WHY I bother cutting them out and saving them when I NEVER use them.

Well one reason, is that I tend to forget about them.  I go shopping with a list but I never seem to take that step to pull out relevant coupons and bring them with me.  But I think the main reson I ‘forget’ to bring them, is that I have an image in my head of coupons being in the same category as food stamps.  Only the desperately poor use them. Once, in my twenties, I tried to use a coupon and was loudly refused by the cashier because it was expired.

“Really?” I said.

“Yes.  Expires September 30th.”

“But isn’t that today?”

“Yes ma’am.  It’s expired today.”

I felt the eyes of the other customers in line boring into the back of my head, heard one of them sigh deeply, and felt my cheeks turn red with deep shame.

I also remember being a busy career woman and how annoyed I felt when the customer ahead of me pulled out a stack of coupons at the last minute.  With each one, the cashier felt a need to verify that the product was indeed somewhere in the bags of purchases before she would ring it through.  That time it was me who looked at my watch and uttered a heavy sigh.

But I think I’m going to give it another go.  The other day I finally got up the nerve to
take advantage of my local discount grocer’s offer to price match advertised competitor prices.  I carefully folded the competitor flyer to the appropriate page and placed it on top of the matching item amongst all the other things on the checkout belt.  My heart began to race as the conveyor chugged forward and I held my breath as the cashier’s hand reached out for the flyer.  Would she know why it was there?  Would she have to call her supervisor to get some sort of authorization?

She simply picked it up and made the adjustment without even saying a word.  Easy peasy.  Just like that, I saved $2.47!

Flipping through my current collection of coupons I see at least twenty dollars in savings to be had.  Surely I won’t feel any sillier using them than I did a couple of months ago when I checked through with a shopping cart full of cans of soup at the hot price of 44 cents each.

Is this increase in bravery due to my current economic situation?  Maybe I’m simply reaching the age when I just don’t give a crap anymore.  Let the customers behind me think what they like…. all I see are dollar signs!