Target CEO makes house calls

By George Anderson, RetailWire

The following appears courtesy of, an online discussion forum for the retail industry.

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, 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," 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. 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," Cornell said (via the Pioneer Press) of current customers. "They want their demands met on their terms."

Discussion Questions: 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?

Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:

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 firsthand. 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.
-Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

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.
-Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

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.
-Kai Clarke, CEO, American Retail Consultants

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 sales in physical stores continue to slide and retailers get more serious about their multi-platform online efforts.

But we haven't quite gotten there ... yet.
-Ryan Mathews, Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting

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 gets closer to the customer!
-Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

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.
-Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

Read the entire RetailWire discussion.