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Target’s Latest LGBTQ+ Merchandise Fallout Puts Its DEI Commitment To The Test, Again

Target is embroiled in another culture-war controversy that threatens its business to a far greater extent than the last one in 2016 when it opened its bath and fitting rooms to transgender team members and guests.

The latest centers on the company’s selection of Pride Month 2023 merchandise, which the company has offered for over a decade without much notice.

But this year is different, and the company announced it’s pulling some of the most controversial products out of its stores, alleging threats to its team members’ safety. In addition, it is moving some displays further back in stores in selected communities.

Last time Target’s
open bathroom policy generated a boycott petition resulting in over a million signatures. But the company had an easy out. Most of its stores already had single-occupancy bathrooms that allowed for privacy and after the backlash, it committed to installing them in all stores.

Nonetheless, Target’s business suffered in the ensuing second quarter 2016, with sales down 7.2%. It ended the year down 5.8%.

Bad Timing

This time it may pay a heavier price since social media is a more powerful force today, and many parents across the country have become vocal about protecting their children from progressive policies in public schools, especially related to sexual matters.

For example, a Morning Consult/Politico survey found a narrow majority of voters nationwide (51%) supported provisions in the Florida so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that banned the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity to kids from kindergarten through third grade.

Target is coming off a weak quarter where sales grew a mere 0.5% and announced it could lose $500 million in profits this year from shrinkage, primarily due to shoplifting.

As a mass-market retailer, Target needs to draw patronage and support from the broadest constituency of customers across the political and ideological spectrum to keep growing and delivering returns to shareholders.

While it is safe to assume that Target’s customers are more liberal – Numerator found Target’s typical shopper is a white suburban mother between 35 and 44 years old, with some college or a 4-year degree, and a household income of $80,000 – it cannot afford to be perceived as hostile to the values of many of its more conservative customers.

What’s Got Customers Riled

It’s probably not the sheer volume of Pride merchandise this year that drew so much unwanted attention. Reuters reported its offering included more than 2,000 products ranging from clothes, books and music for adults and children to home furnishings.

However, Walmart
offers thousands of similar Pride-themed products, including selections for kids, but so far has avoided the controversy.

Criticism centers on Target’s alignment with a reputedly Satanist U.K. designer, Abprallen, and three exclusive products developed for Target, including a messenger bag saying “We Belong Everywhere,” a tote bag with a “Too Queer for Here” message and a “Cure Transphobia, Not Trans People” sweatshirt. These items have been pulled from stores and its website.

And a prominently-displayed adult swimsuit claimed to be “tuck-friendly” has also incensed some shoppers. It’s drawn social media attention from comedians like Chrissie Mayr and Alex Stein. No company wants its products to be made a mockery of.

Slipping On The Shop Floor

Despite prominent conservative media proclaiming Target lost $9 billion in market valuation since the Pride controversy erupted – it can thank its recent weak earning report for much of that –it’s done itself no favors by letting the company’s suitable and appropriate internal corporate policies toward diversity, equity and inclusion slip so prominently out onto the sales floor where shoppers get to vote on it.

The danger is that customers Target needs may vote with their feet and go elsewhere.