Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Defense of Target Canada - A reflection on my past in the trenches

This is the first and last time that I will ever combine my day job and my career as a writer, but I feel it necessary, after all the bad publicity surrounding the failure of Target's expansion into Canada to defend the company that I once loved as an employee and continue to love as a brand. I can't speculate on decisions made by corporate, I can only share what I personally experienced and my opinions are my own, so if you don't like it, stop reading.

Back in September of 2012, I showed up for my first day of orientation as an Executive Team Leader at a hotel by the airport in Toronto. There, in a ballroom I met my fellow ETL's who were hired from diverse cultures and backgrounds to open the first round of Target Canada stores in Ontario, Canada. We were part of Cycle One stores opening in the GTA west and one of numerous training sessions that brought on over 100 managers to navigate the wave of store openings.

I arrived not knowing what position I would be managing or which store I would be placed in, but the excitement of Target was in the air and after a grueling six months of interviews and beating out thousands of managers for a position with a brand I loved, I didn't care which place I had in the family, I was just honored to be there.

Very quickly, it became evident that the people who hired us, took into account, diversity, personality and work experience. They focused on seasoned professionals, like myself, who had been a district manager, corporate recruiter and training manager, as well as bringing on board a number of Campus Recruits. These were students just out of university and hired by Target with the intent to guide them through the first part of their working lives and give them a career, not just a job.

By the end of the first day, I knew my place in my new family. I was an Executive Team Leader of Overnight Replenishment and my store was Square One, - the flagship and largest Target to open during cycle one. True to form, Target looked at my strengths and pulled from previous experience  while giving me a new challenge at the same time.

I had some experience in logistics when I opened the Krispy Kreme brand in Canada, but the stores were small, with minimal products to worry about. In my new role, myself and three other managers would be in charge of four team leader reports and one hundred team members. We would be responsible for unloading tractor trailers of goods from the distribution center, ensuring the shelves were properly stocked, the store zoned for our guests, backrooms organized and our team members happy and productive within a very short window of time.

My fellow managers were as awesome and diverse as the products that Target carried. We had new Canadians with only overseas experience, campus recruits with no experience, seasoned logistics and retail managers and those from hospitality backgrounds. We were a United Nations of people and experience, all focused on making the success of Target in Canada possible.

How were we going to integrate our experience into the Target brand? Not to worry, we were assured. Good people with good values can be taught anything and they did that with a multi week program that included classroom experience in Canada and practical training in one of their stores across the United States. Our class was split according to stores for the practical training piece. Some of us went to Nashville, some to Texas and our Square One team went to Target Headquarters in Minneapolis to train at multiple Super Target locations.

From the minute we stepped off the plane, we were treated with the legendary hospitality that Americans are known for. We had a grueling two weeks ahead of us, learning the in's and outs of Target culture, and best practices in store. With my training background and the challenge of trying to train team leaders and staff without a working store, I set my sights on acquiring as many training tips and tools that would make the job easier for my future team members. Never once, did they stop me from gathering the materials I felt I needed to do the job. We weren't people from Canada, we were members of the Target family, so if I wanted to learn something that wasn't part of my job description, they patiently gave me a person to advise me or the tools to help me succeed, while never missing a beat with their daily duties of managing a very busy store.

For the first two weeks we were given an overview of all store management positions and for myself more of an in-depth look into logistics. I worked along side team members who had been fifteen, twenty and thirty years with the company.  Passion and enthusiasm were everywhere.  Many of these people juggled two jobs, family and school with a smile on their face and never a negative word. A wonderful African American gentleman in his sixties, gently corrected me on proper stocking techniques, while explaining about how he was going to school during the day to finish his Masters degree because he was working towards his idea of the American dream.

I came away with new Facebook friends, lots of information for my team members and a passion for my new company that did more than treat me as an equal, I was part of their family.

The atmosphere that first day back in Toronto was electric. We shared stories of amazing training, passionate people, and wonderful technology that made everyone's jobs easier. We injected the Target culture of FFF ( fast, fun and friendly) into our classroom and celebrated our fellow managers. For me, I was especially touched when one of the training days coincided with the release date of my first book, The Fog. Not only did Chris, the facilitator, throw my Amazon page up on the screen, he was one of the first people to buy my novel, even though it was Sci Fi Romance, lol.

After that point, time sped up. One more trip back to Minneapolis for 'deep dive' training and in my case a week in Los Angeles to work at a Target offsite location. Once back, with the store still in renovations from the previous Zellers location, we dove into hiring for Square One.

Right off the bat, we battled an inaccurate public perception that said we had bought the Zellers brand and put fellow Canadians out of work. Wrong. We bought the lease space from HBC, their parent company. It was their decision to close down the stores and as a show of good will, we gave people with Zellers experience first crack at interviewing for a Target Canada position. We hired lots of people from that company and they were amazing additions to the Target brand.

On the first day of our hiring fair, we were kicked out of our location by the management of the facility we had booked, because another part of the complex had been rented by a national drug store company and they were holding a Christmas party there. They threatened that they would never return for future bookings, if our small team of managers from Target were allowed to hold their job fair in another part of this massive building.

Bah humbug to Target that day.

So we quietly packed up, moved across the street and crammed ourselves into three small rooms, while apologizing to our prospective candidates about a last minute change in location for their interviews.

With hiring done, we focused on getting our store open and from a logistics point of view, ran into problems immediately. We had a third party distribution company that was sending product to our stores but with a new SAP program and an inability to draw from Target computer systems down south, we were left with an uneven distribution of product. In anticipation of busy store openings, large quantities of items were bought but with the new SAP system for Canada, products started to arrive in either ridiculous quantities or not at all and procedures that should have replenished us properly didn't work quite as well as they should have.

Still we soldiered on and over time we started to receive trucks that had accurate replenishment for our store. Little by little we received the same products that you could find in any Target south of the border. We launched Target specific brands like Archer Farms, Threshold and Up and Up generic products while making sure we promoted Canadian brands as well.

Did we have the cool grocery items that every Canadian looks for in the States? No, we didn't carry Goobers ( peanut butter and jam spread) or those cool American soft drinks  because we probably
couldn't get them. Did we have large bags of American candy brands for Halloween? No, but we had every single Christmas ornament found in every Target store south of the border, with the exception of two ornaments that celebrated the families of American soldiers.

We had Merona clothing and launched noted American designers like Peter Pilotto and Sonia Kashuk while celebrating Canada by promoting the Roots brand. Again we faced criticism about our lack products, which is funny because every time I made the trip to a Buffalo Target, I saw the same endcaps featuring the same products as my Target. I saw the same music artists featured, the same clothes in women's wear and the same products in bedding and bath.

Were our prices that same as American stores? No, but they were close. Canadians don't have the buying power or the ability to offer prices like American stores, so yeah, prices were a bit higher but not enough to boycott shopping there. Our over the counter pharmacy section was frequently a better deal than any competitor and problems with our product mix favored the consumer. It meant you could get great deals in all parts of the store at 30-50% off because we were trying to keep our products in line with our American stores and too much buying equaled a deal for the customer.

As the year went on, we managed cutbacks in payroll, changes in upper management, policy and procedure while trying to keep the Target culture alive. We gave feedback about logistics and distribution and expressed our concerns from the trenches, so to speak, to sympathetic but deaf ears at head office.  Rumors of managing out higher paid, experienced managers started to turn into reality as expectations became unreasonable and good people started to leave. It was at this point, and with an offer from a wonderful American brand, I decided to leave as well.

Did I ever think they would shut the brand down completely? Never. I was flabbergasted to hear the announcement on the news and felt terrible for all the people I knew who still worked there.

I hated watching the media frenzy surrounding the first day of liquidation knowing full well that the pricing was in the hands of  third party liquidators and once again Target was being bashed by people who didn't support them when they were around and now criticized them for prices that they didn't even set.

Last week, I visited the store I helped open for the last time. It was heartbreaking to see the shelves trashed by bargain hunters and hearing the ignorant customers blame hourly employees for the failure of the brand. It was heart warming to see people that I worked with still trying to keep a respectable looking store together, even though they are out of a job in a couple of weeks. That's what pride and integrity are all about.

Say what you will about Target, but they treated us like kings and more importantly like part of their family. They always tried to do the right thing and they should be respected for that.

In hindsight, they tried to launch too many stores and made a classic American mistake of expanding too fast into a country with the population of California. They opened stores in locations where a lot of people equated the color red with a different failed Canadian brand.

Their platform of fun and unique items that every Canadian Target fan hunts for wasn't always possible and without cool American products everywhere, there wasn't a hope that people would accept them.

Every time I look at a paperweight that we received after the initial wave of stores opened, I think we did do it. It was damned hard work opening 124 stores, three distribution centers, and a head office all at once. We had a right to be proud of every piece of freight we unloaded, every planogram we set and every team member we gave recognition to. We spread good will across the nation with social media and the Target Bullseye bus and tried to celebrate Canada instead of pushing American culture onto a different country.

 Like many families we had our problems. We had ups and downs. We fought and made unfair assumptions because we couldn't see the big picture. There were times when we celebrated, times when we failed and times when we had to pick ourselves back up and keep going to matter how hard it was. Sometimes families break down and sometimes they give up. Members might leave but they will always be family and I will treasure my time as a part of the Target family.

The brand might be broken but everything broken can be fixed and hopefully they will be back to try again in the future.

Target really did love Canada. I saw that first hand. Too bad Canada didn't love it back.


  1. This article is 100% true. I worked for the same team and Christine hired me. I enjoyed working at Target the same way christine describes in her article. It was an experience that nobody could have provided. There were so many theories written regarding Target Canada failure after the closing announcement but nothing described the passion, effort and hardwork that went into it to bring one if the most famous American retail brand in Canada

  2. Wow I couldn't agree more with what you said about the culture for sure. Target Canada treated all their employees from the part-time student cashier to all upper management like they would their own family and I respect that so much out of a company. I worked at an Atlantic Canada store and built up two stores from the bottom up and it was hard work but I loved it - we all did. It was a family for sure and I have made some lifelong friends from my experiences. I was also very sad to hear they were removing Target from Canada and it is a shame that Target loved Canada so much and Canada was just very close minded to them. :(

    1. I would say it isn't Canada was close minded to them but rather they had high hopes about Target and Target Canada wasn't Target US. I say that because I shop at Target often - both US and Canada, and I carry Redcards in both countries.

      I fully realize some prices cannot expected to be the same, and not all goods can be sold in Canada. But at least get the experience can be mirrored, and it wasn't. If Target was launched the way it was in 2009 (instead of 2013), perhaps it would be a different story.

      Here are a few example:

      - In Target US, the in-store scanner can tell you if an item isn't available at the current store, whether they are available at nearby stores, and you can reserve it right there. No such feature was available in Canada.

      - The front dollar section had a lot more variety in the US.

      - Grocery - why did they not have Super Target stores in Canada that carried full line of groceries?

      - Online shopping - missing in action. As the CEO said his press conference "we do not believe we could become a successful Canadian retailer without being a leading omnichannel retailer" - why they did not use that two-year lead time to get a team building online shopping is beyond me. And guess what - in the following analyst events later in March, the CEO again iterated "compared to a store-only guest, a guest who shops both in-store and through our digital channel shops about 3 times more frequently -- generating 3 times the sales and over 2 1/2 times more margin dollars." So if they knew online channel was that important, shouldn't they plan Canadian launch with these figures in mind?

      Then you look at the Reddit AMA from one particular HQ employee regarding the backend inventory system [], that was just a disaster in the making.