Is Target experimenting on us?
Some customers who frequent a Minneapolis “test” store think so, and they aren’t happy about it.
But Target officials say the test is driven by a desire to create a “superior shopping experience for guests.” And at least one marketing professor says the only thing unusual about the experiment is that it’s not happening in every retail store across the country.
Suddenly last June, customers at the Target at Lake and Hiawatha in Minneapolis were faced with a jarringly different checkout system.
The new prototype the company is testing could be described as a hybrid of the experience one has at airport security checks or while waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
A new experience
Here’s what customers are encountering:
You’re ready to check out. You’ve got a box of diapers, a dress, toothpaste and bananas. Rather than choosing your lane or cashier, you are funneled into one line, like at airport security. The queue snakes one, two, three turns around big product displays filled with gum, candy, magazines and the like. You finally make it to the front of the line.
Once there, you wait until a hanging flat screen posts — and speaks — a number for the next available cashier. Then, you pull ahead, into a narrow aisle that is created by two rows of checkout stations lined up on the left and on the right.
It’s a little disorienting at first, but just like a guinea pig in a maze, you figure it out, step by step.
Once you’ve arrived at your assigned checkout counter, you’ll notice there are no conveyor belts. Instead, the platform appears to be less than half the size of the typical conveyor space. So, you must place your items on the platform one or two at time, depending on size. If the items are too large, like a big box of diapers, once it’s scanned, you’ll immediately have to put it back in the cart to make room for the other items. The clerk bags the scanned items, and once that bag is full, you need to put it back in your cart to start another bag because there’s no room on the platform. And so on …
Target spokesperson Antoine LaFromboise says the test will be in place through the Christmas shopping season. He confirmed the experiment is being conducted only at the Lake Street store, which was chosen because “it’s the closest Target store to Target headquarters that has a similar size, layout and transaction size of the type of stores that benefit from an organized queue.”
He said the test is “designed to find out what the overall feedback would be, and what makes sense for our team members and our guests.”
But, so far, several customers I spoke with — in the checkout line or afterward — challenge the wisdom behind the experiment.
“It’s not at all customer-friendly,” said customer Shirley Nelson on a recent trip to the test store. “I object to having to line up and wend my way around the aisles filled with more stuff. It’s an offensive marketing tool.”
Nelson, a Minneapolis resident and urban professional, said she used to do 90 percent of her Target shopping there, and wouldn’t have come back had she remembered how much she disliked the experience. She said she had made her distaste for the new system clear to store managers several times.
Despite Target’s assertion that the quest for a “superior shopping experience” is driving the experiment, Nelson and others are puzzled why it’s taking place at a location that serves a predominantly urban, minority and immigrant clientele.
Nelson wonders if customers at the Lake Street store would feel empowered enough to complain, adding that Target would “never get away with this in Edina.”
She doesn’t think the system will work, either: “You can only fit one or two items on the counter, that’s it. This is going to cause colossal delays at Christmas time.”
“I question why anybody would put up with this,” she said. “I’m not going to.” And with that, Nelson was out the door, vowing not to return as long as the checkout system remains.
An unidentified Target employee overhearing Nelson offered that she has heard many complaints from customers about the new system. And yes, she was passing those complaints on to her manager.
Target’s LaFromboise said in a phone interview and follow-up email that because the experiment is ongoing, he could not comment on specific feedback the company has received so far.
“Target’s goal is to continually improve our guest experience,” he said. “We regret any inconvenience experienced while we test this new system.”
When asked what information or efficiencies Target is trying to capture by doing this test, LaFromboise hinted at speedier checkouts.
“We know fast checkout is important to our guests, so we’re looking at that … but also the whole experience across the board.”
OK, but this checkout system doesn’t seem fast. They’ve even taken away the Express lane for 10 or fewer items.
Prof sees advantages of new system
University of Minnesota marketing professor George John offered some insight into what might be going on here.
“The change — if it’s strict by-the-books — is an obvious one to make,” said John in a phone interview after the new system was described to him.
John said the research is clear that the funnel-type checkout Target is testing is more efficient than the usual system that leaves it up to a customer to choose a lane.
John explained that the setup, like the airport-style queue, “squeezes down the variability” of time waiting in line. Though the average wait time could be the same as with the usual checkout process, the single-lane, funnel-style infrastructure means customers have a variable wait time of, say, five to seven minutes, instead of five to 15 minutes, for example, if they had chosen their own checkout line.
“It matters” to customers and to Target’s bottom line, he said.
By reducing the variance at checkout, Target is appealing to our love of predictability and banking on us returning again and again. The theory: Your brain is thinking happy thoughts like, “I know how long it will take me to get out every time I go to Target, so I’ll keep shopping there.”
Given the incremental but proven statistical benefits, the question may be why all stores don’t use a funnel-style checkout system.
“The reason is, retailers are conservative,” said John. “They know about the psychology involved, and they don’t want to worry about what it does to the psychology of sales.”
And there’s the rub.
“Psychologically we feel [the single-file system] takes away our freedom of choice — we can’t pick the clerk we like for whatever reasons,” said John.
“It can feel like being at the airport or Disneyland. It’s such a negative experience that even if I told you it would minimize the variation of time spent at the store, you don’t buy it. It’s an abstract benefit. I think psychologically, customers are going to react negatively for a while,” said John.
As a Target customer, his assessment strikes me as spot-on.
The new checkout feels onerous and obnoxious, and just maybe, a bit nefarious.
The snaking single-file queue is one thing, but the cramped, small platforms at checkout feel like a hassle. It’s the final step in an unsettling, if not, downright negative experience. You really can feel like a guinea pig with no free will.
With the test occurring at only one Target store — an inner-city location — there also can be the perception that customers who shop there are being treated differently than customers at other Target stores?
Target customers at Lake Street are predominantly people of color, many of them Latino and Somali immigrants, with varying degrees of proficiency in English. I have heard it referred to as the “multicultural” or “ghetto” Target.
Anecdotally, I have heard repeated complaints about this Target from my friends — that the service is poor and that it doesn’t have the selection or stock of other Target stores.
I go to the Lake Street Target all the time, but if I want an “enhanced” Target experience, I go to the suburbs.
‘Retail redlining‘ issue
That perception raises the specter of “retail redlining” — a subject academics started looking at in the 1990s. Since then, research has confirmed the existence of unfair treatment in retail experiences in certain areas.
Denver D’Rozario, a Howard University marketing professor, co-wrote a seminal 2005 article defining and documenting “retail redlining.” Examples include higher fees charged to minority owners of franchises, refusal of service to all customers in certain areas, and a lack of an upscale chain store’s presence in an area.
When I described the checkout system to him, D’Rozario said if he were to rewrite his article, he would include things like the new checkout system as an example of potential retail redlining. But, he stresses, he has not studied the case in detail and is not accusing Target of the practice.
D’Rozario referred me to a section of a 1993 study by authors Judith Bell and Maria Burlin about how people were paying more for food in urban areas:
“Poor, often minority consumers in urban areas who cannot travel [because they often lack independent means of transportation] to better stores [most often in the suburbs] often find themselves forced to shop at overcrowded, shabby stores, which most often offer limited selections of merchandise…”
Based on that description and D’Rozario’s own research, he concluded that there are three ways to look at Target’s new checkout system test.
“There is no hard evidence, but it appears to me to be retail redlining that is either willful (sins of commission) or negligent (sins of omission) or imagined (customers are making a mountain out of a molehill).”
Target’s LaFromboise did not respond directly to the concerns of possible redlining or negative perceptions about the Lake Street store.
“This is a test just focused on superior shopping for guests, including what our guests in that store think and feel about it,” he said.
As to why just one inner city store was chosen out of Target’s 74 stores statewide, LaFromboise again cited its closeness to downtown headquarters, “so teams can be on-site more frequently and make design changes more quickly if they’re needed.”
Also, he said the Lake Street store could benefit from an organized queue because it has “a high volume of guests and a smaller average transaction size, which differs from many suburban stores such as Edina or Roseville.”
Because Target does not discuss its financial information or details about profit or loss of any particular store, it’s hard to know how big a difference there is in the number of customers and transaction size from one store to the next.
The bottom line, though, may be this:
Even if the new system does prove to be faster and more efficient, Target still has to figure out a way to make it appealing to customers. And it may have even more work to do to dispel negative perceptions fairly or unfairly tainting the products and service at the Lake Street store.
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis freelance writer.