IN THE CROSSHAIRS

TARGET’S CANADIAN FAILURE SHOWS WHAT POOR PREPARATION AND CORPORATE ARROGANCE ULTIMATELY LEADS TO. BUT PUBLIC REACTIONS TO THE LOSS OF MORE THAN 17,000 JOBS SHOWS THAT CONSUMERS AREN’T ALWAYS BETTER

 Look, I get it.

I understand that there’s no theatre quite like the suffering and failure of others. Especially when that failure happens on an epic level to a massive billion-dollar behemoth that is seen by many as an invader; an alien undermining an entire country’s values and way of life, which is how most Canadians saw Target when the retail giant purchased 220 Zellers leases from HBC in 2011, putting an end to the iconic yet flailing Canadian retailer once and for all and signaling the arrival of another massive American power north of the border. Most Canadians greeted it the same way-“Yep, another big American company taking over the Great White North” (before they grabbed the map for their next cross border shopping trip).  So when that particular Goliath surrenders, as Target did last week when it formally announced it was closing down it’s entire Canadian operation less than two years after opening it’s doors, there was no limit to the amount of grave dancing and laughter that greeted the grim news. But amidst their glee and insults and bargain shopping plans, what a lot of people chose to ignore or dismiss entirely was that in a single day, in a single wretched moment, well over seventeen thousand people had just learned that their jobs had been erased.

I found out when I checked my Facebook page first thing that morning (yes, checking my computer happens before breakfast and checking Facebook, which is linked to the majority of my news and entertainment sources is my second daily cyber stop of the day, shut up and don’t judge) and the first thing that popped up on my screen was the status of a friend and former co-worker who’s a current manager at one of Ottawa’s Target locations. She was informing everyone that she and her fellow co-workers knew as much as everyone else did and thanked everyone for their support. It was kind of detail light but it set off more then a few alarm bells. I quickly began scanning past the previous night’s sports scores, current political shenanigans on both Parliament Hill and in the White House and ignored the multitude of funny animal videos. It took about thirteen seconds to find out what she was talking about; Target Canada was surrendering and closing all 133 of its stores, laying off 17,600 employees in the process.

First of all, anyone who greeted the news that Target was waving the white flag by smugly telling everyone who would listen that they knew it would happen any day now is lying. Let’s get that out of the way right now, shall we? It was no secret that Target faced serious challenges and had more problems than you could shake the proverbial stick at, but the chain was pushing through with plans to open more stores and expand its presence in the Great White North less than two years after breaking Canadian ground (here in Ottawa they were still building a huge location in the Bayshore Shopping Mall as part of that shopping centre’s multi-million dollar renovation). And given the number of high-profile collapses in the Canadian retail industry lately (Jacob’s closing all of its stores in one fell swoop, MEXX filing for bankruptcy protection, Staples is in the middle of plans to close more than five hundred stores across North America, Sony announced it was also closing all of its Canadian stores hours after the Target announcement and Sears continues to fight it’s inevitable demise), these were surely signs that Target still had plenty left in the tank for the future. New CEO Brian Cornell, who took over Canadian operations just last August, acknowledged Target’s problems with surprising candor and vowed to get it right. Even the most astute analysts, many of whom regularly criticized the American giant, were taken back by the news that Target Canada was throwing in the towel. So maybe you may have thought Target might not have been up to snuff for the long haul-and fair enough if that was your opinion-but let’s toss the idea that you knew it was going to call it quits this year or this month out the window because I’m calling shenanigans on it right now.

But worse yet is apparently many of the armchair economists and experts and naysayers couldn’t wait to start dancing on Target’s grave, right in front of people getting buried right along with the Big Red Bullseye. My aforementioned friend’s next Facebook update, coming just a few short hours later, asked if customers could refrain from bragging in front of her staff, staff that had just found out that they were losing their jobs, staff who may have greeted that news with tears and who may have gone through the same rotten fate a few years ago as a possible former Zellers employee (as many Target employees were) that they knew all along that Target was doomed to failure. In essence, that everyone, you know, act like civilized human beings and give disappointed and heartbroken employees a little space and breathing room.

I’m not defending Target; the brand struggled badly since opening its Canadian doors back in March of 2013. The stores were clean and shiny (a welcome change from the dreariness of your average Wal-Mart) but the company drew immediate and sharp criticism for low stock and Target admitted it was wrestling with the distribution models needed (and used successfully by other) retailers to service its Canadian stores. Pricing was higher than what many Canadians-who were hoping to see price points similar to the Target stores they frequented on their cross border shopping trips-expected and there was that infamous data breach in December of 2013, when the data of an estimated forty million users was stolen as a result of a three-week long hack. And I’m assuming there were probably plenty of other problems and concerns beneath the reported surface as well; there must have been because I’d sincerely like to hope that neither Target nor any other business would be choosing to take an estimated 5.4 billion dollar bath (with another five to six hundred million in expected costs the following fiscal year as a result) and layoff the population of a large town otherwise. It’s recently been revealed that the list of Target Canada’s creditors is more than 42 pages long, it has liabilities exceeding 5.1 billion dollars and it owes the Canadian Revenue Agency over 12 million, the Canadian Pension Plan over 8.1 million and the province of British Columba nearly 2.7 million. And there’s already been plenty of justifiable criticism on how the company is handling and communicating the termination to its thousands of employees as it winds down (and you’d have to be naive if you didn’t think Target was trying to think of every possible way to squirm out of paying as many of those debts as possible). Target has earned every word of bad press it gets and at the end of the day, its sudden demise is it’s own fault, the result of short-sighted arrogance and a stubborn refusal to adapt. This will go down in future business textbooks as the greatest corporate meltdown in modern business history, a how to guide for certain failure.

But it’s the seventeen thousand plus employees who were suddenly blindsided by the worst kind of news you could get need a little sticking up for, and not just from the employer who failed them, but from the public at large who seem to revel in their newfound unemployment. As soon as the news had been digested I couldn’t believe the number of blogs that immediately sprout up declaring “GOOD!” at the top of their lungs, with little or no mention of the employees who had just been unceremoniously dumped. Not to mention all those who flocked to social media to gloat and proclaim how horrible Target was, that they deserved this fate and they were the devil’s very own spawn all while the body was still warm. And you don’t really want to get me started on all the ones who couldn’t wait to parade their smug little selves into the nearest Target store so they could point their self-righteous, self-congratulatory fingers in the faces of every shell-shocked employee they came across to tell them that they knew it was coming and yessiree, weren’t they right the whole time. To offer some context to all those who greeted the news with morbid glee, this is considered one of the largest mass layoffs in Canadian history, right up there with the closing of the Maritime fisheries in the early 90’s. The announcement drew immediate concern and response from the Federal government as Labour Minister Jason Kenney has said the government will set up special programs to offer support to former Target workers. In the little over a week since the news broke, some Target employees have confided that customers were asking when the going out of business sales were going to start before said employee had even been informed that the company was surrendering. A few employees have admitted that customer callousness has reduced them to tears.

Individuals can be smart, compassionate and charitable, but as a whole, the consuming public is a flighty, greedy, needy, ignorant creature that jumps at its own shadow and is guided exclusively by its unerring blood lust. The Public is little more than a narcissistic beast that is only ever concerned with instantly satisfying its voracious and infinite appetite. If you disagree, pop into your closest Target next weekend and I guarantee you’ll find it busier then it’s ever been, full to the brim of people searching out those promised liquidation bargains, vultures ruthlessly circling the corpse. So if you were convinced that Target wasn’t long for business in Canada, well, last Thursday’s news makes you right. And like I said to start, most people can’t get enough human suffering as long as that suffering belongs to someone else, but that doesn’t change the simple fact that if you were one of the many who bragged about your awesome foresight to someone who’d just lost their job as a result of the same news, well that makes you an ass.

Shayne Kempton

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2 thoughts on “IN THE CROSSHAIRS

  1. R.C. says:

    A good read..I have never been inside a Target store nor will I be in there like a vulture . When I heard the news I was astonished that a new company in Canada would do that to all there new employees, they have NO heart and maybe that’s why they failed us. I’m sorry for the employees who thought they had a future within a newly arrived mega business, who would not try to ride the hard times and change there tactics to be successful. All they thought about was the MIGHTY DOLLAR and not the lives of the people they’re throwing in the ditch. If that is all that company thought about then GOOD RIDDANCE.

  2. Gary B. says:

    Enjoyed your column.I Should of sensed a good business sense from your previous column. I have felt since 2008 that the economy of the world has forever changed. Today the media gets to focused on a few layoffs at CBC or other public servant cuts. When there are those type of layoffs in the sacred cow jobs like union auto workers and public service jobs we never here the end of it! The only media coverage lately is why would they trash all the stock in the store Starbucks stock on Dec 21.

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